Designing Quality eLearning on a Shoe-String Budget

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Let’s assume that you represent an organization that’s looking for an eLearning solution. It could be an internal employee training program or a product training solution meant for customers and end-users. How will you go about short-listing a vendor who will design eLearning for your organization?

What parameters will you consider?

  • Stature and reputation in the industry
  • Turnaround time
  • Work done for your peers/competitors
  • Number of awards won for eLearning design
  • Budget

Despite the first four parameters being essential, at the time of decision-making, or when submitting your request to your Finance Team; the budget will play a major role. In this blog post, we shall examine how eLearning Design has changed significantly over the years and the dependence on complex software is no longer a mandate to create effective eLearning. We shall also look at open source and less expensive tools that can be used to design high-quality eLearning on a shoe-string budget.

Tracing the Transformation of Design in the eLearning Industry

If one looks at solutions designed about 20 years ago, these would be typically PowerPoint templates that would be used as an accompaniment to instructor-led training solutions. Then the CD-ROM based solution became a de facto standard and even technical books began to be accompanied by CDs with relevant content. We began to see Flash-based animation being used extensively in eLearning solutions as the animated video offered a welcome diversion to boring slides. Once access to Internet became more common, we saw the rise of online learning.

The next big shift arrived with the genesis of the smartphone and the growth of social media networks. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube – all these are products that have contributed significantly to the changing behaviors of learners. We have steadily seen research at the University-level that focuses on diminishing attention spans and the faster response to video-based content. As per industry estimates, the mobile learning market is set to be worth $37.60 billion by the end of 2020. These are phenomenal numbers when you look at the eLearning / L&D market as a whole. In the next section, we will examine how authoring tools are helping organizations save on time and effort in creating eLearning.

Rise of the Authoring Tool

For a substantial period, Lectora by Trivantis was the default authoring tool of choice for organizations. Then we saw Adobe Captivate becoming a popular choice as it enabled the creation of complex interactions within the course. Support for screen recording and simulations and the ability to create Augmented & Virtual Reality learning experiences make Adobe Captivate an interesting course authoring tool. But if you look at the industry currently, Articulate Storyline and the more recent Articulate Rise for mobile learning can definitely be listed as the most popular tools used for course authoring by eLearning companies globally. Storyline may need a steep learning curve, but once you are proficient in using it, Storyline works like a charm. A big plus for users of Storyline is its powerful and active online community that supports users and answers queries posted by users. No other organization in the course-authoring business offers such a powerful engaging and beneficial online community like Storyline. Articulate Rise made its debut in 2016 and uses a ‘block’ based approach to eLearning design with a WYSIWYG approach and is powered by pre-built templates, assessments, interactions, and a comprehensive image gallery. As a cloud-based authoring solution, Articulate Rise makes eLearning design simple and effective.

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In recent years, one name that’s made a fair bit of noise is Gomo — a cloud-based authoring tool that allows you to create web-style content. Your courses can be hosted online via the web, or offline using the Gomo app. As a collaborative course-authoring tool, multiple designers can work effortlessly on the same project with precision. Multi-language support, responsive output of eLearning, and the ability to scale easily are some key factors that have contributed to the growth of Gomo.  Other course-authoring tools that have a fair share of users include Elucidat, DominKnow ONE, and Camtasia, which is primarily a screen recording and video editing software.

Open Source eLearning Course Authoring Tools

Here’s a list of open source solutions that can be used for various aspects of eLearning design:

Class Tools – Use this website to create free games, quizzes, activities, and diagrams that you can embed on your website or organization’s intranet.

CourseLab – This is a powerful, yet easy-to-use, e-Learning authoring tool that offers a programming-free WYSIWYG environment for creating high-quality interactive e-Learning content that can be published on the Internet, Learning Management Systems (LMS), CD-ROMs and other devices.

Xerte – The Xerte Project was originally conceived at the University of Nottingham in 2004 to support Flash-based learning solutions within the University. Over time this project evolved, in 2006 an editor was devised to make authoring easier and this was released under a free license.

Quandary – This is an interesting application to design maze-based interactivities in eLearning. Action mazes can be used to foster critical thinking and problem solving.  

Hot Potatoes – Supported by the University of Victoria, the Hot Potatoes suite includes six applications, enabling you to create interactive multiple-choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, crossword, matching/ordering and gap-fill exercises for the World Wide Web. Hot Potatoes is freeware, and you may use it for any purpose or project you like.

CamStudioCamStudio is a desktop screen recorder that allows users to record video and audio on the computer and save it as AVI video files using the in-built SWF producer. This is completely free to use.

Adobe Spark – A Surprisingly Good Alternative

Adobe Spark was launched in May 2016 and has steadily won a fan following among users. Created as an integrated app that facilitates storytelling, Adobe Spark comprises three design apps: Spark Page, Spark Post, and Spark Video. Available both as web and mobile apps, Adobe Spark was declared by Apple to be the Best App on the App Store in 2016. Adobe Spark sits within Adobe’s Creative Cloud framework and the three integrated apps are synchronized with the Adobe Spark web app. Adobe Spark seems to be an excellent choice for creating bite-sized learning content. Organizations working on a tight training budget or individual learning practitioners looking to create eLearning training content can benefit from Adobe Spark. Read our step-by-step guide to creating eLearning using Adobe Spark.

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Average Time and Cost for Designing One Hour of eLearning

A fair bit of research has gone into estimating costs to design an hour of eLearning. We have industry experts like Karl Kapp and Robyn Defelice who have documented their findings on the topic. This report published in 2017 on the Training and Development website still functions as the foundation of the pricing and effort matrix for various eLearning organizations.

A summary of the findings of the 2017 report:

The good folks at Raccoon Gang have published an informative blog post with estimated average pricing details to produce one hour of eLearning content. Their key findings indicate that:

  • 1 hour of online learning content takes 100-160 hours to produce
  • 1 hour of eLearning content costs $7,830-$37,365 ($22,598 on average) to produce (if the job is done by skilled contractors, the costs can be lowered by up to 30%)

You can read their blog post for a detailed analysis.

Although we cannot determine a standard price that all organizations can adopt globally, eLearning design continues to undergo numerous transformations. We are currently witnessing the growing trend of mobile learning apps and learning experience platforms that seek to cut down the costs of hosting and managing expensive learning management systems. Similarly every four or five years will see the adoption of a new solution or platform that will attract learners. A few years ago social learning was a rage. The last year has seen Facebook come under lot of scrutiny for its data collection and psychologists recommending lesser screen time and time on social media channels. So we are quite likely to see the growth and use of solutions that focus just on ‘learning’.

The rise of niche subject matter experts and freelance contractors who offer value for money services is having a positive impact on the industry. Today, such contractors compete to offer high-quality eLearning solutions at a nominal price that no large-scale organization can match in terms of pricing. Organizations are also looking to cut excess flab and long-winded processes to turn agile and focus on high-quality delivery with a quicker turnaround time. Be it switching to cloud-based authoring tools, or having an internal library of stock images, or having a strong internal quality audit system, every organization strives to be better than what it was a year ago and acquire new customers and business.

Steps to Create eLearning on a Shoe-String Budget

In the earlier paragraphs we primarily looked at the various open source solutions available to design eLearning; especially course authoring tools. But there still seems to be a bit of the puzzle that remains unsolved and we will seek to unravel the puzzle in the subsequent paragraphs in terms of how we can design quality eLearning on a shoe-string budget.

Job Task Analysis

“Well begun is half the job done.” This is a popular proverb and holds good for eLearning Design as well. If you can analyze the client requirements comprehensively and prepare a Design Document that breaks the scope of work into chunks/tasks; it simplifies the whole project. This also includes audience analysis as it is important to know who your end-users/learners are before you create the eLearning content.

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Storyboard – The Foundation of your eLearning Program

The storyboard is the basis on which the entire program is built. Focus on ironing out any chinks that you may have at the storyboard level itself. In an ideal scenario, the storyboard should be cleared and approved by the SME or client-contact before eLearning design commences. Instructional Designers should be precise in their instructions to the graphic designers and not ask for the moon and the stars in their animation requirements. Remember that every task has a cost associated with it; so if we are looking at a total budget of ‘X’ for the program, one cannot end up doing work that costs ‘3X’ times the original budget.

Reusing Templates and Visual Assets

See if you can re-use templates and visual assets used earlier. This saves an incredible amount of time and effort in designing learning content. Most organizations maintain a visual assets library of all elements that they have created so far or purchased from licensed vendors. One need not re-invent the wheel to develop eLearning on a budget. It is more to do with thinking smart and keeping it simple. Services like Pexels and UnSplash offer an excellent selection of free-to-use images and videos that can be used to enhance your eLearning. Additionally, some clients have their own visual elements library, which they share with the vendor to help design the program. Check with your client if they can share character designs and templates, you will never know till you ask.

The Mobile Learning Challenge

Today, we are increasingly seeing mobile learning solutions being developed and deployed for workplace learning. Gone are the days of responsive design that ensured that what you created for the desktop and laptop rendered perfectly on the mobile screen. Now we are seeing pure-play, mobile-focused design and tools like Articulate Rise are leading this change with an easy-to-use interface and intuitive design to create mobile learning.

Is AR and VR-enabled eLearning Possible on a Shoe-String Budget?

Well that’s a tough question to answer. Though hardware used to view AR and VR-enabled solutions is becoming more accessible, the technology used to design Mixed Reality solutions is definitely still on the higher side and will not fit into a small budget. Remember AR/VR cannot be a cosmetic addition to your eLearning program, only use it if it genuinely adds value to your learning content. Using AR and VR as a show-stopper or to grab attention is not going to help the learner acquire knowledge. Oculus Rift, Microsoft HoloLens, and Google’s Cardboard are three distinct projects at completely different price-points and all enable a unique AR/VR experience. Till we receive inexpensive software solutions that allow us to design AR/VR learning experiences at an inexpensive price, AR and VR will remain outside the ambit of budget-design.

Intelligent Thinking and Efficient Instructional Design

 Instructional Designers or rather Learning Experience Designers have a wide variety of eLearning Design tools to use. Be it an expensive software product whose license you need to keep renewing or the humble PowerPoint slide-deck that you can convert to a video, or the numerous freeware and open source tools available to perform various functions of an eLearning program, the Internet is a treasure trove of information and tools.

At the heart of it, any good eLearning solution is a mix of – engaging content, striking visuals, and intelligent assessments that reinforce learning. Despite all the solutions available in the market today, if you do not possess strong writing skills or the ability to think like the learner, all the tools in the world are not going to help. Intelligent thinking, creative writing, and intuitive design contribute to the success of an eLearning program.

Final Notes

Create eLearning content that is engaging, intuitive, result-driven and holds the attention of learners and allows them to remember what they learnt. Be it eLearning on a micro-budget or a blockbuster production, think what value can you add for the learner? If you are able to answer this question successfully with your learning solution, it is bound to be a success.

Do share your thoughts on how you would go about creating eLearning solutions on a budget?


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