1. Choosing the right Learning Management System
Choosing the right Learning Management System for your e-Learning program can be a daunting task with the dozens of systems with varying functionalities to choose from. To simply things a little, in selecting the right LMS, generally, you can either choose a proprietary system backed by a corporate entity or an open-source system system backed by a volunteer community of developers.
While there are many reasons to choose either format, broadly speaking the benefits of using a proprietary system are centered around the fact that you’re paying for a service and part of that service is receiving support from the experts on that system (they are the experts because they built it). So when you choose a proprietary LMS system you usually receive updates, patches, training, system support, troubleshooting and of course hosting and installation of the platform.
As for the downsides of using a proprietary system, the most obvious factor is cost. Proprietary systems often carry significant licensing fees and have hosting and support fees that mirror these higher costs. Secondly, with few exceptions, the vast majority of proprietary systems are closed source meaning that the code for the system is not disclosed. The result of this is simply a loss of complete customization freedom and control.
For example, customization for the system becomes much more difficult without backend and core code access which essentially makes your organization dependent on the provider to decide what customizations it is willing to permit and at what additional cost.
To touch on open source systems, the chief benefits are the powerful customization possibilities and opportunity to significantly reduce costs (open-source systems don’t charge licensing fees). So for those new to e-Learning, open-source systems present a great opportunity to launch an e-Learning program with lower up-front investment. Also, for organizations that already have experience with implementing an e-Learning program, migrating to a open-source system from a closed proprietary system can help them reduce costs and customize their e-learning offering.
But using open-source systems are not without their challenges either. The biggest drawback of open-source systems is the lack of support. By their nature, although “free” to use, open-source systems offer no warranties or direct support from the developer. This means that for organizations looking to implement such a system they would have to install, customize, maintain, host and configure the system internally. This is a significant challenge for many organizations, as a significant number may not have the internal technical skills needed to undertake such a project.
However, there are many e-Learning service firms that specialize in providing all the support needed for hosting, maintaining and managing a e-Learning system and can do so at a cost usually much lower than the equivalent services from a proprietary vendor. Our company Scholarix is one such company that offers these services.
Here at Scholarix we’re technology neutral and are proficient with working with practically any LMS but when asked, the systems that we recommend are Moodle and Canvas LMS from the open-source family. As for proprietary systems, we may recommend perhaps Saba, Desire2Learn, or Blackboard depending on their specific e-learning goals.
Ultimately though, when choosing the right LMS for your institution you need to see which LMS makes sense for your organization.
Many clients are leaning towards Canvas LMS and Moodle to cut costs when it comes to licensing fees. However, as previously mentioned, when choosing an LMS like Canvas LMS or Moodle, you need to either depend on the community and your internal team to keep everything running smoothly or perhaps seek out a professional e-learning service company to service and deliver your solution.
If you choose a licensed model like Desire2Learn or Blackboard you will surely receive the support needed when things go wrong but these services come with a hefty price tag.
2. Deciding between hosting your LMS in-house or through an e-Learning services partner
Regardless of if you’re choosing a proprietary system or an Open-source system one important consideration is hosting.
Simply put, if you host in-house you generally have more direct control of your LMS. This means you can move it and upgrade it anytime in accordance with your usage levels and growth needs with necessarily asking someone else to do it. Hosting in-house also gives you (whether real or imaginary is up for debate) a sense of “security” in knowing that your data is held internally.
Hosting in-house does have its own set of unique challenges however. Firstly, in-house hosting could be quite expensive as you will need knowledgeable IT personnel on staff that understand the LMS system and are able to install, configure, update, back-up data, and proactively troubleshoot it when things go wrong (because trust us, from time to time they will). Now of course the exception to this is if your organization has existing IT systems and is completely confident that your current IT staff can implement and maintain such a system. In this case, you may be able to actually achieve higher cost efficiencies as you already have the personnel in place and wouldn’t necessarily be adding additional costs.
But for the majority of organizations who don’t fall into that category, hosting your LMS with an e-learning service provider is a cheaper and more hassle free option as they already have IT personal on staff with specialized skills needed to implement, maintain, and monitor your LMS 24/7/365. Also many providers have exhaustive IT security measures, have data integrity policies, and sign non-disclosure agreements that help mitigate any leaks of sensitive information.
Another important consideration to remember is that if you host your LMS in-house, you also have to take into account costs associated with hardware upgrades and replacing obsolete server equipment when you need to expand your infrastructure. Conversely, hosting with a service provider enables you to scale and upgrade your hosting at a margin of the fixed costs.
Lastly, what about power outages? If you host in-house you have to remember that power outages can take your LMS offline. Reliable hosting partners utilize specially built data centers with power generators that kick in as a contingency plan when power failures occur. To touch on a specific event, we remember a while back working in the e-Learning industry when a large University’s server and entire LMS system went down and for a whole day thousands of students could not access their courses and learning content (this was during exam period to make matters worse). The cause of the problem in this situation was that the server needed a replacement part that was in the process of being shipped. Eventually they managed to get the system back up and running after two days when the part arrived. But this is just an example of the unexpected issues you may have to deal with if you choose to host in-house.
To summarize, if you’re confident that your organization has the internal capabilities to handle implementing and maintaining an LMS system, then definitely this is the best option. But if you’re organization doesn’t have this expertise and would like to focus on solely educating your personnel without the IT headaches, then using a service provider is the way to go.
3. Developing Your Custom Online Courses
So perhaps you’ve chosen an LMS system and decided if you’re hosting in-house or through a partner. The obvious next step then is to build an actual course within the system.
So much like everything else in e-Learning, in building an online course, there are really two options you can consider. The first is to build your course in-house and the second is to acquire the services of a professional online course development firm.
If you choose to build your course in-house there are a few ways you can achieve this. The first is to use the various simple built-in content creation tools present within many LMS systems. If you’re content creators are knowledgeable enough with your chosen system to use these tools they will be able to create simple courses by doing things such as attaching document and presentation files, copying and pasting content from other sources, perhaps inserting some image and video links, and creating simple quizzes and tests.
So for independent professionals that want to create e-Learning for a group of people they teach (such as a high-school teacher for example) this is a low-cost approach that they could take to build something basic but functional.
But the drawbacks of this method are generally two-fold. Firstly, to be frank, courses built in this manner are not very engaging, don’t create really any excitement for the learner, aren’t laid out in an intuitive manner, and often fail to stimulate any real learning. They’re basically just a collection of content gathered from other sources in a way that loosely resembles a course.
The reason for these deficiencies is that the course doesn’t have any instructional design expertise applied to the course in order to make sure that every module developed meets the overall course learning objectives along with the individual module objectives. Instructional design application also takes into account the audience for your course and essentially creates a blueprint for the course that outlines the content in meaningful and effective ways.
Finally, a qualified instructional designer will be able to consider the various pedagogical factors and suggest various multi-media and interactive components that will enrich the learning experience and ensure that the learning objectives are achieved in an engaging and interesting manner.
One final potential negative of authoring in-house is the general lack of programming and design expertise the people creating the course generally have. Expert e-learning design firms utilize the latest design and programming techniques in creating custom developed content that is as effective as it is visually appealing. The specialists at these firms have varying job roles and together use specialized e-learning tools to create custom interactive games, scenario simulations, implement video and audio features, create customized graphics, and more to name a few capabilities. All these translate into making a course that looks amazing, is highly engaging, and functions intuitively.
The second do it yourself option is to use the many third-party authoring tools available in the market.
Authoring tools are a good choice for organizations or content creators who have good design and computer proficiency. Before we go any further though we just want to stress that with authoring tools, the end product you arrive at is only as good as your expertise with using the tool.
But that’s not to say that a complete beginner who is moderately tech-savvy couldn’t create a course using an authoring tool.
For example authoring tools can be good if you need to convert or create your content quickly from existing materials. In this case, many authoring tools will allow you to take an existing PowerPoint presentation you have and convert it into a SCORM or Web-package that can be then inserted into your LMS system (if supported). Generally, the tools will also allow you to add additional components such as audio and simple quizzes and for more advanced users, even moving and animating components and conditional activities can be created.
So for beginner users with a moderate level of computer proficiency, authoring tools may be good for creating simple courses which would be labeled as Level I courses, where the content is not highly interactive and uses somewhat of a click-and-read type of setup.
But if your organization has actual instructional designers and e-Learning developers on staff, then authoring tools could definitely help them create highly engaging courses that would be considered level 2 or level 3 courses.
A quick definition of the general e-Learning development levels are listed below:
Level 1 – Content pages, text, graphics, perhaps simple audio, perhaps simple video, test questions. NOTE: PowerPoint-to-eLearning often falls into this category. Basically pages with assessment.
Level 2 – Level 1 plus 25% (or more) interactive exercises (allowing learners to perform virtual “try it” exercises), liberal use of multimedia (audio, video, animations)
Level 3 – Highly interactive, possibly simulation or serious game based, use of avatars, custom interactions, award winning caliber courseware
(Ref: Bryan Chapman – A Chapman Alliance, Research Study
Its important to note here that in order to build a true Level 2 or Level 3 course, you have to involve proper instructional design and a Subject Matter Expert in order to maximize the actual educational effectiveness of the components being delivered.
So we have to recognize that authoring tools, while effective if used as part of a larger process, are not a complete course development solution as they don’t “automatically” conduct the critical instructional design components needed to create a truly effective learning experience.
Lastly, as a quick disclaimer, when using an authoring tool you have to keep in mind the content you author automatically still has to be verified and tested by person to ensure that the content that was generated functions as intended.
Commercial authoring tools can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $2,500 dollars with additional usage fee’s based on how many e-Learning courses you author with them. Other authoring tools are free such as CourseLab (http://www.courselab.com/)
To be honest, authoring tools were primarily popular back in the 90′s when LMS’s did not have many advanced course building tools built in. As LMS systems progressed the need for these tools have started fading progressively.
Ultimately though, the decision to hire a development firm or build your course in-house depends on a few key factors namely, the quality of the course you want to deliver, your internal development skills, and your organization’s budget for e-learning.
4. Making Your Course More Engaging and Interactive
One critical factor in making courses more engaging and interactive is to include a “pull” based design.
Simply put, what this means is rather than creating courses where the learners click and read what’s on the screen (“pushing” content to them) you design courses there the learner has an opportunity to explore and have content presented to them based on their choices (hence “pulling” the content)
Expertly designed content in this vein will allow users to formulate their own solutions and ideas and then test it within the course. Another important reason for making a more exploratory than linear course is to allow users to focus on the content that they need to learn and skip the content they feel is not relevant to them.
This is much more immersive and makes the learning experience more personalized thereby increasing the probability that the learner will one, be more engaged in what they’re learning and two, retain the information they’ve learned.
Of course all of this would be pointless if the content isn’t RELEVANT to the learner to begin with. What this means is that making a course very interactive and engaging with content that is not relevant to the needs of the learner simply is not very effective and defeats the whole purpose of interactivity. Interactive content needs to feature content that balances both interests of the learner and what is important to your organization.
Also, contrary to popular belief, making course interactive doesn’t have to always feature flash games or complex computer based modules and simulations. Another way to engage learners is to simply give them a problem and let them solve it using real life scenarios where they need do tasks that are completely out of the LMS and come back and report their findings in the system. For example, for an entrepreneurial course, learners may have to go out and talk to a small business owner in their community and ask them a specific set of questions. Once completed, they could then form a discussion board within the LMS with other students where everyone would be encouraged to discuss and share their individual findings.
Similarly, web and software based tools outside of the LMS system can be integrated that will require the learner to import media or other creative components they’ve made back into the LMS.
If you’d like to learn more about this type of integration, we recently wrote an article how you can use tools outside of the LMS to make courses more interactive. You can check it out here.
One final brief point on interactivity is that its important to find the right balance between graphical, interactive, media, and text components to ensure that your course appeals to all learning styles.
A qualified instructional designer will be able to assist your organization with choosing the right types and amount of interactive components needed to make sure your course resonates with the needs of your audience and your learning objectives.
5. Determining the Cost of Your e-Learning Program
For many clients, implementing an e-Learning program for the first time seems very ambiguous and confusing when it comes to costs.
However, the majority of technical e-Learning costs can be broken down into two areas, LMS setup and hosting and custom course development.
Commercial LMS pricing is pretty straightforward as these vendors usually have this information readily available at your request. These options generally cost significantly more than the implementation of their open-source counterparts but make no mistake, open-source doesn’t exactly mean free of costs.
So we mentioned the various LMS options above and noted that many LMS systems come with an open-source license like Canvas LMS, Sakai or Moodle to name a few.
However, although these systems are “free” to download with no associated direct licensing or usage costs, there are still many costs that will need to be incurred in order to practically use these systems.
For example, potentially there are costs associated with installing, configuring, hosting, maintaining and servicing these systems as none of these services are provided freely by the developers of these systems.
There are also other costs incurred such as support costs. Part of the free software disclaimer is that, essentially, the developers owe you absolutely no guarantees and are not responsible for anything that happens with you using their software as you didn’t pay anything for it.
So what this means is that, when things go wrong, as explained above, you will have to either support these systems in-house with your internal experts or hire an expert e-Learning firm to do this on your behalf.
But all things being equal, going the open-source route with a strong internal team or by partnering with a professional e-Learning services company can result in significant cost savings over commercial systems if done correctly.
The second pricing component is course development.
When it comes to course development, it is generally accepted that there are loosely speaking, three levels of courses as described above in point 3.
So in relation to this, the following screenshot references a study done by industry expert Brian Champman and explains how many hours it takes on average to develop one hour of e-Learning content:
The first row focuses on Instructor-led training followed by Level 1, 2, 3 e-learning. Here we see that instructor based e-learning generally takes less time to develop than independent e-learning courses because presumably if there is someone to help instruct and answer questions then the course itself doesn’t have to necessarily cover all the material itself hence reducing the complexity or number of developed components.
The next image from the same study depicts the average cost of these respective development levels:
Now while these prices are a pretty accurate reflection of the costs you could incur with quality e-Learning production, if you’re new to e-Learning, you are probably wondering what exactly is “the average project” and how do I know where my project falls in respect to these “levels”
Well the truth of the matter is there is no easy way to get a 100% accurate answer because the vast majority of e-Learning implementations are custom built in nature. What this means is that because the courses your organization wants to build are very likely to be completely different from the courses another organization would build, this fully customized nature tailored to your individual needs results in costs that vary greatly.
So while there is no one-shoe-fits all solution for effective e-learning, (we’re not talking about off-the-shelf general education courses about common topics like workplace ethics or safety) we’re going to try and clear up exactly what comprises the cost of an e-Learning program and what the individual components are.
The image we’ve created below easily explains how e-Learning costing works for custom course development.
Basically, in general the more you require of each of the listed components the higher the quality of your course and the more it will cost. Conversely the less of each the lower the quality and the lower cost.
Explaining what each of these components are and how they all work together in building your course is a bit beyond the scope of this article but if you’re interested in learning more we invite you to contact us directly.
It is also important to understand that, depending on how you’re administering your e-Learning program, there could be other costs you may need to include in your e-Learning budget.
For example, ingratiating a payment gateway, self-enrolment system, or some other existing legacy system your organization uses with your e-Learning system could cost thousands of dollars depending on the complexity of the integration.
These types of integrations are very common in the higher education e-Learning sector and for organizations looking to maximize the amount of automation in their program thereby saving significantly on human administration costs
While there are literally dozens of possible common examples, one other example of factors that could influence costs is the number of subject matter experts that are involved in your organization who are working with the course’s instructional designer. Simply put, the more SME’s you involve in the project, the more people an instructional designer will have to talk too and satisfy. This can result in additional instructional design time as “too many chefs in the kitchen” can create a less than efficient workflow. So it is best practice to assign the 1 or 2 SMEs that are most knowledgeable within a content area and then periodically include a larger panel of people with various roles in your organization to provide feedback but only at critical milestones.
Ultimately, while developing an e-Learning program can involve significant initial costs, like many other technological investments, you start to reap the benefits quickly as time goes on. And once the you have the foundation for e-Learning in place, you will start to see a very quick ROI for subsequent courses as your learner base grows and you become more efficient and delivering your e-Learning offering.
If you would like you can learn more about the specific benefits of e-Learning on our blog
Hopefully you now have a much better understanding of what is involved in launching an e-Learning program and what you’re budget should be relative to the kind of e-Learning experience you want to create for your learners.
To learn more about the components that go into building a successful e-Learning program head over to our e-Learning overview page on our website.
Or if you would like some genuine insights on your particular e-learning situation or have a question regarding anything discussed above, feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Scholarix E-Learning Solutions is an expert, full service provider of premier online learning services and solutions specializing in aiding organizations in a variety of industries and of all sizes launch successful online programs.
Our guiding vision is to form committed partnerships that empower forward thinking organizations with the ability to effectively educate their learners.