Rapid E-learning Development

Should You Be Getting in on the ‘Rapid E-learning Express’? The allure of the phrase “rapid e-learning development” is powerful. Processes and tools that speed up e-learning development time even by a small amount are naturally captivating to project managers and stakeholders. But can the “rapid” paradigm really be applied to your types of projects? And if it can, what are the likely trade-offs in terms of instructional effectiveness, production retooling and restaffing, etc.? WHAT IS IT? The answers to the above questions have been clouded somewhat by the blithe application of the “rapid e-learning development” label by tool vendors boasting that their products will help you develop and deliver elearning content faster and cheaper. In common usage, “rapid e-learning development” often connotes simply converting PowerPoint slides to a “learning optimized” Web-based format. Instead, I propose a comprehensive definition that includes the following elements: >> Converted from any widely available and familiar personal productivity software format (generally, but not limited to either PowerPoint orWord) to a Web-based format (DHTML or Flash usually), with learning optimization added (interactivity, navigation, assessments, etc.); >> Developed from existing learning content (often slides from an existing classroom course) or from scratch, using the conversion paradigm described above; >> Produced using authoring tools and production techniques that can be learned in less than an hour by staff (usually subject matter experts (SMEs) with no screen design, authoring, or programming experience. HOW RAPID IS IT, AND WHAT MAKES IT RAPID? Bryan Chapman of Brandon Hall (in his blog at http://brandon-hall.com/bryan chapman/?p=7) reports that—based on recent industry surveys—the ratio of development hours to finished seat time averages 220:1 for “standard e-learning” and that rapid e-learning reduces this to only 33:1. Even with considerable variances in those numbers, the cost driver for the popularity of rapid e-learning is abundantly clear. Most of the reduction in development time is accounted for by the simple fact that, in most cases, content (usually in the form of classroom course slides) already exists, thus eliminating the need for training needs analysis and initial content design and development. If these activities are added to the mix, some rapid e-learning development projects would probably no longer
qualify as “rapid.” Rapid e-learning authoring tool vendors attribute the “rapid” appellation to improvements that make their tools easier to use, eliminating the need for design and production professionals that would normally require a more time-consuming, formal design and development process. One of the hallmarks of rapid e-learning development is that there is no separate story boarding product or phase. Often, the Word or PowerPoint file before conversion is the canvas on which the raw content gradually takes shape and can be iteratively reviewed for its basic information intent, à la Michael Allen’s successive approximation paradigm (2003). When the content is finalized, it is
converted, and further iterative reviews of the instructional intent can take place. There is no copying and pasting froma storyboard to an authoring tool, which adds to the “rapid” argument. However,most authoring tools now a days include built-in storyboarding or storyboard import features, so this should not be a consideration in adopting a rapid e-learning approach. E-LEARNING ‘BY THE MASSES, FOR THE MASSES’ Many rapid e-learning tool vendors see their primary mission as facilitating an environment in which users of all stripes can create e-learning without the help of e-learning professionals, thus empowering e-learning development “by the masses, for the masses.” There are two obvious downsides to this: 1) It implies shortcutting or eliminating activities usually conducted by skilled instructional designers (IDs), especially any robust training needs analysis. Traditionally, it is the ID’s job to ensure that the product really solves the performance problem and is right for the intended audience. 2) It leaves it up to non-IDs to acquire the expertise needed to design engaging and effective e-learning screens. Rapid e-learning authoring tools have picked up the slack and boast of software features and support documentation that guide towards, or even impose good design, but in the end it is up to the author to make the critical judgments that make meaningful, effective learning really happen. I do not wish to universally characterize non-IDs as unable to design their own effective e-learning. I have seen some who excel at it, either through experience creating content and getting feedback from their trainees, or simply through being a consumer of quality e-learning themselves. But I recommend the following safeguard for anyone undertaking a rapid elearning development project with anything resembling mission-critical content: Bring in an ID at least as a consultant to review the completed analysis process and conclusions as well as the draft product, or, preferably, to provide guidance before and/or during these activities. This ID involvement does not need to be extensive, and there will usually be a compelling ROI in terms of improving the product. Your ID consultant’s time can be leveraged by having them do a workshop on “design principles for non-designers” for all of your rapid e-learning authors together; if authors are amenable, you could ask the ID to critique and show how to improve the design of modules your authors have developed already (especially within the tool you are using) as part of the workshop. GIVING SMES MORE RESPONSIBILITY Because subject matter experts (SMEs) can work in a file format that is comfortable
to them, you can reasonably expect or request that they do the development of raw content themselves. This can take the content collection and massaging burden off IDs and let them focus on the purely instructional aspects, primarily after the course is converted. This can represent not only a more efficient division of labor for your organization, but can also result in better quality product since SMEs can directly render their intent in terms of key information, content flow, etc. CAN RAPID E-LEARNING CONTENT BE ENGAGING AND INTERACTIVE? The rapid e-learning development approach is often cited as producing courses with a cookie-cutter look and feel and low interactivity due to the template-driven nature of the tools, technical inexperience of authors, and technical limitations inherent in converting from relatively non-interactive file formats like PowerPoint. This reputation is not wholly undeserved and needs to be addressed; your organization will have to mitigate these factors by implementation of control points as well as flexibility in your production process, however streamlined and automated it has become in its “rapid” form. Overall, rapid e-learning development does involve a substantial tradeoff in the ability to produce complex e-learning products, as represented in the following chart. This is mainly due to the fact that they are tethered to applications like Word or PowerPoint. TRENDS IN E-LEARNING DEVELOPMENT TOOLS Although the trend arrow in Fig. 1 shows that rapid e-learning development tools are extending their features to enable more complex forms of interactivity, navigation and media richness, for the immediate future, non-technical authors will most likely be unable to render Level 3 interactivity using such tools because the learning curves are too steep. This trend works in the opposite direction also; standard e-learning development tools are becoming easier to use (without sacrificing complexity of product),which can beg the question:Why not use a standard authoring tool and use the same rapid process,  thereby gaining the higher-interactivity affordances of the more robust tool? This should be considered, especially in cases where you are developing content from scratch (e.g., it is not already available as PowerPoint slides). If your budget and time constraints don’t allow you to create rapid e-learning with as much media richness or interactivity as you would like, you can still augment your courses with tutorials, support tools, job aids and other ancillary materials to keep the students engaged. For a list of rapid e-learning tools, see the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative white paper “Choosing Authoring Tools” (section 4.6) at http://www.adlnet.gov/Site-CollectionDocuments/files/Choosing%20Authoring%20Tools%20white%20paper%20v.1.4.pdf.  In that paper, I use the term “external document converter/optimizer” tools to describe rapid e-learning authoring tools. SO: IS RAPID E-LEARNING REALLY RIGHT FOR YOU? Most e-learning professionals agree that rapid e-learning works best in a situation with some combination of the following characteristics:
>> You need to get training developed quickly and inexpensively;
>> Content exists in the form of PowerPoint slides, etc.;
>> Your learning objectives are at the Application level (Bloom level 3) or lower;
>> Information contained in the learning content is volatile;
>> You have never produced e-learning before;
>> You are dealing exclusively with static versus dynamic media and no original
media has to be produced; If one or more of these matches your situation, you should definitely consider a rapid e-learning development approach and tools, subject to the caveats set forth above. For more information on rapid elearning see Patti Shank’s “Getting Started in e-Learning” paper (eLearning Guild, 2010). I especially like her analysis templates in the Appendix. —Peter Berking has been a principal instructional designer for Serco North America- Learning and Human Capital Division in Rockville,Md., for more than 15 years.He has been on assignment as an instructional designer at the ADL Co-Lab Hub in Alexandria,Va. for more than two years. This article reflects the opinions of the author and does not represent the views or policies of the Office of the Secretary of Defense or the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative.

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