To be sure, even though e-learning is having a major impact on corporate education, many believe it has never lived up to its promise. Enter rapid e-learning.
Rapid e-learning is a hot topic among many workplace learning and development practitioners. In a study of Fortune 500 companies conducted by Larstan Business Reports, 85 percent said they planned to expand the role of e-learning. More important, over 80 percent of respondents said that rapid e-learning strategies would make a significant contribution to the training initiatives in their companies.
Traditional development methods involve using subject matter experts (SMEs) to pass on information to the instructional designer who, in turn, designs the solution. A developer then builds the interactive solution based on this design, and the quality assurance team tests the solution against the design and test plan. This waterfall approach can lead to long and costly design and development cycles, which can reduce the effectiveness of material with critical timelines or content that is constantly changing.
According to some estimates, the cost for traditional e-learning solutions can range between US$10,000 and $50,000 per hour of e-learning—a cost that may be prohibitive to many clients. This is the niche that rapid e-learning (REL) is hastily filling. REL is particularly well suited for training material that has critical development timelines, goes out of date quickly, changes frequently, or may not be substantive enough to have previously been considered for an e-learning training solution.
The definition of rapid e-learning differs among experts, but generally it’s considered to be e-learning that can be developed quickly and inexpensively. REL uses tools and processes that decrease development time dramatically. Traditional courseware development timelines are measured in terms of months whereas REL timelines are measured in terms of days and weeks. This makes it an attractive solution for many companies.
Tools to develop REL
As the popularity of REL grows, the number of development tools increases. Tools on the market include Macromedia Breeze, Articulate, Lersus, SNAP! Studio, Content Point, Webex, and mindflash. These tools leverage common business tools and automate applications to accelerate and simplify the development process. This also means that editing and updating content can be done quickly and painlessly.
For example, consider Macromedia Breeze. Originally called Express Trainer, Macromedia bought the product from Presedia and re-named it Breeze. Similar to Articulate and many other REL tools, Breeze uses PowerPoint as its main development tool. In addition, Breeze also offers the benefit of easily adding an audio track to the courseware. Using a standard computer microphone, the developer can add the audio component while sitting at their desk, saving the time and cost of traditional audio recording sessions and manipulation. Other features of Breeze and Articulate include assessment and tracking tools and are AICC- and SCORM-compliant. By publishing out to Flash, the courseware is presented to the learner in a user-friendly medium that is available on 98 percent of all browsers. Breeze also uses XML tags, which enables content to be indexed and fully searchable.
In addition to using tools to help shorten the duration of development time, some advocates of REL also propose a change to the design process. Currently, some companies using REL have SMEs develop the content and work directly with REL tools to design the courseware. This process can work very well for content management. Updating sales staff on new features and developments, or critical information transfers that must be done quickly, are two examples where using both the REL design process and tools are beneficial. In situations where the integrity of the instructional design is critical, there may be a considerable trade-off in using the SME to design the learning solution—unless the SME is trained in courseware design.
There are three possible solutions to this problem. With the traditional approach, you may have the SME work directly with the instructional designer. Using this approach, no time is saved in the design phase, and only the development time benefits by using REL tools. The second option is to have the SME initially develop the content slides but have an instructional designer modify the content based on ISD requirements. The final option, which is currently being used by many organizations, is to have instructional designers carefully create templates that will guide the SME through the design phase.
Still, some traditional courseware designers may argue that having the SME develop the content, even in conjunction with an instructional designer, will compromise the courseware. Unfortunately, the alternative is that courseware may not be developed at all.
Another concern for traditional courseware designers is the lack of a programmer component to the solution. By having the person who knows the content develop the content quickly and easily, the time for development decreases dramatically, as does the time for quality assurance. Ask any programmer what the actual content of a course was and you will generally receive a blank look. The argument: If the designer is actually developing the courseware, there will generally be fewer errors because there are fewer people involved. While it is true that programmers are generally not required for REL, this will give them more time to concentrate on high-end solutions that require their skills.
The prototype development process is another situation where REL tools can add enormous value. Typically, the prototype phase can be a very costly and frustrating phase of development because the client needs to approve the design specification before implementation. Unfortunately, many clients are uncertain of their requirements at the beginning of the design process and continue to ask for changes to the prototype in the early phases. This leads to a costly and time-consuming iterative cycle in which developers must continually tweak the prototype code.
Non-developers fail to appreciate the time that is required for changes that may seem innocuous. In hundreds of line of code, changes and regressive testing can become lengthy. Also, because of the length of design development time, truly functional prototypes are rare. Many companies put together prototypes that merely depict a few screens and have minimal functionality. Aside from being costly and risky, a fully functional prototype that has been developed using traditional methods typically is completed late in the design cycle.
By using REL tools, a true prototype that represents an actual vertical slice of the courseware early in the design cycle is possible. By being able to develop this quickly and inexpensively, courseware designers/developers can get feedback not only from the sponsor, but also from representatives of the end-user group. This allows the feedback on the design, language and metaphors from the end-users, to be integrated into the design cycle early in the process when it is most useful and least expensive to make changes.
Putting REL to work
It’ important to keep in mind that the tools and technology used in e-learning need to be appropriate to the instructional objectives of the courseware. As the instructional objectives become more complex, typically the complexity and the cost of development also increase.
REL is most useful for low- to mid-range levels of e-learning complexity in which knowledge and comprehension is key. It’s typically considered less effective to use REL for high-end solutions in which evaluation and synthesis are critical. However, many REL tools have the capacity to embed more engaging and rich media for projects that may need a blended solution. This easy interoperability increases the versatility of the product. By blending REL with other forms of training, it may be considered part of a valid e-learning solution in a wide range of situations.
In traditional courseware development, long design and development cycles that lead to higher costs have usually precluded content that has a short shelf-life, content that needs to be developed quickly, or content that isn’t substantial enough to merit the time and cost of traditional e-learning. Institutions with limited budgets have also foregone e-learning as a means of workplace development. But by developing content quickly and cheaply with very little risk, REL processes and tools allow e-learning to be an effective alternative in situations where previously it wasn’t considered feasible. As it continues to grow in popularity, REL processes and tools will continue to evolve, making it an even more attractive option for many e-learning solutions.
Published: January 2005