All the online content - where does it all come from?
by Clive Shepherd
You may have the world's most sophisticated learning management system and enough bandwidth to run a cable TV network, but without content that will satisfy the learning needs of your organisation, on time and to budget, you've got yourself a pretty embarrassing white elephant. In this article, Clive Shepherd explains how to fill the content void, making an informed selection between in-house development, having the work done for you outside or buying off-the-shelf.
out or off
But do they come? Do they hell? Would you consider a visit to a real bricks and mortar university if it had no teachers and no courses, other than to admire the architecture? Of course not. You have infrastructure, but like the man said 'content is king'.
Populating your virtual university with content - not just any old content, but the sort any self-respecting corporate citizen would really want to use - is the only way to populate it with people. Unfortunately, the right content can prove frustratingly elusive.
So, anxious that the most ambitious training project your organisation has ever embarked upon is approaching its first anniversary and has yet to yield a cent of return on its investment, you ponder your three choices - in, out or off? Will it be in-house development, out-sourcing to external contractors or an off-the-shelf purchase?
Cost. With so much of your budget already spent, cost could well be uppermost in your mind. But comparing the options on the grounds of cost is not that simple. At face value, in-house development looks the attractive option, but only because it consumes the least direct cost. To make a fair comparison, you need to look at all the costs - direct and indirect - from all stages of development through to delivery and evaluation.
Availability. The development of content of an acceptable quality, even with experienced personnel and the best tools, could never be called a quick process. We are definitely talking months and not weeks. Sometimes you simply don't have that time. You're implementing Office 2000 in three months' time and all 5000 staff must be trained before then. No way will you be able to develop your own product or have it made outside. You go with what's available.
Relevance. Yes, you say, but we can't go outside for an off-the-shelf product because we are going to be using a slightly modified version of Office 2000. Not only that, but we're also launching a new appraisal system and we need training for that, too. It's unique to us (they all say that) - we don't do things like other companies. This might mean that you really are going to have to design your own training programme from scratch. There's also the possibility of finding an off-the-shelf product that can be customised or supplemented with your own material, a feature that the best publishers are increasingly making available.
Quality. There's a lot of rubbish talked about the quality of e-learning materials, mostly by people who have never taken an online course and probably never will. The only meaningful definition of quality is 'fitness for purpose' - it does the job. If a Volkswagen meets your needs for getting from A to B reliably, in reasonable comfort and a little style, then it's a high quality car, at least for you. If an e-learning product helps your employees to meet their learning objectives, then that's a high quality product too. Along the way, that probably means it conforms to accepted usability guidelines, technical standards and principles for effective adult learning.
If you're getting a little anxious about the size of the team you'll need to find room for, then bear in mind that most developers are multi-skilled and can fulfill a number of roles in a project. And, of course, you don't need to have all the skills in-house. The most specialist technical and creative roles are usually more economically resourced externally, as and when needed. What you need is a versatile team of generalists, able to fill the middle ground.
Unfortunately, history tells us that in-house units tend not to survive in the long term. As Donald Clark, Chief Executive of
Epic Group, describes it, they have the Sword of Damocles hanging over them. In-house media development is not core business, so there is an ever-present threat of the dreaded outsourcing. How to avoid this? Well, don't set up an ostentatious studio, brimming with expensive equipment and talent. Instead, maintain a small, core team of generalists,
centering on project management and instructional design skills, and concentrate on supplementing the efforts of content publishers and external producers.
On the other hand, you cannot just sit back and wait for the content to be delivered on the due date. There's a considerable amount of work still required to manage the relationship and ensure that you get what you want, not what the developer would like to make for you. You'll need a sound knowledge of the process of design and development, excellent project management skills and the ability to cajole subject-matter experts into co-operating. And don't underestimate the work required in obtaining approvals from all the interested parties (not least the corporate lawyers) at each stage in the process.
At first look, external development seems expensive, but in practice content development is always expensive, however it's done. When all costs are taken into account, in-house development can actually be more expensive, without access to the tools, experience and expertise that an external producer can call upon. If you think a developer is overcharging you, look at their profits. Chances are your own business is making a better margin.
Buying off-the-shelf is also a somewhat lower-stress approach, freeing you from the anxieties of product development and allowing you to 'try before you buy'.
On the negative side, the 'one size fits all' design philosophy can mean a mismatch between what's on offer and what your organisation really needs. Hopefully you can get around this by a little customisation, if that's possible, or by supplementing the materials with some of your own. You may also have to fight the rather frustrating 'not invented here' mentality that plagues so many training departments and resign yourself to the fact that you won't have the fun (???) or potential kudos that you'd get by creating it yourself.
At a recent IITT e-learning seminar, delegates were asked which methods they are considering implementing or have already decided to implement in the next twelve months, for a variety of subject types:
* Health & Safety, Data Protection Act, etc.
What is interesting here is the way the balance shifts depending on the subject. It also looks like there's a market opportunity for anyone developing new off-the-shelf products on health and safety and other mandated subjects!
Clearly all three methods - in, out and off - have their part to play, and most e-learning libraries will contain a mixture of content sourced in all three ways. With a little pragmatism, invention and plenty of hard work, you should be able to find content that's ready when you need it, meet's your organisation's own, specific needs, won't break the bank but will do the business. If not, your virtual university will be virtually useless and technology-based training will never be given another chance.