Rage Against the eLearning Machine – How technology can make fools of us all.

There is a problem in the world of eLearning and I am not sure how we fix it.

It’s not a new problem. In fact, it has existed ever since the invention of the computer and the rise of the Internet but it continues to plague us. I am sure any time new technology like the printing press popped up throughout history the same problem reared it’s head. I’m talking about the tendency of businesses to over-invest in technological solutions and then skimp on the quality of the content that the technology is intended to serve up.

Far too often, companies who discover that eLearning is the way to go, jump in and invest inordinate amounts of time and money in a system or set of tools, whether it is a new LMS, a Content Management System, Human Resources Management system, or latest authoring tool, only to discover that it is not meeting their needs.

Why does this happen? Because, in my opinion, organizations fail to invest properly in content development. It happens all the time in our technology loving world. Just ask Research In Motion. They have a decent hardware platform in the new Playbook, but fail when it comes to delivering the content people want – the killer Apps. They have not focused enough on getting killer content and are paying the price. The same holds true for organizations looking into eLearning.

Time and time again, I have seen companies implement a new system  or buy a bunch of new eLearning tools and then feel their job is  done. They then assign the task of developing content to people that are often ill-equipped to create effective, engaging online courses. Usually, they give the job to an underfunded training department which must make the shift from from the old world of traditional stand-up training to the new world of online learning. Unfortunately, many of these training people do not have, or may never have, the necessary skills for online training development. This often results in what I call, Plop and Play eLearning.

Understandably, these new “developers”, sometimes not very technically savvy, wanting to keep their jobs and develop their careers, take up tools like Articulate, Lectora or a dozen other content development products and attempt to create some courses to go on their LMS.

Unfortunately, because of their lack of technical or design skill, they simply cut, paste, and plop the content into their tools or systems, in a way they are familiar with without any thought (or with lots of thought but no skill) for this new medium.  What you are left with is very bad eLearning which in turn get’s plopped on to a very expensive infrastructure.

When users access this type of learning, they don’t  care if you have spent a gazillion dollars on your system or authoring tool set, all they see is a bad course that gives them a bad impression of you and your bad system. Did I say this was a bad? Well, this situation isn’t even good for the company that sold you their fantastic tool or system because the average person often does not differentiate between the content and the system behind it.

A case in point. I recently, had a chat with the girlfriend of the owner of a very large LMS vendor. She took an online course at a local  University which uses her boyfriend’s LMS. She was not impressed with this eLearning stuff. She basically said to her boyfriend: ” What kind of crappy system are you selling here?!”  That didn’t sit well with him so he went online and discovered, that, yes, it was a crappy course, done by a professor who might be a genius in his field but knew nothing about online course design, media, information development, or presentation. As with every great technological system, you get out of learning technology what you put in to it. It’s the whole garbage-in garbage-out story. Unfortunately garbage tends to stink up impressions of the entire package it’s in.

This is not just a problem in academia. Not very long ago, a company called us asking if we could help them spruce up a course they had done.  But here is the problem: it was bad – really bad– badly written, badly designed, badly everything. Basically, what the developer had done was simply copy and paste Word documents into Lectora and then added a couple of arrows at the bottom for navigation. This was supposed to be a  completed course that only needed some tweaking.

Apparently, this organization purchased a site licence for Lectora but no one knew how to use it. Since, they were mandated to develop eLearning but were not properly staffed to do so, they left their copies of Lectora sitting on a shelf and hired an external consultant to develop the course. I am not sure where they got this person from, but this consultant did not know how to use Lectora either.  By the time we were asked to quote on fixing the course, their budget was completely spent. We did our best to kept our quote quite low – knowing full well that we would probably end up doing a lot of extra work for free just to make the thing half decent. Unfortunately, it wasn’t low enough.

After three or four weeks, we received a one-line email from an assistant that informed us that our quote was not successful. That’s fine. You win some you lose some. Now I don’t mean to dish up sour grapes or attempt to get back at someone for rejecting us like one might do on Facebook, but I think this illustrates how organizations invest in tools and learning management systems but when it comes down to content development, scrape the bottom of barrel. They are not given the expertise, guidance, staff or budget to do the job the way it should be done and often the wrong people end up leading the way.  It is unfortunate that this organization will end up with very poor eLearning on a very expensive LMS created by a very expensive authoring tool.

As with cooking (my favorite subject),  if the people using the appliances don’t know how to best mix and present the ingredients (even though they know all about properties of the ingredients), all that anyone ends up with is indigestion. It does not matter if you use the best ovens, mixers, utensils and put the final product on golden plates. You need to invest in a good chef and good cooks who know how to use the tools and technology to it’s potential. Perhaps your current cooks have the potential but need to go back to school and be retrained. Maybe you just need new cooks. Either way, if you are going to be in the business of serving food, you need to keep on investing all the way down the chain until you get a quality final product.

For those companies wanting to get into eLearning, I suggest you don’t just throw money at some tools and eLearning infrastructures and expect to get an effective learning program. I can’t tell you how many times I have talked to companies who bought a system or set of tools before they had good eLearning developers or a development process in place. Focus on quality content first and then get the tools that will take you to the next level.

One way to do this is to invest in people with the new skill sets first. I am not necessarily talking about people with an “instructional design” degree. Now they might be fantastic depending on the person you get,  but sometimes, in my experience, these people can bring a lot of nice theory to the table and a lot of buzz words but sometimes a lack of realism and practical skill. Of course I generalize but it has often been my experience.

Here are a few things companies can do to help fix things:

1. Find excellent communicators for your eLearning team – people who can write, think and create.

2. Look for people with  good technical aptitude. This is a must. If a person can’t unzip a file or figure out how to get files remotely using ftp, Dropbox, Sugar Synch or some other service, seriously think about NOT having them working on eLearning in any capacity. Sorry we are talking about survival skills here. Maybe you can teach them but find out if they have what it takes first.

3. Make sure your leaders have hands-on experience or are at least very technically literate when it comes to all aspects of eLearning. I don’t care if he or she is always going to be a manager in the department and plans on moving up the ladder and loves paper-work. Having a manager that has never personally done eLearning or something similar is just asking for trouble.  They need to know if these tools and technologies can do what you are asking them to do and the technical complexities that go with it. If the manager of your department does not know anything about stuff like Flash, HTML 5, LMS, a CMS – get one who does or train one.

4. Get Money. If only this was so easy. Someone, somewhere must  free up some cold hard cash to get these courses. It’s not cheap to do top-notch courses but you need to spend the money to develop training that’s accurate, engaging and complete. Of course, I am not saying you should just throw money at a project. But consider investing more heavily in good course development both in people and budget. If your organization does not have enough money to invest properly in eLearning, you are wasting what money you do have. I can’t tell you how many times I have see something that would have done just as well as a PDF that you hand out or put as html on an Intranet but instead get’s the eLearning treatment. It’s kind of like buying a restaurant-grade oven to cook chicken nuggets with. I know a lot of you are saying, “but my company won’t give me more money to do eLearning.” Consider raging against the machine and being honest with those in leadership about the quality of training they will get if they don’t pony up.

5. Hire experts like us. It doesn’t have to us but we certainly would like that. We and other small eLearning companies have done this for a lot of different companies. We are good at it and efficient because we have been through it before. Our experience with different technologies and types of content means that we know how to roll with the punches and can deal with whatever comes. We are content experts. We will not waste your time as we ride the learning curve. You need to consider if you really need to build an in-house team and spend money on expensive tools to do your eLearning. Maybe you just want to be subject matter experts and manage the development by outsourcing to a proven vendor who does this for a living. It’s always an option.

Let me tell you a story to wrap it up.

In a land not so far away and not so long ago, in a previous company of mine there was a group of documentation and training wizards who promised us a world where, through the magic of SGML, the power of databases and intelligence of sophisticated software all our wildest dreams would come true. All we would have to do is pull a switch and  out would pop sophisticated modular information products whether it was training courses, user manuals, multimedia materials, or online courses. It would be like Charlie’s Chocolate Factory only technical information instead of chocolate.  Needless to say, it was a pipe dream that wasted millions of dollars and many hours and there was no glass elevator to the sky.  The company was Nortel and it is now at the bottom of the sea.

 

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