E-learning course development: How to balance between size, cost and time? Pt. 1

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Creating anything is an exercise in balancing ideals with realities, or ambition with available resources. Of course software, especially internet enabled software, is a multiplier of our resources, in the sense that one man with an LMS platform can build a fully functional online school catering to thousands of students.

Still, building a successful online course is all about making the right compromises and using your available resources with the appropriate restraint. As a e-learning course creator you have to learn to balance between size (scope), cost, and time, and this is what this mini post series is all about, beginning with…

Cost

Cost might seem like an easy thing to manage. After all you have a limited budget, and you have to work within that, what could be easier? Either you have money in the bank or not. Still, the number of projects (e-learning or otherwise) that go over their budget is surprisingly high, as in practice there are a lot of details and variables that can throw you off course.

Managing costs is all about estimations. If you have good initial estimates and keep tabs on subsequent spending you are all set. That’s, of course, something that’s easier said than done. If you are a large enough organization to have budget specialists and accountants, you can refer to them for help, but if you are a small shop, it’s by no means impossible to do it yourself.

Scripta manent

For starters, don’t just do some quick mental estimation or some napkin calculations and call it a day. To get a proper sense of what the development of an e-learning course will cost you, open your copy of Excel and note down everything that will (or might) incur an expense. Do that early in the planning stages for your course, and keep it updated as requirements or scope changes.

Some of the costs would be obvious and come easy to you: educators running the course and technicians supporting your infrastructure would have to be paid. Others, not so much. Some one-off costs related to course creation that you might miss, are:

– costs for licensing educational material, videos, etc.
– costs of employing someone to write a course’s material.
– costs of employing a graphic designer/illustrator.
– costs of translations / transcripts / proofreading of material.
– PC software and hardware costs
– costs for broadcasting equipment (cameras, microphones, headsets, etc)

Whereas recurring costs might include:

– Web hosting costs
– Software license renewals / updates
– renting physical space for class meetings (in hybrid learning scenarios)
– support desk costs
– internet service provider (ISP) costs
– backup costs

Some of these costs can be shared among several courses (e.g hosting all of them on the same server if your student count is low enough to permit it), whereas others have to be paid in full for any additional course you create (e.g. the salary of the educator running the course).

After you’ve created a few e-learning courses you’ll have a pretty good grip on the costs associated with creating a new one, but keep an eye for any specialized requirements a new course could have that might throw you off budget. For example a hybrid course offering some lab time will obviously need lab space and equipment, and thus will cost more than a purely online course. Similarly, some online course might need you to license a specific software package or LMS plugin (e.g a course on hardware design will require a Verilog tool).

Size matters

Your expenses will look very different depending on your intended size and scope. A course designed to accommodate 100 students doesn’t have the same logistics as one designed for 100,000. Know your scope and estimate accordingly.

One common mistake of those running e-learning as an online business is trying to scale their e-learning offering too quickly. If you’re still testing the waters, start low. As you get more users (something that might take years or even never happen), you can improve your infrastructure as needed.

Having far more paying customers than your initial LMS setup can stand is what we call in the business, a “nice problem to have”. Your students can take a little downtime as you upgrade your LMS deployment to accommodate them, but your bank account can’t take a premature hit based on an overly ambitious business plan.

Check back

Your initial estimates of the expenditures involved and the total cost paid can turn out to be widely different amounts. Not just because prices and renting fees are not set in stone, but also because unexpected expenses occur all the time. Your budget for two $2,000 web servers, for example, might have missed the $300 setup fee per server, the $200 courier service bill for delivering those servers to your premises and the $50 of cabling needed to connect them to your network.

The only way to not go over-budget is to update your initial estimates often as new developments and costs appear. You’ll also need to set aside some budget for all those unexpected costs in your initial planning (if you you don’t end up needing it, that’s fine, but if you do then this precaution will save your bacon, so to speak ― especially if you have to justify any new expenses to some stingy boss).

Scale back

Cost management goes hand in hand with managing the scope of what you build.

If your budget turns out not to be enough don’t give up. Just scale down. Perhaps your initial estimates were overly ambitious. Perhaps (as we discussed above) you don’t need such an elaborate setup at this time.

Some things are necessary for a fully functional e-learning deployment, others are secondary or luxuries. We’ll cover the art of knowing which is which, or “managing scope”, in the second installment of this series.
See you next week!

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Why Online Employee Orientation is important?

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Online Employee orientation ― introducing new hires to their new environment and giving them the basic information the need to start being productive ― is an important part of human resource management, and an ideal fit for an e-learning solution.

A new hire might have passed his interviews with flying colors, and might even know all there is about the technical aspects of his position, but he still needs to be shown how your company operates, from basic stuff, like were he can get IT assistance, to very important information from a QA and legal perspective, such as what are the policies and standards you follow.

An e-learning system is a perfect fit for employee orientation purposes for several reasons:

– The new employee can take the e-learning orientation course at his own pace, while still getting on with everything else that he has to do in his first days or weeks. Most importantly, he can refer back to it months or years later ― whenever he needs to refresh his knowledge on any of the topics covered in it.

– You don’t have to devote resources (e.g. senior employees) and suffer productivity losses for orientation work.

– An e-learning orientation course can be comprehensive, covering all the needed topics, since you can think about what you need to cover beforehand and ensure that everything is there. Informal, face to face, orientation tours and talks can skip or gloss over several subjects.

– An e-learning orientation course can use the LMS system to track attendance and completion status. This can serve as a legal proof that your company has indeed provided knowledge of stuff like company policy, sexual harassment laws, etc, with the new hire, in case of dispute.

– An e-learning based orientation course can include tests and exercises to measure a new hire’s understanding of the orientation material, and, even better, those tests can be automatically graded by the LMS software.

– A learning management system can serve from tens to hundreds of thousands of students, so it can grow as your company grows. Orientation courses can be specialized per departments and/or job position, and common material can be reused with ease.

– Last, but not least, an LMS is essential for a modern enterprise for things that go far beyond orientation courses. It can be used in sales, in human resources, for compliance training, and of course for general employee training and re-training. If your company already uses an LMS for all the above, then why wouldn’t you also take advantage of it for your employee orientation needs? And if it doesn’t, well, it should.

Of course an e-learning based orientation process doesn’t replace the first face-to-face contact. It’s important for your new hire to be welcomed to his new office by some of his senior colleagues and have a quick tour around the physical space (including the cafeteria or espresso machine).
Your e-learning orientation course can pick up right after that. Here are some things that should be covered:

Company history and culture

A message from the CEO would be a good place to start. Follow by a brief history of the company and its mission statement, values and culture.

Products

Whether your new hires will work in product development or not, your products (and/or services) are what your company is all about. Use the orientation course to get your new employees familiar with them (including some of the product highlights of the company’s past).

Policies and procedures

This is the boring but necessary stuff. Split it into thematic categories, so employees don’t have to watch all of it or hunt for the important parts. That said, don’t forget to mark the important parts appropriately, and even make them compulsory reading material (taking advantage of your LMS platform’s functionality), especially the ones that have to do with legal issues (professional ethics, racial discrimination, sexual harassment, etc), and all things related to your customer service philosophy and policies (especially important if the new employee will serve a customer facing role).

Regarding procedures, a thorough description of your intranet resources, their purpose, and how employees can get accounts and login to them, should also be given. And don’t forget to cover the seemingly trivial procedures, that new hires will have to go through in their first days, like where they can get office supplies (papers, toners), IT equipments and the like.

Another important aspect of company policies are restrictions and guidelines in telephone, e-mail, and internet use. If you wouldn’t want employees to send personal emails from their work account, or turn their office PC into a torrent server, don’t just let it to their common sense: put it in writing.

Career prospects

Give your new hires a sense of what they can achieve and how far they can get by working for your company. Mention the various career paths and career enhancement opportunities afforded to their position. This is a good place to inform your new hire about the benefits your company offers (health & life insurance, retirement plan, etc).

Specific job skills and procedures

Most sections of an orientation course can be quite generic among different departments and employees, but you should also have a special section (or several of them) for everything that pertains to the new hire’s specific position, their roles and responsibilities. This, as is aimed for inclusion in the orientation course, should be kept brief, and not aim to replace employee training courses.

Everything else

Your orientation course might be given primarily to new hires, but as we mentioned earlier, it can be something employees return to again and again, to refresh their memory or learn about certain policies and procedures.

Other stuff that could fit in your orientation course is useful reference information such as working hours, office organization (files, supplies, etc), campus diagram, organization chart, etc.

Of course we’re only scratching the surface of what an orientation course could offer, but we’re confidents that if you follow the basic advice we offer in this post you’ll be more than half of the way there ― the rest depends upon your particular company and organization, and it can be as complicated or as simple as your operations require.

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Basic tools for e-learning students

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In the previous posts in this mini-series we investigated the necessary tools, services and software you’ll need to setup your own e-learning solution, as well as the required software needed to create and manage your courses.

In this installment we’ll have a look at the software and basic tools for e-learning students which are gonna need while attending your e-learning program.

Word Processor / Text editor

At some point or another, students will be required to hand over an essay or some kind of written exercise. For this they are gonna need a text editor or word processor of some kind. Not necessarily something full blown, like Word or Open Office Writer, whose myriad of features they are never gonna use. For most cases, the text-editor bundled with their OS (WordPad for Windows, TextEdit for Mac) will do just fine.

A modern browser

Modern LMS platforms take advantage of the latest HTML5 offerings, from CSS3 to WebGL. Even if your courses are less cutting edge in their use of web technologies, your students will still need to have a modern browser ― if not anything else, it will be faster and more secure, and render the modern web with more precision.

We suggest that they use one of the so-called “evergreen” browsers (like Chrome and Firefox), the industry name for the browsers that are constantly auto-updated to the newer version as opposed to those whose releases are tied to OS update cycles (like IE and Safari).

Browser Plugins

Third-party browser plugins are generally in decline on the modern web, as browsers are getting ever more capable of handling complex multimedia tasks themselves. That said, for some e-learning functionality, and depending on your LMS platform of choice, you’re gonna still need them.

The most popular one, used in numerous LMS systems to provide functionality such as built-in video chat or collaborative whiteboards, is Adobe’s Flash, with (Oracle’s) Java coming in a distant second.

We suggest that students do not install any such plugin unless they have confirmed it as a requirement with their e-learning course provider. And they should also take care and update it regularly to the latest version, since old, buggy, versions of browser plugins are the most common entry points for PC malware and viruses.

A PDF viewer

Adobe’s PDF document format, originally a content delivery format for printing jobs, is ubiquitous in e-learning and even education in general.

While there would seldom be a need to create one, students should be able to download and view PDF files. For Windows, Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader (the industry standard) will do the job. Mac users have it even better, as the capability to read (and write) PDFs is built-in into OS X.

A webcam

They might have to fork out some money for one, or they might already have one bundled with their laptop or desktop PC. In any case, they’ll need to have a webcam in order to participate in tele-conferences and 1-to-1 sessions with your teaching staff. A cheap, basic model will do.

Headset

A headphones and microphone combo, a headset complements the webcam, and allows your students to listen and speak in video/audio teleconferences without interfere and feedback from their speakers. As with the webcam, a cheap, basic model will do.

A calendaring app

Not strictly necessary, but it will very much help your students in keeping up with course schedules and examinations. They can use a desktop, mobile or cloud-based calendar app (there are also some that support all those platforms and can sync your calendar data between them).

Whether you prefer Microsoft, Apple or Google platforms, they all offer very good (and free) calendar applications, and they all imaginatively name them “Calendar”.

FTP Client

Some LMS platforms offer the ability to upload and/or download learning material and student work through FTP. This industry standard file exchange protocol can speed up the delivery of large files compared to the browser’s fickle file upload/download function.

There are lots of FTP clients available in the market, but our pick would be FileZilla or WinSCP (PC) and Transmit or YummyFTP (Mac). We suggest you avoid the legacy FTP protocol, though, and use its secure alternatives SFTP and SCP, instead. The aforementioned FTP clients support these newer protocols just as well.

Those are some of the basic tools needed for an e-learning student. There are others that we assumed they already have (a computer, an email account, etc), as well as some that depend on the specific requirements of their e-learning course operator, such as which specific conference app to use (e.g Skype or Google Hangouts).

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Content creation tools for e-learning

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In the previous post in this mini-series we investigated the various LMS deployment options (cloud, hosted, self-hosted) as well as the necessary tools, services and software you’ll need to setup your own e-learning solution.

Today we’re concerned with what comes after the deployment: the content creation tools for e-learning courses.

Word Processor / Text editor

In it’s bare essence, an e-learning course consists of a number of texts. Your course might also use pictures, video, multimedia and interactive content, but your main content would most likely be the plain old written word. This means that you’re gonna need a word processor like Word or Open Office Writer.

Or maybe not ― nowadays a lot of writers make do with so-called minimalist text editors, free from the burden of messing with their document formatting (which will be taken care of by your theme’s stylesheets anyway). Those text editors, such as Scrivener (PC/Mac) or ByWord (Mac), are way cheaper and simpler than Word, and provide a clean writing environment with few distractions.

A modern browser

It goes without saying that you’re gonna need a fast, modern browser. Modern LMS platforms take advantage of the latest HTML5 technologies, from CSS3 to WebGL, and you’ll need a browser that keeps up with the latest developments.

Prefer one of the so-called “evergreen” browsers (like Chrome and Firefox), that is, a browser that is constantly auto-updated to the newer version rather than one whose releases are tied to OS update cycles (like IE and Safari).

Image Editor

If you’re working with images in your course material (and more likely than not, you are), you’re gonna need an image editor. For basic stuff like cropping and resizing an picture file you might get away with your OS’s built-in image viewing app, but anything more involved (like adding text to images or creating composite pictures) and you’re gonna need a bitmap editor.

Photoshop is the undisputed king in this realm, and as offered in Adobe’s rent-a-program model, it commands the royal sum of $10 (€10 for Europeans) per month. For e-learning needs (that is, anything sort of full-blown graphic design work) you’re gonna be OK with any of the several much cheaper alternatives, such as Paint.net, GIMP, PaintShop Pro, Acorn and Pixelmator.

One (or more) Camera(s)

If you want to stream lectures in real time or have 1-to-1 conversations with your students, you’ll need to invest in a web camera. A basic model will do for most use cases, but for more flexibility (and better quality) you’ll want something that can stand on a tripod next to your PC and capture your classroom better.

If you want to produce your own video material for your courses, then you’ll want to invest in a proper, non web, camera too. Entry level DSLR and mirror-less “micro 4/3″ cameras offer great cinematic quality and low light performance, but are a little harder to use. A consumer or prosumer level camcorder is probably better for those just starting out with video production. And don’t forget to buy a decent tripod too.

Video editor

If you’re using video in your courses you’ll might need to invest in video editing software, and specifically in what is known in the industry as an NLE (non linear editing) system. Those, once the province of TV and Hollywood professionals, can now be bought for as low as $100 or less, and are easy enough to use that you’ll be able to produce your own YouTube masterpieces in no time.

We suggest you start with an entry level package such as iMovie (Mac) or Premiere Elements (PC/Mac), from which, if your needs ever outgrow it, you’ll be able to upgrade to Final Cut Pro and Premiere respectively.

FTP Client

Most elearning tools let you upload files within them, but when you have lots of large assets you want to upload to your LMS, an FTP client is often the best solution. Those are programs that allow you to access a remote server’s files as if they were on a local folder, and upload or download stuff back and forth. We suggest you avoid the legacy FTP protocol, though, and use its secure alternatives SFTP and SCP, instead.

There are lots of FTP clients available in the market (and most of them support SFTP and SCP just as well), but our pick would be FileZilla or WinSCP (PC) and Transmit or YummyFTP (Mac).

There are lots of other items that can assist you in your content creation and deployment (a graphic tablet for the artistically inclined e-learning creators, for example), but those are the most basic ones. Stay tuned for the last part of this series, were we’re having a look at e-learning content consumption tools.

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E-learning Deployment – Considerations and Tools

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So you decided to deploy an e-learning solution for your enterprise or organization. Or maybe build an e-learning school of your own. As long-time e-learning experts we welcome you to this exciting endeavor.

In this post we’ll try to give a comprehensive list of all the tools, services, accessories and software you’ll need for your e-learning deployment.

To Cloud or not to Cloud?

You of course are going to need a LMS. And we hope you consider using our industry leading e-learning solutions, TalentLMS and eFront. But even if you go for an inferior LMS (well, we had to say it), there are several things you have to consider, the most important being whether you want a Cloud solution or a custom LMS deployment (either hosted or internally deployed).

Cloud-hosted LMS

A Cloud based LMS is one that’s made available for you by a third party usually under a subscription model (like our flagship TalentLMS). The benefit of this approach is that you don’t need to be concerned with installing, updating and managing servers and software. Those are all taken care for you, and you essentially get a turn-key solution that’s known to work smoothly and that is maintained for you by the very team that created it in the first place.

You’ll still have to add your own content and customize some aspects of its operation, but that’s just the essential configuration that you have to do with any LMS solution. The complexities are hidden from you (and the architecture can get quite complex underneath, e.g files may be stored out of server in flexible storage services like Amazon S3 and there would be multiple web and db servers deployed, alongside CDNs and load balancers). You can start and stop your Cloud LMS use at anytime, easily add more e-learning sites, and even scale your projects automagically to multiple nodes and millions of users as your needs grow.

A Cloud is perhaps the preferred solution for most basic LMS needs, except if you want total flexibility and the ability to make changes to the e-learning environment (as Cloud solutions offer limited customizability). Another possible issue about using a Cloud LMS would be if your corporate policy doesn’t allow hosting your learning material with a third party (e.g because it contains sensitive information about your company). You might as well prefer a non-cloud solution if you want to avoid recurring charges.

Self-hosted (internally deployed) LMS

If you fall into the above category, then you probably need to invest in a deployed (or self-hosted) LMS platform (in which case, may we suggest our best of breed eFront product?). A self-hosted LMS platform is basically a web application, usually sold as a licensed product, that you get to install and maintain in your own server. You have (depending on the license) full control on all aspects of the LMS operation, as well as the option to alter its code to fit any special needs your might have, and you can even restrict access to it so that, for example, only people connected to your company’s intranet (or VPN) can use it.

With the increased power, though, come greater responsibility, as you’ll be responsible for things like backing up your data, updating the server software and scaling to more machines. You also need to contact the vendor and license updates and upgrades (though some might be included for free in the licensing price).

Hosted LMS

A hybrid option between those two would be the hosted LMS, were you have access to a full blown installation of an LMS platform on a dedicated server. This option, which we offer in the form of our hosted eFront product, gives you full customization abilities combined with the managed backups, updates and upgrades of the Cloud version. You also get the benefit of having an expert team making sure your server and LMS run smoothly.

The downside to the hosted LMS solution is that it takes some time to deploy a new one (usually 1-2 business days), as a new server has to be setup and provisioned for you. Also, like in the self-hosted case, a hosted LMS cannot scale without extra technical support, (although, in the hosted LMS case this can sometimes be provided as an extra service for a fee).

Shopping list

We’ll begin with the tools you’ll need if you opt for a self-hosted LMS solution, as they are more numerous and complicated:

– A server [or a hosting provider]: a machine that is setup with a server operating system and a network connection capable of serving web content to your users. That can be a machine provided and setup by your company’s IT deparment, or some server that you lease from a third party hosting provider.

– A web server and a database server: those are software solutions that serve web applications and store data respectively. The most commonly used are Apache and MySQL, but there are several options, including IIS and SQL Server in the Windows side of the fence. You’ll also need to install some web server add-ons to handle your LMS code (e.g the PHP modules if your LMS is written in that language). What kind of web and database server to use depends on the requirements of your chosen LMS platform, so you don’t have total flexibility in this matter.

– An email server: you’ll need to configure your server to be able to send and receive email. This is essential for some LMS features like Notifications.

– A domain name: you might not need one, if you just use your LMS inside the company. But if you want to have it accessible from the web for everybody, you’ll need to give it a domain name (e.g “www.mylms.com”). You can register a domain with any web registrar such as GoDaddy or Name.com – it will cost you something in the range of $10-$20 per year.

Those are just the basics of course, and it all depends on what extra services and functionality you might want to add to your self-hosted e-learning system.

If your deployment is intended as a commercial operation with paid users for example (as opposed to internal employee training for your own company), you’ll also want to invest in tools for monitoring your server’s health (there are several services that offer this, such as Pingdom and New Relic) and in a support system were your users can report problems and raise issues (e.g ZenDesk).

With a Cloud LMS, all of the above have been taken care of for you, with the possible exception of the domain name (and that’s only if you need a totally custom one. If not, then the subdomain you get that’s based on the LMS provider’s domain name is more than adequate).

In the next post in this series we’ll get to the tools and services you’ll need for your e-learning content creation and consumption.

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