Producing Effective and Engaging eLearning on a Shoestring Budget

converse-fieldsYour day is off to a rough start. You just got out of a meeting with your manager who informed you that the eLearning budget was cut in half. Then, you got back to your desk to find the sales team supervisor waiting for you. He just found out that his team needs to be trained on a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool. He really liked the web-based training (WBT) courses you developed for him before, and he knows you can deliver again.

You start to panic. How can you continue to produce eLearning that is effective and engaging at half the cost? eLearning on a shoestring budget is a tall task for sure, but not insurmountable. The key is to approach the task with an open mind. Are there alternatives you haven’t considered? Is there content that can be removed? Do you have existing training that can be reused? Your answers will drive you to success, but first you need to make sure you are asking the right questions.

Alternatives to Traditional WBT Courses

A well-designed WBT course presents your content like an interactive story, where the learners are engaged in the process. Unfortunately, WBT is often used as a one-size-fits-all format when less expensive and equally effective alternatives exist. As Greg Kearsley points out, “Indeed, e-Learning doesn’t have to take the form of courses at all. A great deal of online learning takes place informally via search engines, e-mail, blogs, and newsletters. You can harness these resources for training activities.”

Don’t just assume you must develop a WBT course in order to meet your learners’ needs. Another format may work as well or better than a WBT. So, before selecting a format, ask yourself some basic, but often overlooked questions:

  • What knowledge or skill must your learners take away for the eLearning to be successful?
  • Do your learners work in an environment with any technical or logistical limitations?
  • In what ways can the content be presented to achieve the desired outcome?

For example, you know that several members of the sales team work in your office. This means they have regular access to a laptop or workstation, making most eLearning formats acceptable. Your instincts might tell you to create a WBT course to instruct the learners how to use the CRM software, but couldn’t a set of video simulations or job aids be as effective?

At the same time, other sales team members are constantly traveling to customer sites. Since they spend most of their time on the road, asking them to return to the office to take a WBT course inconveniences them. How about posting the learning content through your company’s mobile app, so they can review it when it’s best for them?

Besides logistics, establish what your learners must gain from your content and determine which learning formats are available. Then ask pointed questions about what must be included in the eLearning design:

Questions to Ask If “Yes,” Consider These Cheaper Alternatives
Is the training job function specific? Job aids, simulations
Can score recording and tracking be excluded? Email or web distribution without using an LMS
Can I harness existing software instead of purchasing new or going to the Web? PowerPoint presentations, Word documents
Can the training be presented in non-linear fashion while leveraging community input? Social media, discussion forums

 

Share the answers with your team and discuss the alternatives available. If you are the sole designer, think about your strengths and the resources available. When you are working within a tight budget, it is not the time to experiment or go too far outside your comfort zone. Focus on finding efficiencies and simplifying development.

Content Creation: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

Once you’ve decided on an eLearning format, look to streamline the development process. The “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra doesn’t only apply to plastic bottles and cans, it applies to eLearning also. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you develop eLearning—it’s too expensive for too little return. Here are some tips to reduce your content, reuse artifacts already available to you, and recycle content previously created:

Reduce:

  1. Start reducing and eliminating what’s unnecessary, prioritize your content based on the greatest need, and identify business critical items and rank them. Your goal should be to teach that which improves the business’ performance. If your intent is to teach how to capture data in the CRM, don’t dedicate time and resources to describing background methodology on how the CRM software was designed. Chances are, the learners do not need to know the history of the software to use it, and they probably don’t care.
  2. Simplify the material to include only what the learners need to know to perform their jobs. In other words, eliminate content that is extraneous and not derived from your learning objectives. Doing this has the dual benefit of keeping development costs down, and also keeping down the learners’ time commitment, which also saves costs. If you reduce cost and still deliver effective eLearning now, you have placed a higher value on future training.
  3. Keep customization of graphics, animations, and games to a minimum (or exclude customization altogether). This is a difficult sacrifice to make, but often, visual items that give the wow factor for your eLearning are the most expensive to create and add little to knowledge retention. In fact, eye-popping graphics can distract your learners from more important content. For each artifact, ask yourself if it adds value and if it can be replaced by a faster, cheaper alternative and remain effective.

Reuse:

  1. You don’t need the latest, cutting-edge software to create effective eLearning. Often, you already have access to programs that can be used to create eLearning, even if you haven’t considered them as options before. If you need a tool other than what you already have, look for cheap or free options. Most of the mainstream programs offer free trials, which is effective for one-and-done type of training. If you decide purchasing a new software tool is necessary, be sure to purchase one that excels at content reuse. Jill Parman suggests using rapid development tools as they “become even more useful when you must develop several similar courses for a functional area–because they can leverage reuse of templates and design elements.”
  2. Consider everyone’s needs when trying to keep down cost. For SMEs doing reviews, provide the content in a form (such as PowerPoint) that is easy for them to modify, that they have access to, and they are comfortable using. In addition, provide feedback guidelines or a checklist covering what you expect to receive from the reviewer. This can save you from lengthy email chains of Q&A and multiple reviews, which otherwise contribute to cost.
  3. Reuse existing design templates and graphics. Make modest tweaks to provide a fresh, more custom look (if necessary) to designs that were used before. If you decide to create new WBTs, reuse existing exercises and games from other WBTs in your catalog. Make only necessary modifications to align with your content, and avoid deep customization. Remember, the goal is to deliver effective training at low cost. If certain interactive elements were successful in previous courses, they should be reused.

Recycle:

  1. Link to existing materials covering the same topic. If you are training how to enter data into the CRM software, someone else probably already developed eLearning materials for the system. Even if you can’t reuse entire documents, you can recycle parts of them – examples, use cases, user experiences. Why rewrite entire step-by-step processes when someone else already did?
  2. You don’t have the funds to spend precious hours brainstorming layout designs, then follow up with acceptance testing. Quickly find something you like and go with it. As Tom Kuhlmann suggests, “Just go out and find a site you like.  Use that for inspiration.  And then apply your organization’s brand and colors to the design.”

One of the greatest strengths of eLearning is that it’s flexible. There’s no hard regimen that must be followed to achieve success. When you’re asked to create effective and engaging eLearning for cheap, don’t panic. You have options. If you use a little creativity and focus on simplicity, you likely already have all the resources you need to deliver.

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Chris Denman

Chris is an independent business education and management consultant. He worked his way through the ranks of IT consulting as a training developer, technical architect, team leader, and service delivery manager. His professional interests include the integration of process modeling and training, interactive learning, and change management. Outside of work, he is often seen sporting tech shirts, chasing his kids around the soccer field, and watching American Ninja Warrior. You can find him on Linkedin and follow him on Twitter.

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