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?

compass

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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The 7 most important LMS features to support Synchronous Learning

Teacher Assisting Student Through Video Conferencing

E-learning, and if you follow this blog you probably already know that, has many advantages over traditional classroom based learning. Those advantages range from reduced operation costs and the ability to address huge audiences, to quantifiable insights on students’ progress and quick deployment.

Of course the first and foremost advantage of e-learning is freeing students from being tied to a particular place and time ― the ability to take courses at your own pace, on your own chosen time, and from your own premises (even in your pajamas!).

Sometimes, though, a specific course or a specific lesson requires real-time or even face to face communication, and e-learning, thanks to the capabilities of modern networks and communications technologies can adapt to that too. This type of e-learning, in which students and teachers interact at the same time, is called “synchronous” in the relevant jargon. Ιn this blog post we’ll describe some essential LMS features to support synchronous learning.

1) Calendaring / Bulletin Board

When working with synchronous e-learning you need to keep your students “on the same page”, as the saying goes. That is, you need a way to inform your students of class schedules, dates of online exams and such.

Your LMS is the obvious shared resource capable of centralizing and broadcasting this kind of information to all users. The way this happens can vary in form, from a calendar-like widget, with cells for each day/hour, a bulletin board type of page with listings for upcoming classes and important dates, or even some dedicated dashboard in your users’ homepage.

2) Webcasts

If you need to replicate traditional classroom based lectures on an e-learning environment, a webcast is the ideal solution. You can setup one with minimal equipment (a webcam/mike, a network connection and the relevant software), and have your teachers broadcast their lectures to hundreds or even thousands of students at the same time.

On the student end, all it takes is the ability to display streaming web video, which all modern web browsers have. This can be either built-in to the browser through HTML5 technologies, or through the Adobe Flash plugin.

Advanced LMS platforms provide this capability built-in, to others you can add it through an add-on, or even use an external, third-party tool.

3) Tele-conference (audio / video)

The next step from simple webcasts is the ability to have tele-conference between teacher and student (or even multiple students).

This is particularly fit for oral-exam type situations, or hands on lessons, that need face-to-face coordination between student and teacher.

This needs the student to be able to record video/audio and broadcast it too, something which is either built-in in most modern laptops, or can be added for a relatively cheap cost (all it takes is a cheap webcam and headset).

As for the software side, if your LMS doesn’t provide such a capability, you can take advantage of third-party services like Skype or Google Hangouts, for a simple but effective tele-conference setup.

4) Chat

Chat might be less impressive than tele-conference, but it can be equally or even more important in an e-learning setting.

For one, it requires no extra peripherals and setup, and is very easy to provide through an LMS platform.

Second it adds a little of the asynchronous back (in the sense it allows students and teachers to take their time to think, check some reference source, etc, and provide their answers a little later, compared to the “real time” nature of tele-conference), while remaining a synchronous medium.

Chat also allows for the accurate and easy communication of textual answers and things such as urls, which would be difficult to communicate through an audio/video conference.

5) Shared whiteboard

Another great tool for synchronous e-learning is a shared whiteboard. This is a virtual (usually web based) area for the students and teachers to write and draw equations, answers, diagrams etc, akin to a traditional classroom’s whiteboards.

One advantage (some) virtual whiteboards have is that they can be shared between multiple students in an e-learning scenario, and their ability to can keep a history of edits, so that students can refer back to what was written during a class without having to copy it down.

6) Time-limited tests / Scheduled exams

Testing is, of course, a basic ingredient of almost all courses, e-learning based or not.

Besides take-at-your-own-pace tests, an LMS platform can also provide scheduled, time limited exams. With these, the questions are provided to all students taking the exam at a specific time, and they have a limited time (e.g. 2 hours) to finish them.

A nice boon is that, unlike the norm in traditional classroom based exams, an LMS platform can make student grading automatic and instant, so they get their results as soon as they finish the test.

7) Notifications

Last, but not least, a notifications system can be very useful in keeping your students “at the same page”, and informing them of any upcoming real-time events.

Notifications can complement a calendar page or events dashboard, providing custom notifications for exams, results, classes, tele-conference sessions and more, to your students’ mobile phones and email, so they have no excuses for missing any course related event.

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mEnable your elearning – 6 things to consider when creating tablet compatible courses

e-learning title and Tablet PC

One of the greatest advantages of e-learning compared to classroom based learning is its convenience. Students can participate in a course at the time and place that best works for them. Mobile learning expands on that convenience, freeing the learners from even having to be at a desk using a computer. With mobile learning, a tablet, (or even a capable smartphone) is all your users need, and classes can be had anywhere those can go, which is, literally, everywhere.

There’s only one caveat: any old e-learning course wont do in this fancy new mobile e-learning world. Content has to be designed appropriately in order to be viewed and manipulated in a tablet. Worry not, though, as this doesn’t mean you’ll have to throw away your existing material. You’ll just have to make a few adjustments here and there, and in this blog post we’ll tell you all you need to know about creating tablet compatible courses.

1. Size matters

Your content might look fabulous in the average high resolution desktop or laptop screen but that doesn’t mean it work in a tablet. Tablets have constrained resolution. Even those fancy “retina/Hi-DPI” tablets, despite being nominally hi-res, use their extra pixels for extra sharpness, as opposed to using them to fit more stuff on your screen.

When designing for tablets, 1024×768 is a useful resolution to have in mind, as it’s the one all iPads (and thus, the overwhelming majority of tablets sold) share.

Another thing to have in mind would be “responsive design” ― a set of methods and tools helping to create websites that adapt to different screen sizes, all without having to serve different versions of your content to each.

2. Touch

Mobile, whether a tablet, a smartphone or a so-called phablet hybrid, is all about touch. While most mobile devices support connecting external keyboards, you can’t realistically expect of your users to have one. Rather you’ll have to ensure your e-learning classes work well with touch.

Buttons, for starters, must be easy for the average user to press, even if he has fat, sausage fingers. That means they have to be large-ish (you have heard of Fitt’s law, haven’t you?) and touch-ready. Be careful, though, as not all web controls used on the desktop are touch ready.

There are lots of libraries and frameworks available to help you create webpages and content that plays well on mobile devices, including mobile-focused versions of established desktop projects, such as jQuery Mobile. And of course follow the UI guidelines of your platform (iOS, Android etc), regarding sizes, supported web controls, etc.

3. Speed

Mobile devices have come a long way since their humble beginnings, but they are not yet (and probably will never be) as capable as our desktop and laptop devices. It’s the classic compromise between power and portability.

Think of their CPU/memory/storage and other limitations when you design an e-learning course for them. A heavily interactive course that works on a laptop might be slow as molasses on a tablet, while a Flash based animation will not play at all in both iOS and Android.

Keep your courses lean. That doesn’t mean they have to be spartan and minimalist ― just that they should not be bloated and that they should avoid using “cutting edge” web features, as they are often unsupported (case in point, Web GL support, which took years to come to mobile devices).

Oh, and keep and eye on your file sizes too, optimizing you website assets (images, js, css) to make it load faster.

4. Connectivity

Tablets and mobile devices in general might often be used at home or in the office, but they are first and foremost meant to be used on the go. Your users might be riding the subway to work, or hiking in the great outdoors. And they’ll want to use your e-lerning service from those places too. So, make your content work in situations where there is limited or no connectivity.

Material designed with limited connectivity in mind must be lightweight (to load fast when there’s slow or patchy internet access). Avoid large videos, images and audio in your mobile content, or try to make its viewing optional, not a prerequisite in studying a course.

As for those places with no connectivity, there are HTML5 features like the so called “Local Storage” functionality, that let you store things on a student’s browser for offline viewing. It might not be a prerequisite to offer such a capability, but it would be a very impressive feature that your competitors mostly likely would not offer.

5. User habbits and device capabilities

Users don’t use a tablet (much less a smartphone) in the same situations or in the same manner as they do a laptop.

Some things are plainly harder to do on a tablet, like having precise control over your pointing (fingers are fatter than a virtual mouse pointer). Having many websites open is also more cumbersome without tabs and multiple windows.

Study how your users use your content on tablets and mobile devices in general. Pay particular attention to where their use differs to what they’d normally do when accessing your website from the web. And, it goes without saying, apply what you’ve learned to your e-learning content design.

For example don’t make the users scroll a lot ― it’s something that’s not as convenient as it’s in the desktop. And of course, test your final product in an actual mobile device, or rather more, as an emulator wont show you all possible issues your design might exhibit. Eat your own dog food by trying early prototypes of your mobile content on your mobile device.

6. Fragmentation and the Pareto Principle

When designing for the desktop you have the luxury to use all available HTML5 features in the browsers you target, and assume a generic target client machine. With mobile, you don’t have that luxury; Some features come late to the mobile browsers, and others don’t match between mobile devices, even if the latter are from the same vendor.

From screen-sizes to sensor support to camera and sound capabilities, not everything is available to all machines. In fact for Android there are hundrends of different device configurations, and Apple’s catching up fast too.

That doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to the lowest common denominator of the features you’re interested in using. The Pareto Principle, named after the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, is a heuristic that states that you can rip 80% of the benefits for 20% of the effort ― something that holds in surprisingly many situations.

Following the Pareto Principle, instead of trying to cater to 14 iOS and 300+ Android devices, focus instead on the 20% of devices out there that 80% of your users actually use (which in the tablet world, for a long time, just meant “focus on the iPad”).

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