E-learning on a Budget

Authoring Tools, Off-The-Shelf Content, LMSs and Virtual Classrooms With Low Cost, High Value

With costs ranging from “free” to millions of dollars, selecting from hundreds of e-learning tools and services to find low-cost options can quickly become a daunting task. You can waste hours searching for the right product for your budget.

Just what do we mean when we say “low-cost”? The Wikipedia definition is “a product for which non-essential features have been removed to keep the price low.” That’s not always the case with e-learning tools. Many tools, technologies and services offer feature-rich solutions. So, for this article, “low cost,” will mean the product can be purchased for less than $25,000.

We can classify the e-learning toolset to include:

>>tools for the development of e-learning;
>>ready-made e-learning content;
>>tools for the delivery of e-learning; and
>>tools for the management of learners, training content and events.

Increasingly, we can add the growing number of tools to support social learning and collaboration. We’ll look at each of these categories starting with the development of e-learning.


E-learning authoring tools are used to create Web-based and computer-based training. Content can be as simple as a narrated PowerPoint slide show or as complex as a highly interactive scenario or simulation. Costs for e-learning authoring tools range from free to tens of thousands of dollars depending on the functionality the tool, the licensing structure, and the number of authors.

Although used by people with varying skills, some authoring tools are easier to use because they are designed to respond to urgent training situations. These are called rapid e-learning tools. They are often used by subject-matter experts (SMEs) and others with little or no page design, authoring or programming experience. Such tools are used for developing content quickly, often for a large number of learners, and often for content with a limited shelf-life.

In Elearning! and Government Elearning! magazines’ 2010 User Study, usage for tools for authoring e-learning content increased from 73 percent in 2009 to 82 percent in 2010. Of that, 60 percent is the usage of rapid e-learning development tools.

Authoring tools are sold as desktop software or as Web-based, collaborative
authoring tools.Web-based tools allow creators and approvers of e-learning content to work on the same project regardless of location and without the need for the software installation and upgrades associated with desktop software.

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to author your own content. You may prefer to have someone develop it for you, or you may want to purchase content already created. The latter is often referred to as commercial off-the-shelf courseware (COTS).


COTS is ready-made for a variety of topics and is sold, leased or licensed by a commercial entity. It cannot be modified and is offered in an identical form to all purchasers.

Popular off-the-shelf courses cover such topics as business, desktop software, information technology, legal compliance, finance, management, and hundreds of others.

Organizations purchase ready-made, generic courses for a variety of reasons. For example, it just doesn’t make sense to spend resources to author a course on a generic topic, requiring no uniqueness. It also doesn’t make sense to author an e-learning course when the audience size is too small to support the design, development and deployment of the e-learning course.

COTS come with a variety of options including tutorials, online simulations, interactive exercises and video. Some of drivers for selecting COTS courseware include faster development, reduced cycle time, scalability and lower costs.

Of course, you often need a method to deliver and manage courses. Two staples of corporate learning and development are the learning management system (LMS) and the virtual classroom.


Learning management systems (LMSs) manage learners and learning events and also serve as a platform for the delivery of e-learning.

Tom Werner of Brandon Hall Research notes that the price range for a very lowcost LMS implementation and an expensive one can be nearly $15,000,000. “LMS pricing is all over the map,” he says.

In a report on low-cost learning management systems, Brandon Hall Research identified pricing for 34 commercial systems deemed “low cost”— or below the average price of all systems they review. An LMS need not cost millions of dollars. It all depends on your needs.

Non-commercial, low-cost learning management systems are also available in the open-source market, and products such as Moodle are an increasingly popular option.

Like the LMS, the virtual classroom is a staple of corporate learning departments.
Kim Lamoureux, principal analyst for Bersin & Associates, notes that use of the virtual classroom increased from 45 percent in 2008 to 60 percent in 2009, making
these tools the most widely adopted learning technology: “More companies switched from live [face-to-face instruction] to virtual classroom in order to maintain the benefits of live instruction, while avoiding the costs associated with travel and facilities.”

In Elearning! and Government Elearning! magazines’ 2010 User Study, 64 percent of respondents used the virtual classroom for training.

Today’s virtual classroom market goes by many names including Web conferencing and synchronous e-learning. Both terms involve delivering content live over the Internet to people who are geographically dispersed.

The virtual classroom market is mature and, due to the increasing number of free tools on the market, it is affordable for nearly all training departments.

One important thing to keep in mind when choosing a virtual classroom is your planned use. Virtual classrooms offer much more functionality than many Web conferencing tools, because the latter are designed for meetings and lack features like breakout rooms and labs.

The virtual classroom is an interactive environment that encourages communication and collaboration. Social software serves a similar purpose with the primary difference being control of content. With social tools, the user directs his or her own learning.


As the Web continues to evolve as a way to simply link and store documents to
a more “social”Web, we are seeing more social tools to support enterprise learning. These tools include social networking, wikis, blogs, microblogs and niche networks.

Lamoureux says that more companies are adopting newer technologies to facilitate learning through knowledge-sharing and collaboration: “Blogs and wikis both post significant gains in 2009, with 14 percent of organizations using these tools in a
learning context. Communities of practice also remained popular, used by 24 percent of companies for learning.”

In Elearning! and Government Elearning! magazines’ 2010 User Study, the use of wikis, blogs, and forums went from 40 percent usage to 55 percent usage, and the usage of social networks went from 29 percent in 2009 to 48 percent in 2010.

In the enterprise, several social software partnerships with Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration tool are making it easier for some companies to implement social software, especially at the business unit and department levels.

As well, several popular LMS vendors such as OutStart, Mzinga, Saba and Cornerstone OnDemand either built their social software product or integrated a third-party solution.”

Stand-alone solutions include companies such as Jive Software, Awareness and Q2Learning. Pricing structures vary and can be very inexpensive ($1,000 or less) or very expensive ($150,000+). Companies on a budget should investigate what fits their budget by looking at:
>>per month fees,
>>per user fees,
>>licensing fees, and
>>community management fees.

There are also numerous consumer focused services and stand-alone tools that can be used for e-learning such as Twitter, Ning, Facebook and YouTube. When it makes sense to give access, these tools can be pieced together to make a low-cost personal learning environment.

Today, organizations with limited budgets have numerous options as new products come to market and technology continues to advance. Drop me an e-mail (jclarey@2elearning.com) and let me know about the low-cost tools you’re using in your organization


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