By E. Brown
As more and more non-profits head into the world of computer based learning and training, they often venture into territory that is very new and very unfamiliar. There is a good quote: “Is there anyone planning to build a new house who doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so they’ll know if they can complete it?” This saying can be used for any undertaking. For instance, if you have actually built a house, then you know about the issues that can arise and the amount of detail that you must become a temporary expert in during the process. Yet, what about the person who has never built a house? What about the person who is setting out for the first time to build and is daunted by the task at hand? They need advice and counsel from those who have walked that path ahead of them, right? The same is true when venturing into online learning for the first time.
Below, I have listed some (not all) of the potential issues non-profit organizations need to consider before foraging out to build their, often leadership mandated, new dream house. I hope you find these helpful.
Large vender vs. Boutique vender: There are certainly pros and cons going with large Learning Management venders, such as SumTotal and Saba, or choosing a smaller partner that can also configure and install the LMS software. A boutique vender may also be able to create a custom solution without all the bells-and-whistles that come with the major software packages. You need to decide what the end goal of your eLearning initiative is. You need to plan for growth or plan for capping/managing your users. Typically, you can expect more hand-holding from a smaller vender. They can be more personalized over a longer period of time. The main factor will be weighing the cost of working with a larger vender versus a smaller one in light of your desired time to market.
In-house built software costs vs. Software licensing: Like the one above, there are pros and cons that should be weighed in light of your goals. Bringing in a partner to build out your LMS, LCMS, and reporting tools can have a large, but one time, up front cost. Once the functionality is built, you can own it and manage it. If you go the licensing route, be prepared with your financial model to cover the cost of the escalating users licenses you’ll be paying for, usually on an annual basis. In time, both solutions will need a certain amount of tweaking, maintaining, or upgrading.
Speed to market vs. customization: How quickly do you want to roll out your eLearning content? Out-of-the-box software, can allow for a little customization and will certainly get you up and running quickly. While, more proprietary software can be more heavily customized to fit your organizational needs, but be prepared to spend more time building and testing before the final roll-out.
Free coursework vs. For Pay coursework: Some faith based organizations will want to consider whether or not to charge for course work, allow suggested donations, or give away courses for free. Other organizations will need to start budgeting internally for online courses for charges back to the training source. Once again, review your goals for this initiative and your financial model. Are you equipped to give away coursework or do you feel you have an audience willing to pay for what they will learn?
Outsourcing hosting and maintenance vs. In-house: Another question to answer is, who is going to host the technology? Some of you will be able to answer this quickly because, you do not have the technical infrastructure nor do you want to invest in one. Others will have an in-house I.T. department and servers for email, CRM, company Web site, or other such related technology. For you, the thought of hosting may seem attractive. If you are considering hosting it yourself, you will want to consider the ongoing costs: maintenance, expandability, the computing power you will need (not to mention the personnel to administrate it). Hosting off-site can certainly be more cost effective. Both will depend on how much control you will want to exercise over the technology and your concerns about privacy.
Threaded Discussions vs. Message Board vs. Chat: Many companies I talk with want to incorporate some kind of messaging service. These items allows for online community building but will need monitoring. Based on the kinds of content you will be discussing you will have to decide whether specialists are needed to monitor or converse with users. This may take the form of subject matter specialists, coaches, or counselors. Be sure to think the through the amount of time you want to be “live” online (i.e. Chat) and the legal ramifications of giving counsel. Finally, human resources will be the biggest component to success in this arena. Do you employee people to monitor and chat with users or do you turn it over to trained/untrained volunteers?
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous courses: Depending on the kind of course work you’re offering and the community building tools you will be implementing (see above) you will want to determine how to start your classes. Starting at regular intervals (synchronous) helps to queue up the users and allow them to experience the content at the same time. Allowing the users to dive in whenever they choose (asynchronous) can certainly have its appeal. However, managing retention may become a quick issue. There is a dynamic of accountability that goes along with courses starting and stopping at specified times.
In-house maintenance staff vs. Outsourcing: Because of on-going course and community creation some of you may want to appoint an internal resource or even hire one or more to run your eLearning initiative. If you feel you have a good partner, who understands your culture, content, and business needs you might think about outsourcing the content and community creation and maintenance.
Outsourcing Content creation vs. In-house: Like the point above, consider your goals, culture, and business needs. Can you afford an in-house staff of trainers, Instructional Designers, programmers, and graphics professionals or is it better for you to find a partner for creating and maintaining your content?
Rich Media vs. Static text delivery: One of the larger questions deals with instructional design and the presentation of the coursework. Some of you will desire rich media content with options for full screen videos, Flash animations with voice-over, games, and more. The creation of some rich media will factor in costs related to scripting, video/audio recording and editing, acting, game development, etc. If the ROI is worth initial expenditures then, by all means, make it the best content you can.
Many will look at these and have already been thinking about some of the points. For some, you will experience a wake-up-call as you consider more than you originally understood about online learning. For most, the best route will be a phased approach: initial launch with limited functionality and then, over time, adding the resources needed as the budget and audience grows.
There are other things to consider that we did not cover in this article but, hopefully you have gleaned enough information to help you put together the blueprints for your new home. And, who knows, you may look back after a time and find you have a beautiful mansion in the making.
– eLearning Strategy Checklist
– eLearning: The Whole Picture
– Building A Successful eLearning Strategy
– Is eLearning Right For Your Organization? (Great series of questions)
– Determining eLearning Readiness (Downloadable PDF Sample UNC Report)