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Time for e-learning to be handed back to the trainers?

By Mike Alcock, managing director of e-learning authoring software provider Atlantic Link Ltd

The world of training embraced e-learning enthusiastically in the 1980’s. It offered solutions to the problems of geography, time away from work, and the venue and trainer costs associated with traditional classroom training.

It also offered a much more responsive medium than paper based distance learning. Specialist e-learning companies offered individually tailored courses for companies, crafted by their teams of specialist programmers and containing technical sophistication which soon prevented training specialists who were not also IT specialists any meaningful input into their development.

The Costs of E-learning

E-learning certainly was a boon which greatly increased the ability to provide learning to people in a range of educational and business situations. This opportunity did however come at a cost:

* Development costs – e-learning was always a major cost item with dedicated programming resource being expensive

* Long development lead times – the interactive process between client and suppliers, together with the checking, quality assurance, amendment and live implementation issues, not to mention the actual programming time, would always mean that a project from start to finish would be a lengthy process

* Tailoring content to programming capabilities – the development of e-learning often involved compromising learning objectives in order to meet technical or cost constraints. Because of the technical mystery surrounding e-learning programming clients were often left wondering whether what they were asking for was really impossible or just rather inconvenient for the programmer

* Extra costs/time for amendments and upgrades – the constant source of tension between clients and developers. Requests for changes or extra work would lead to the sucking of teeth beloved of garage mechanics when they have your car on their ramp. Any movement away from the brief would be likely to be expensive

* Commitments to particular technologies – The running environment would very often be determined by the development environment meaning that a high degree of co-ordination of IT resource would be required to ensure that the resultant e-learning product could be widely utilised within a company over a reasonable period of time

Companies came to accept the compromises that e-learning forced upon them, recognising that there were things they would like to do better but because of the high level of technical know-how that authoring e-learning required they accepted that they had to bow to a certain level of IT tyranny.

However, advances in personal and web computing have accelerated over time. The technological changes that are affecting everyday computer use in homes and offices are having a significant impact in the authoring of e-learning courses and it is time for training professionals to reassess whether any level of IT tyranny is now necessary in delivering e-learning.

Technological Developments Driving Change in e-learning

Many developments are changing the face of information technology and in the process changing the way that e-learning is delivered. The key changes that affect e-learning are:

Ever cheaper, quicker and more powerful hardware:

The reducing cost of remote web space together with the increasing speed and penetration of broadband connections, combined with more powerful client machines in the offices of ordinary users, allows non-programmers to interface with collaborative development projects in ways which were unthinkable just a few years ago

Universal acceptance of some common office software technologies:

While some sections of the IT world may disagree, the truth is that Windows based software is now pretty well universal in the business world which allows some pieces of software such as MS Office (in particular Word and PowerPoint), pdfs, Internet Explorer and Flash animations to be familiar to virtually all general office computer users. Combine these technologies with the capability to collaborate on web projects via server side technology environments, in particular the use of Microsoft .NET technologies, and the way e-learning projects are put together must change.

Improved User interfaces:

Software automation is allowing tasks such as writing flash animations, which were once the preserve of programmers, to be undertaken by non specialists. Graphical user interfaces have improved beyond all recognition allowing users simply to point and click to create content just the way they want it to look.

These technological developments are being built into authoring tools and there is a growing realisation among those commissioning e-learning that the factors which used to make authoring the preserve of IT experts no longer apply.

Features of Good Authoring Tools

The time has come for HR professionals to assess whether these technology advances are now placing them in the position where training professionals can drive the e-learning agenda using e-learning authoring tools that are flexible and “non-specialist friendly.”

The features that now allow authoring tools to be used by the typical IT literate trainer include:

1. Ease of use

Authoring tools will have easy to manage Graphical User Interfaces which allow users to manipulate e-learning screens easily and intuitively. This will allow them to add to and edit existing courses and, if they wish, to author entirely new courses from scratch.

Tools will be expected to have easy interactivity with common software, particularly Microsoft office products. Automated output engines (Flash etc…) will allow sophisticated effects and solutions without programming knowledge.

Speed of development will be a key feature enabling sophisticated learning courses to be available rapidly and be amended quickly and easily. User licensing will be simple and not restrictive giving companies internal flexibility to develop courses as they desire.

2. Collaborative Development Environment

Remote authoring will be the norm– particularly server side using ‘smart’ Windows clients which will allow all users to see amendments as they are made, so changes and additions can be easily facilitated. Remote manipulation through browser only interfaces will allow unrestricted collaboration with colleagues across the globe. Workflow based development and multi-stage publishing will allow rapid implementation of ongoing projects.

3. Quality features

Integrated Learning Management Systems will ensure that learning can be fully monitored while easy and effective screen and audio capture will ensure that learning environments replicate real environments with absolute accuracy. Mode switching between self learning and classroom delivery will ensure that the learning tool is flexible to meet training needs.

The e-learning industry now has to accept that software is now sufficiently flexible for non IT specialists to produce e-learning remarkably easily.

Implications for e-learning

At Atlantic Link we like to believe that our authoring products are ahead of the field but there are certainly other user friendly authoring tools available which mean that specialist e-learning companies are no longer selling IT solutions to clients but are selling training solutions.

Users, consultants and e-learning providers will all have access to software which allows them to easily create sophisticated e-learning. The user friendliness and the flexibility of the software is such that it will be the excellence of the training solution which professionals will be selling in the future. If users think they could have produced something better themselves the software is available for them to do so, and they might cut out the e-learning specialist entirely. Knowing the software available, users will expect rapid development times and will certainly expect that they will be able make continuing amendments and refinements themselves to a core offering supplied by an e-learning company.

Atlantic Link foresees that a major change will be in the way that e-learning development is managed. Server side remote authoring combined with browser only interfaces allows unprecedented collaboration in development and companies will be able to utilise the skills of trainers across the globe in collaborating in the production of e-learning, making 'live' changes to the product as they discuss together. Similarly buyers still commissioning e-learning from third parties will expect to be able to see their products under development and work with the developers making changes and additions as the project progresses.

Training professionals will in future dictate the content of e-learning packages and the IT technician’s role will be increasingly peripheral. Once those commissioning e-learning understand the power of the software tools now available, e-learning will certainly be delivered back into the hands of professional trainers.

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© 2005 Atlantic Link Ltd. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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