Wednesday, 25 September 2013

5 Ways to Have an Epic Fail in e-Learning

If something's worth doing badly it's worth doing really badly.  You don't just want to create a so-so piece of e-learning and regret the missed opportunity of creating something truly awful - with a lack of thought and by ploughing good money after bad you can probably aim lower still.  Here's the way to make sure it's a resounding failure:

Squeeze the budget to the Nth Degree
So there's an old adage that get what you pay for.  I like to modify this slightly and add the words 'at best' to that statement, because if you're lucky (or you picked the right vendor) you'll get the e-learning you planned for (and may even be pleasantly surprised by the outcomes).  But one sure way to make it fail is to take the original quote from the provider and then trim it violently.  Most vendors will have some options that they can cut out, in my previous post on the 'cost of e-learning' you'll see there's various gold, silver, bronze type options that they can cut.  By cutting budget you'll likely see a drop in interaction (more page turning, less doing), less content in total (less screens), less animation/graphical niceties or worse still a drop out of any instructional design so you get a pretty but empty display piece.  This is bad enough if you're doing a bulk of modules, but if this is a single piece or your impact piece you've blown it if you've squeezed too much.  Cutting the budget in half is a pretty big cut down but as an e-learning provider I can understand that sometimes the budget is what the budget is, but cutting it down to 25% or less is a sure fire way of failing with style.

Don't provide access to anyone in your organisation
Make sure that your e-learning vendor (or even internal designer) doesn't get to speak to the SMEs (subject matter experts).  Give them some documentation or better still an old and inaccurate Powerpoint presentation to work off and let them get on with it.  You'll get something at the end for sure, only it won't be or feel like the end, instead it will feel like the beginning of it as you repeatedly have to make changes to the content and design to match what is actually required.  There are jobs that work well in a vacuum but frankly, e-learning design isn't one of them.  If you can't manage complete isolation, try giving them and SME then taking that one away and providing a different one (preferably from a different part of the organisation with different knowledge) to keep them on their toes.  If you can create a string of wrong people it can be even more devastating and disruptive than no-one at all.

Do it all in-house without the right tools or personnel
All this newfangled e-learning nonsense is actually really simple right?  You don't need to pay a vendor tens of thousands of dollars to sort out what your internal team can do for free!  Particularly when they are experienced in the subject matter and one of them used to even do some training once - or perhaps you have trainers, surely they can make e-learning?  It's hard enough even if you have a team and have purchased one of the excellent tools for rapid e-learning development like Articulate Storyline (read my article on Rapid or Rabid e-learning), but without these it's just not really going to fly.  Add in the fact that the people you get to do this probably have other 'real' jobs to do as well and your e-learning piece is likely to be a real dog's breakfast if it gets completed at all.  Better still get one inadequate under tooled person and just like in the example above make sure they hand the project over half-way through to do something more important (particularly if you discover by some lucky way that the first is any good), remember we're aiming for epic on the fail side of things.

Make all the key decisions without advice
e-Learning is a pretty specialised area of the training, education and learning fields, but don't let that discourage you.  If you truly want to make a hash of it you can avoid all the advice proffered by the e-learning vendor and your internal trainers and even SMEs to get something that fits your needs exactly.  The other people that are definitely worth ignoring are IT - if you can find a way to make the object almost entirely incompatible with your internal systems you can notch the failure up another level.  Remember there's a good deal of difference in getting what you want and getting what you need, make sure you are fully hands on at every design stage, every decision right down to the colours, graphics and even layout of every item on the screen.  Your team and the vendor will love the big screwdriver approach as micromanagement has always been incredibly popular with the minions.  Of course you reserve the right to be totally disappointed with the outputs that have your dirty fingerprints all over it, no point in having double standards and not using both of them!

Make no decisions at all
At the opposite end of the spectrum but equally as destructive is the complete hands-off approach.  It's not just about providing no decision making to keep the vendor/designer on their toes, but also provide no initial guidance, no help at the scoping stage, no input on anything throughout the entire design and build.  Just like too much control, none at all will confuse the team as they're going to be working in the dark throughout.  Again, just like above you reserve the right to turn from not interested to highly critical at the end - who was leading this mess of an output?  Why why why?  Perfectly reasonable when designing really bad e-learning.

Finally, it should be noted that actually there are a gazillion ways to really mess this sort of thing up and I've only touched on a few; I'm sure there are others that can cause some pretty catastrophic outcomes too - perhaps pouring money in without any clue can be as dangerous as cutting the budget, but I guess it would probably at least look pretty.  Of course, you shouldn't actually take this as a challenge to produce the worst possible e-learning you can!

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Everything begins with an e

I remember many years ago running an e-learning centre for the Navy and having vendors come in and show their wares.  Sometimes these were large international organisations from America or Europe coming all the way to New Zealand for a demonstration of their World leading modules, systems or simulators.  I can remember being amazed that despite the high-level learning technologies these organisations were selling that they invariably delivered stilted presentations using Powerpoint at best.  It further amazed me that often they didn't even know their own product particularly well and certainly not from a true user perspective.  Then again, I've been to e-learning conferences and software simulation centres and seen the same thing - it's weird but why in the world of learning technologies do we regularly see the 'talk' but rarely the walk that should accompany it.

I work remotely and not out of a CBD office.  There's a reason for this; principally because it suits me to do so, but actually it's far more efficient for both myself and my company.  It's also a good example of walking the walk; we preach about systems that allow learning, communication and management remotely - about how you can access 24/7 and link up with communities, share resources, collaborate and learn without the requirement of physical proximity provided by an old-fashioned office environment.  I have a car and a motorbike too so I can get to the CBD when needed, but the dog likes it when I stay at home too :)

I've had it with paper and dedicated my office to be paper free other than a single doodle pad that sits by the computer.  I could claim this was trying to save the trees or some noble pursuit but the truth is simply that I lose bits of paper - all that filing and whatnot is not my strong point.  I take notes via a cool and free little tool called Evernote (hey, I even draft this blog in Evernote) which I can access off my laptop, phone and pad anywhere and share with others if I choose to.  It automatically files everything for me which is good as I just noted I wasn't so good at this.  I switched my clunky old widescreen laptop to a Macbook Air not just because it looked sexy (though it does) but because I wanted to be portable and instant enough to show up at meetings and take notes, share stuff that I've got to and give demonstrations when necessary.  I use cloud based storage like Box and Dropbox to share stuff, Totara LMS for learning and the like, a wiki site to share things with my team (yes emailing attachments is not the way).  

What's the drive for all this 'e' stuff.  It's not just because of the fact it's electronic; we're talking about higher efficiency and effectiveness I strongly believe.  The reason why I'm sharing this in The Nth Degree blog today is that it struck me that this is similar to e-learning.  The e is the mechanism but it's not actually the driving force for why e-learning is what it is; we're talking about higher efficiency and effectiveness I strongly believe.  If you read some of my previous entries (please, somebody read them!) you'll see that I'm not just about good looking e-learning, I believe in the collaborative and interactive nature of good e-learning.  I also believe in a blend where the right tool gets used for the right job and I believe in continuous improvement and always searching for new and better ways to do things.

Back to my original point, there's nothing wrong with Powerpoint (or Prezi which I prefer) or any other tools that you use to present; but there's something wrong if your presentation doesn't capture the very essence of what you're presenting.  Presentations should be enthusiastically delivered and supported with showing what you have and demonstrating its capability.

Finally whilst everything begins with an e, so does e-learning, but you should note that neither ends with an e or consists of only e's.  It's the nature and the environment, e-learning should always be primarily about learning (and the same could arguably be said about everything else!).

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The cost of e-learning?

So the most often asked question (even if not audibly asked) when it comes to your e-learning solution is 'how much will it cost?'.  It's like the baby elephant in the room at the start of your first exploratory discussions between L&D people and the e-learning service provider that grows to a full-scale mammoth by the time you've scoped out the project and need to know just what your solutions are likely to set you back.

The answer from most vendors is usually a 'it depends' or my personal favourite 'it's like asking how long is a piece of string'.  Fair enough, e-learning can be exactly like that, you can have short and simple pieces or long and complicated, highly interactive 3D widgets with virtual reality. 

In the learning technologies world, I've been able to put together a price-guide document because, well, the technologies are a wee bit simpler when it comes to pricing.  In our case we usually work with open source technologies so there's no per-user licensing on your LMS, but there are hosting costs and some integration type costs if you want to go down that road and they have standard-ish costs depending on what is being integrated or set-up.  The training, the consultancy etc come in packages around time and materials and they're pretty standard.  It means I can offer up clients a total Totara LMS solution for anywhere between $10,000 and $100,000 (and more!) but it's usually pretty visible and people generally 'get it'.

The solutions or 'content' is more complex because essentially the vast majority of what we're talking about here is a bespoke solution.  That means the e-learning you get at the end of it is designed solely for you rather than being purchased off the shelf (anyone remember the phrase COTS - commercially off the shelf?).  There are a gazillion variables that go into producing e-learning from the cost and quality of your graphic design, to your animations, video work, themes and overall design, platforms, technologies, interactions etc.  The one that is probably most important is often missed from a lot of vendors and buyers - the instructional design or ID work that goes into the end product; maybe it's just taken as a given (but hey, I'd want to talk about it and not assume...).

So I know there's big studies in the US around what e-learning should cost; here's my mini-guide on what I think (note this is Nigel, I not Kineo official pricing please!) you should be looking to spend depending on your needs and wants.  All are based on a single piece of e-learning of average length (let's call that half an hour of e-learning for the sake of arguement).

Cheap Solution; so we do it all in-house the cost is just time.  Oh and any stock images.  And perhaps quality.  Really this depends on who you have working for you and what they can do and how long it takes them (and their salary of course!).  Chances are you may not have the insider you want here and need to go outside - and whether this is the cheapest option or not is highly debatable - but it often looks that way to organisations!

Light Solution; I call it light because that's essentially what we're talking about here; often light on ID, light on graphical design or originality and certainly a light interactive approach.  Your asking someone to convert your Powerpoint or take your docs and make them e-learning on a very tight budget you'll get this type solution.  It's going to cost you very little in the big scheme of things, bring your little wallet and expect to pay $1,000 to $5,000 for a piece here.  For those of you already baulking that we went into the thousands at the lightest end you best not read on, it's important to realise that e-learning is not super cheap (but it does provide excellent ROI).

Bronze Solution; So if you want to move up and get a serious piece of e-learning this is where we hit the higher quality solutions (and the smart amongst you will have already noted that bronze is the cheaper metal!).  In this case we're talking actual e-learning with a higher degree of 'swish' about it generally than the light in.  I would expect a decent bronze solution to still have plenty of ID work going in to it (yes.. storyboards...) and expect decent graphical schemes, some interactions and things for the learner to do (not just watch or click next).  It may even contain some minor animations but probably more likely short video snippets and static graphics.  Some providers will do this in a 'rapid' way and keep your costs down - sometimes this can still spiral into the expensive regions.  I would expect to pay from around $5,000 to $20,000 for something that fits this description.  I know it's quite a range but the $5k end is for a swish and more learning-filled version of the light solution, but even if you have well-done page turning with custom graphics and good design you're probably not far off the higher end of the scale.

Silver Solution; For me the next level of solution is all about the interaction of the material.  Bronze is generally still fairly simplistic in design but as we move up we've now got a greater ID input and more things to do in the learning.  Problem is that more to do means more cost because it's the interactions that really take the time to put together.  The graphics again could notch up to the degree that your own characters better represent your organisation, there are far more likely to be some animated pieces into the solution and/or professional video.  The cost for a silver solution expect to open up your cheque book a little more to the tune of $10,000 to $30,000 per piece.  Yes I know it overlaps the last, but this is far from an exact science you know - I'm just trying to get the picture across for you!

Gold Solutions; So before you started reading this is what you thought you wanted right?  Highly interactive custom design, high-end ID work that you can show off and people go 'wow' as well as hitting all the learning marks and actually having an impact on the way your organisation does its business.  This is the type of solution that meets the aims, tracks everything you need done and is fun too (please make your solutions fun people).  What will it set you back?  I'm guessing you'll pay $30,000 to $50,000 for it and if you have the sort of budgets that allow for that you won't regret it either if it's done the way it should be.

Diamond Solutions; Gold may be rare but it's also soft - if you need something hard invest in diamonds!  I'm just being a bit silly but there's plenty of room to wiggle here - there really are higher end solutions than gold - often they're not about the interaction, the ID or the graphics but about some other aim you have.  If your work is 3D for example or requires extensive gamification or some alternate type VR world then forget about the previous costs and trade in elusive gems.  Once upon a time it looked like 3D was a big player in the e-learning world but the costs are generally so high for true 3D that most are steered away from it beyond engineering type applications.  It's also harder to find 3D vendors of educational materials as it's a hard skill-set to have on-board.  I remember once when I was running the Navy e-learning centre that we did a full 3D walkthrough familiarisation training piece of a Navy warship.  It was awesome and if we had been external would have cost a fortune in development - we were approached by someone in the Royal Navy in the UK about doing something similar for their new warships and if I remember rightly we were talking in the hundreds of thousands (sterling!).  There is almost no upper limit on your spending here depending on what you want and are prepared to pay for.

Economies of scale; yes good news guys is that it gets cheaper the more you have done from most suppliers!  A single piece may cost you $30,000 but 10 pieces may cost you only $15,000 if you are using some re-usable bits and pieces like graphic or design screens.  It's not unreasonable that you get some significant savings this way due to the way the e-learning producer is able to re-use things along the way.  If you're looking above 2 or 3 pieces expect to see discounts that grow the more you have done - but get that sorted before you start out or you could end up being each piece one at a time at premium costs.

In summary I've attempted to answer the piece of string question; somewhere between a few thousand and hundreds of them is your answer - when you ask for your e-learning the key is to have some understanding of why it costs that much and how they justify the costs involved.  As a final final here you need to be very careful when getting work done and specifying what is to be done - if not it's entirely possible to pay for gold and end up coming up 'light'!

Wanna talk content... drop me a line by finding me on the 'about me' bit at the top :)

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Rapid e-Learning; Tortoises, Hares and Rabids!

Rapid e-learning a couple of years ago caused quite a stir.  It wasn't so much that it was a new thing, but more that it was finally better supported with tools, had a recognisable 'name' and finally this e-learning thing that some of us have been around in for years was finally starting to happen at last.  The tipping point for e-learning didn't happen quite as early or dramatically as some of us may have predicted, but e-learning is now big business and is likely only going to grow from here as the advantages of using learning technologies are better understood and it becomes more common place in what we do.  Rapid means fast right?  I mean if you pull out your thesaurus (does anyone still have those?) and look up rapid you'll have fast and other such synonyms in there, but in the world of learning technologies prepare yourself for what rapid really means.

The Tortoise and the Hare; Once there were only Flash or HTML developers to produce elearning, they were very slow and methodical but always got to the finish line, although often even later than expected and at even greater cost.  They were purists and specialists and were more akin to computer programmers than L&D professionals.  Not only that, but they often were highly focused on the e and not much on the learning (remember my 90/10 rule!).  Usually these courses were highly graphical, very very pretty and highly variable in learning content.  As e-learning has matured so have e-learning developers, sometimes they're more agile (although we're certainly not talking rapid here) and the good ones either have a strong learning focus or they work with Instructional Developers (or IDs) to achieve a learning focused outcome.  They get there.  Eventually.  Particularly if they have a highly iterative process that involves lots of QC/checking and back and forth to reach the overall goal of a beautifully crafted, interactive (sometimes and hopefully) piece of learning that you will proudly show off to any and every one that visits your organisation.  They are the tortoise, they are rare, expensive and slow and often worth both the time and money.  Then there is the other end of the spectrum, the hares if you will.  Rapid e-learning developers who use the tools that the market place has now to offer like Articulate, Storyline, Captivate and the like.  What you get isn't necessary lower quality either, some rapid developers are so good that they can literally emulate and even exceed the developers out there (or at least the poor ones!).  This seems pretty easy now right?  The hares must win the race right?  Sometimes.  The hares come with their own issues, sometimes what you get at the end isn't a win; what if it is nothing like you originally envisaged?  What if it's unappealing, just page turning, Powerpoint in a mildly different way, completely lacking any interaction or just plain cheap and nasty?  Then you either live with a result you know is never really finishing the race, or you run laps until you finally get what you're after.  That's the pitfall and that's when we actually have a hare.  What we often have is a tortoise with long ears, fluffy tails and a slant towards root vegetables; not rapid e-learning just masquerading as such - I refer to this as Rabid e-Learning (another one I should copyright).

Rapid v Rabid;  Rapid is quick Rabid just makes you foam at the mouth and get angry, but what's the distinguishable difference?  It's certainly not the tools involved, what you sometimes find is that Storyline or Captivate users are convinced that what they do is rapid e-learning because they use these tools.  If e-learning production runs past days and a week or two then how rapid is it?  When it runs past weeks and moves to months there's no way you can class this as rapid.  It might be good, it might be bad, it may even be cheap, but it isn't rapid.  Rapid e-learning often involves using stock or a bank of images and leverages off things like templates so that the more e-learning modules or courses you put together the cheaper it gets.  One or two rapid modules in isolation may not be that cheap but a bunch should be getting cheaper by the module... so should the relative production rate of them.  If you engage someone to produce 10 e-learning modules and the cost is 10x that of producing one then they're not being done rapidly.  Ditto the time, if making 10 modules takes 10 times as long that's not rapid either.  One of the key's to rapid e-learning is about engagement and particularly about getting that engagement in early on in the project and when it's being developed.  One of the big problems with e-learning is that often the outputs really don't match what we expected, then there are lots of processes and iterations to get the expectations and outputs to align - this is where a huge amount of time is wasted.

There's one thing for sure here when it comes to e-learning; there are two main types and these are good and bad.  That's more important than any other major classification, good e-learning can be rapid or it can be produced slower using specialists - the chances are greater that you'll get a better learning product if the skillset of those producing the e-learning consists of a balance of both tools skills and ID knowledge.  If you have tools or developer people that don't think learning is part of what they do then the product will always be hollow; the focus as always should be on the learning not the e, hey it's 90% (roughly, see the title block) of what we do.