When recovery efforts began in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Red Cross workers were overwhelmed with volunteers from all over the country willing to pitch in and help. Jennifer Neibert, who was a senior consultant and one of only two people in the Red Cross online learning department at the time, was given the monumental task of making sure every one of the thousands of volunteers received introductory training to prepare them for their assignments before they shipped out.
"We needed to get a lot of information out as quickly as possible," she says of the job.
In the past, volunteers would be expected to go to local Red Cross centers to complete instructor-led courses, but Neibert’s manager had recently bought a copy of Lectora, a rapid e-learning authoring tool from Trivantis. Neibert had just completed the Lectora training, but had never built a course—until that week. She immediately set to work building her first online learning content.
"The storm happened on Sunday," she says, "and I had a course online by Thursday."
The course was a Red Cross deployment orientation with custom modules for all of the volunteer regions. Each region had roughly 15 pages of content covering such issues as what volunteers should pack, what they could expect when they arrived on site, who their contact people would be, where they would sleep and what security strategies were in place.
"It gave the volunteers an overall idea of what to expect when they got there," she says.
When volunteers signed up at the Web site, they were immediately directed to the course.
It was basic content with few bells and whistles, she admits, but it got the information out to people quickly and effectively when it was most needed. "People were excited about taking the training online," she says. "It was more flexible and they could do it when they wanted."
The course modules also included links to related news sites, region-specific volunteer updates and information broadcasts from the Red Cross, which Neibert updated twice daily. "We wanted to be sure volunteers had the latest information and we saw this course as the best way to do that," she says.
Neibert, who has since left the Red Cross and now is manager of clinical research, professional development and training for the Aeras Global Tuberculosis Vaccine Foundation, went on to build seven more full-length courses over the next eight months with Lectora. They were far more sophisticated, and included narration and video, with links to the organization’s learning management system. "With each course, the growing pains eased and we got better at it," she says.
Times have changed
Ten years ago, designing such an e-learning solution in-house would be unheard of. The authoring tools then were so complex that to even consider the idea, a training department staff would have to include programmers, graphic designers, instructional designers and Flash developers, all of whom would dedicate months to a single development project.
Not so today. Advances in authoring technology and simplification of the development process have made Neibert’s story a common one. Even the smallest training teams now can develop rich e-learning content using rapid e-learning tools in a matter of days or weeks. "Rapid e-learning" is the buzz term for any e-learning content that can be developed quickly and inexpensively.
"One of the biggest barriers to developing e-learning used to be writing the code that was necessary in order to gain interactivity," says Ben Contra, executive vice president for Trivantis. "That barrier has been eliminated because today’s tools write code automatically" and provide the interactivity that makes e-learning engaging.
Most current authoring tools have the technical infrastructure built directly into the tool, freeing designers to focus on content and graphics, without having to worry about programming the course. That means much smaller teams can develop content for a fraction of the price of outsourcing, and because the content is programmed automatically, they can cut months from the development process.
"Course designers today now have the power to do things that they used to have to hire professional developers to do," says Paul Schneider, product manager for Geolearning, a provider of e-learning delivery platforms in Denver. "It’s all about ease of use."
However, that doesn’t mean anyone can build a great course, cautions Dr. Rob Blankenship, an emergency physician in Akron, Ohio, and president of EMSono, an emergency ultrasound education Web site. "Whether you pay a vendor $100,000 or build something with a $100 tool, a course has to have strong instructional design to be of value," he says. "The price tag doesn’t matter; it’s how you put the course together that counts."
Blankenship started building courses for emergency ultrasound training after getting frustrated by the classroom experience. "No matter how dynamic a teacher is, people only remember about 20 percent of what they learn in a classroom."
Instead, he and his partner launched EMSono. Using Articulate, a rapid e-learning tool, along with more advanced tools including Flash and Maya, a 3-D graphics tool, they have built a collection of training courses for emergency personnel on how to do emergency ultrasounds. The courses include tests, narration and 3-D cross sections of patients to teach spatial anatomy to trainees.
"The beauty of rapid e-learning tools like Articulate is that you can use complex graphic design tools to build content, then drop those elements right into your course framework," Blankenship says. "No matter what other tool we use, we can make it work with Articulate."
Most rapid authoring tools also seamlessly incorporate features such as search tools, bookmarking, file attachment options and user data-tracking that can be linked to corporate learning management systems—all without additional programming.
But Blankenship is quick to point out that his instructional-design background and 11 years of experience teaching emergency physicians is one of the most important tools he brings to the design process. "You’ve got to start with instructional design to be successful because no software tool can fix bad content."
Finding the balance
Blankenship also notes that even the most sophisticated in-house e-learning developer may not want to develop every course that’s used. He outsources larger courses that cover a significant portion of material to a third-party content designer rather than spending the time designing it himself.
Neibert’s team at the Red Cross made the same decision. "For global courses with larger user audiences and more complex content, we made the decision to outsource," she says.
Most in-house developers agree that working with an expert, at least at the beginning, can help ease the transition to in-house authoring. That may mean having a developer build a course template that an in-house team can reuse, adapt or copy—or outsourcing courses that have a longer turnaround time, bigger budget, or more complex and stable content.
"Deciding whether to outsource or develop in-house depends on the situation," Neibert says. "Look at your internal resources, your time and your goals, then make a decision that best meets all of your needs."
Choosing a tool
When an organization does choose to do e-learning in-house, it shouldn’t dive into it without doing some homework, Blankenship says. "A lot of people just pick up the most expensive tool, assuming it’s the best, then they try to make a course without applying good instructional design methods," he says. "When they aren’t successful, they assume rapid e-learning doesn’t work and they hire a developer to design the course."
Before buying any tool, he urges potential developers to spend a week doing some research. "Look at Web sites and blogs on instructional design to get ideas on what’s good to do and what not to do in an instructional design piece," he says. He suggests starting with Tom Kuhlmann’s blog on how to develop rapid e-learning:
Once there’s a sense of what is involved in authoring a course, organizations should focus on the course’s goals, Schneider says. "You have to tie training development to specific performance goals or it won’t have value," he says.
Only when an organization has a clear sense of what can be done with the tools, and what the educational expectations are, should it start looking at specific tools. At that point, Blankenship suggests downloading demos from several tool sites and spending some time working with them to figure out which one best suits the need.
"At that point, all you’ve spent is some of your time and you’ll have a much better understanding of what you can accomplish," he says. "Then when you spend money on the right tool, you are much more likely to roll out a high-quality piece of training."