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E-Learning Strategy: A Framework for Success


An IT department recently asked me to develop an e-learning course about one of its applications. One of my first steps was to contact the training manager of that organization and ask her what type of course would fit into her e-learning strategy. “What do you mean by e-learning strategy,” I heard on the other end of the phone. I started to explain, but found that what she really wanted to know was, “Why do I need an e-learning strategy?”

 

Why have an e-learning strategy?

 

 

The reason why you need an e-learning strategy is to define the goals for your e-learning program and then logically explain how you will prove that the goals have been met.

As we talked, I realized that this manager was under the impression that her learning management system was her e-learning strategy. Several years ago, Brandon Hall said that an “LMS is the lynch-pin of an e-learning strategy.” According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a lynch-pin is “a locking pin inserted in the end of a shaft …to prevent a wheel from slipping off.” The key word in this definition is end.

 

An LMS is a means to an end, not the end in and of itself. The “end” that we speak of is the goal(s) that you plan to achieve by installing the LMS. A learning management system is simply a way managing the activities and results that prove that the goals have been achieved. Meanwhile, the reason why you need an e-learning strategy is to define the goals for your e-learning program and then logically explain how you will prove that the goals have been met.

 

Setting goals for your e-learning program

 

The primary component of an e-learning strategy is a set of goals or objectives that need to be achieved with e-learning. There are several steps involved in generating a cohesive and comprehensive set of goals. The list of goals is generated using the following methods:

 

Conduct a needs assessment. A strategic needs assessment looks at the target audiences’ characteristics and needs. For this step, you would use standard needs assessment processes and questions, but you will need to pay special attention to items that will make or break an e-learning program. These items include

 

    • attitudes about computer-based education
    • motivation factors around getting trained
    • hardware and software on typical computer platforms
    • experience levels with computers
    • Internet connectivity and cost of that connectivity. 

Review training team readiness. The next step in determining your strategic goals is to determine your team’s readiness to develop and deploy e-learning. In many cases, a lack of readiness may be the most difficult hurdle that you’ll need to overcome. You’ll need to assess your team’s readiness both individually and collectively, and I recommend doing this in a combination of one-on-one and team meetings. Be sure to do the following:

    • review e-learning solutions from suppliers, partners, or competitors
    • attend free webinars from e-learning suppliers
    • pass out articles on e-learning that are applicable to your environment
    • discuss skills needed to deploy e-learning, including content development, course authoring, graphic design, technology administration, and virtual instruction
    • assess your team’s interest in developing e-learning skills and making a shift in how training goals are accomplished.

Following this process will tell you what skill gaps you will need to fill to have a successful program. 

 

Obtain management direction. Management direction and buy-in for an e-learning strategy comes in two forms: top-down and bottom-up.

    • Top-down: If your management team is asking you to establish an e-learning program, then schedule a discussion to talk about why they want this type of program what they want it to accomplish. Ask them if there is a program that they would like you to use as a model and why they like that program.
    • Bottom-up: If your management team is unaware of what an e-learning program can do for them, then you will need to show them programs like the one you're proposing and discuss with them how this might fit in with the organization’s strategic direction.  

Integrate management’s comments into the goals for your e-learning program. During meetings with your management team, make sure that they buy into the idea that your organization needs an e-learning program. Also ensure whether they understand that there will be some investment requirements, but that you believe that long-term the investments will pay off.

 

Now, you’re ready to draft the e-learning program’s goals. Ultimately, the goals of your program need to demonstrate the value of your e-learning program to your organization. For example, goals may include statements about revenue generation, cost savings, customer retention, or market penetration.

 

Elements of an e-learning strategy

 

Once you have a solid set of goals derived from all aspects of the organization, it’s time to start formulating your e-learning strategy. The elements of an e-learning strategy are technology, content, administration and support, communication, and financial analysis.

 

 

Technology

 

In general, there are two types of e-learning technologies used for delivering learning content: synchronous and asynchronous.

 

The elements of an e-learning strategy are

Technology

Content

Administration and Support

Communication

Financial analysis.

Synchronous technologies involve real-time interaction between a facilitator and  participants. Synchronous technologies are like a broadcast with a time and a “channel” (web URL) for tuning in, and include webcasts, webinars, and chats. They can be recorded for replay, and the recordings would be considered asynchronous.

 

Asynchronous technologies involve having the learner control the time, place, and even the content that they view. Asynchronous technologies include web-based training courses and searchable databases, such as learning or knowledge portals, testing tools, and help systems.

 

And, yes, there is the LMS. Both asynchronous and synchronous learning programs can be managed by a learning management system; however, many learning management systems currently focus on one type of e-learning or the other. Often the synchronous or asynchronous tool that you choose may include an LMS as an add-on cost.

 

Also, synchronous and asynchronous technologies can be blended together to form blended solutions. Or they can be blended with classroom instruction to form another type of blended solution.

 

To determine the technology component of your e-learning strategy is a complex decision involving educational as well as technological factors. It's a good idea to involve your IT department in this process. If you plan to run your e-learning system internally, they may be the ones to run it and you want to make sure that you solicit their advice and get their buy-in on the tool that you choose. Over the years, I’ve seen IT department make and break e-learning programs. If you expect their participation and cooperation, be sure to make them your partner in the technology decision process.

 

To assist in the educational decisions, I’d recommend making a matrix like the one below to help you with a directional decision. For each requirement, think about whether an asynchronous or synchronous model would be a better solution. Remember that these two solutions are not exclusive, but can be blended together to form a comprehensive e-learning program.



Table 1: E-Learning Requirements Matrix

Requirement Asynchronous Synchronous

Learners need high levels of guidance

 

X

Low learning motivation levels

 

X

High Internet connectivity costs

X

 

Shift work, difficult to schedule training

X

 

Limited computer experience

 

X

Content involving interpersonal skills

 

X

Etc.

   

 

Your e-learning strategy should make a statement about the technology that has been chosen to deliver the training, why that technology was chosen, and how that technology will help to achieve your e-learning goals. You also should include costs and time to implement the technology. And you must balance the cost statements by showing how the end results save money or generate revenue to cover the costs over a period of time.

 

Content

 

Content can come in multiple forms and from many different sources. In this section of the strategy, you need to define your content development and/or acquisition processes. This section of your strategy document needs answer the following questions:

  • What content will you buy vs. build yourself?
  • How you will prioritize and determine which e-learning courses get developed?
  • Where are the sources of your content, such as subject matter experts (SMEs), existing courses and/or printed publications?
  • At a high level, what processes will you use to take each type of source material and develop it into an interactive course? Your technology decision will greatly influence the authoring tools that your team uses to create courses. There may be several different processes depending upon the tools you choose, your audience’s needs and existing source materials.
  • What are the roles and responsibilities of the team members. For example, will the SMEs develop and narrate a set of PowerPoint slides? Will you have an instructional designer work with a course author to develop an interactive simulation? Will you have a virtual instructor modify classroom materials for delivery in a virtual classroom? Will a project manager be assigned to each course to breakdown and assign the tasks to appropriate team members and contractors? These are a few of the virtually unlimited options for course development. You may choose several methods or a combination of methods to achieve your timelines and quality standards. 

Your development processes should include methods for evaluating your success, including surveys and assessments. These evaluations should drive a feedback loop, so that you can continually improve your e-learning program.

 

 

Part of your e-learning strategy is to determine how you will assign, track, manage, support and report on your training course usage.  

Administration and support  

 

Stop for a moment and consider that you may now be running your training course simultaneously around the world on various computer configurations. When someone wants to take a course, they need to receive a user ID and password. When someone can’t get into a course, someone needs to help that person troubleshoot their access problem. When learners have questions about content, they need to feel that they receive adequate answers. Part of your e-learning strategy is to determine how you will assign, track, manage, support, and report on your training course usage.  

 

This part of the strategy may include the following types of requirements:

 

  • a learning system administrator who has strong administrative skills and solid computer skills. He or she may assign user IDs and passwords, load courses into the LMS, review learner progress and send reminder emails, and generate learning usage and progress reports.
  • an e-learning technical support specialist who has strong technology and problem-solving skills, as well as understands the LMS and the course development technologies. He or she may answer calls and emails from learners. Sometimes your technology vendors will provide this support function as part of their contract, or they may act as second level support, picking-up the problems that your support specialist can’t support. The bottom line is that technical support for your learners needs to be included in the discussions with potential technology vendors. 

If you work in a smaller organization you may have one person performing all of these administration and support functions, as well as developing and delivering courses. Your strategy needs to make sure that these functions are assigned to existing or new personnel. Their workload and effectiveness needs to be monitored regularly to ensure that you continue to satisfy your learners.

 

Communication

 

Once you have your courses online, you will want many learners to take them. Guess what? This doesn’t happen simply because you decided to put the courses online. There are two factors to consider when communicating your e-learning strategy to your learners: change management and marketing communications.

 

Taking education online, instead of in a classroom, is a change for many people. And in general, most people don’t like change. Therefore, you need to have a strategy to convert your learners to online training. Your strategy needs to include a way for them to try e-learning, at little or no risk to themselves. It must include some personal interaction to encourage and educate them about how to be an online learner. It also needs to include a way for them to vent their likes and dislikes and for you to address these issues from their point of view. And your strategy might include a benefit or promotion for their successful completion of a course.

 

In addition, you may have the best e-learning courses in the world, but if no one knows about them or understands why they are the best, you won’t succeed. So, you’re e-learning strategy needs to include a way to get the word out to your potential learners that these courses are available and would be of benefit to them. I’ve seen this done a variety of ways, from roadshows to tabletop displays and email blasts to colorful brochures. Your marketing department can be a great resource during this process.

 

Financial analysis

 

The return-on-investment will be the most important factor in determining whether your e-learning program receives the investment it needs to succeed and grow. Your financial analysis should include

 

  • costs for technology, authoring tools, course development, support, and administration
  • suggested course prices should be multiplied by expected purchases to provide revenue expectations on a quarterly basis
  • calculations for how long it will take for you to break-even and the yearly return on investment after you’ve recovered your costs. 

Your accounting department should be able to help you by telling you how expenses and revenues are amortized in your organization, and they can provide advice about how to calculate and explain your numbers.

 

The financial analysis combined with the evaluation process should provide a method for you to use to evaluate whether the e-learning program is meeting its goals over the coming years. 

 

Final word of advice

 

The purpose of this article is to give you a framework, or outline, for your e-learning strategy. As you write your own strategy, I recommend that you further research decision factors for each strategy element or hire a professional e-learning consultant to guide you through these business critical decisions. By ensuring that your strategy has all of these elements, you will be well on your way to implementing a successful, high quality, and profitable e-learning program for your organization.

 

Published: August 2005

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