Designing Sustainable eLearning
eLearning maintenance shouldn’t be a fairytale, but in some organizations it is. We’ve seen too many training teams build customized courses that have to be retired in less than a year due to the lack of budget and support for maintenance. We have also seen teams miss out on creating great online learning experiences for fear of content changes. You can absolutely build effective eLearning that can be updated for accuracy and relevance long after launch by making smart design choices early on. For example, we built the following Human Resources items for a client that have lasted through multiple HR and legal changes. They can be updated quickly, and without breaking the bank.
Benefits Administration Course | For US-based HR admins | English | HTML5
Benefits Orientation Course | For US-based employees | English & Spanish | HTML5
HSA Promos | For US-based employees | English & Spanish | MP4
Based on this project and many previous ones, we have some recommendations for how to achieve sustainability in a cost-effective way.
We will cover each in more detail, but in short here are the recommendations:
Keep the design simple
Be strategic with multimedia use
Use established authoring tools
Maintain your source files
1. Keep the design simple!
It is a truth universally acknowledged that art-directed-to-the-ends-of-the-earth courses are later to market than simple courses. Keep it simple! By using a template or common theme for each item, you can launch courses faster...meaning your learners will have access to critical information earlier.
This doesn’t mean that courses all have to look the same! In fact, in our case, the courses were quite different because the audiences are different. Establishing a template for each item does give you some constraint though. It lessens the number of graphic design decisions that need to be made which both speeds up development and increases consistency through the experience.
When we recommend using a template, we also mean using the template functionality in your tools. Use the color palette master, slide master, and media library functionalities. This makes updates easier.
What, your branding colors just changed, and you need to update the courses ASAP?
Try 10 clicks instead of 500 to update the module. Even with multinational corporations, it happens. (We’ve seen it.) This is a really basic recommendation, but many eLearning developers often neglect to use the available template functionality because they aren’t thinking long term.
2. Be strategic with multi-media usage.
Media costs money, and updating multimedia assets can cost nearly as much money as building them. Be strategic about where you are using things like audio, video, motion graphics, and detailed animation. If you know that something will change often, then put it only in the text. It makes for easier updates. Numbers usually fall into this category.
Prices | Will the cost of different insurance programs fluctuate over time?
Percents | Does the percent of employee matching change yearly?
Rankings | Will the ranking of the different programs change?
Dates | Do the enrollment deadlines change yearly?
These details can still be in your eLearning. In fact, we don’t recommend stripping out all the details. If you have to remove all of the key details to make a course “evergreen,” will the course still meet the objectives and be useful to your learners? You have to look at your project carefully to make decisions around including and excluding content.
So: variable details can still be included in your eLearning, but learners will need to read them instead of listen. (Good thing too, since reading is actually more active than listening.)
Linking to a living resource is also a great option here. In a resource, these details can be updated in real time by the SMEs. Avoid linking out to lots of different places with lots of different details as the only way for learners to get this content, though. That makes for a terrible learning experience.
So if you’re not including everything in the audio, you might have more text. To avoid overwhelming your learners with giant text blocks, you can get creative with interactions for this type of information.
Even if you take out everything you think will change from the audio, you’ll likely still have some audio changes over the life cycle of the course. Here is where it helps to have a long-standing relationship with a professional voiceover artist. (Hear me out on this one! I know it can seem pricier than in-house at first, but it can save over time and really enhance your courses.) If you use an in-house resource, there is no guarantee that the person will still be in your department or company when it’s time to update. This means starting over or splicing in different voices. If they are still in the company, and you don’t have a consistent studio setup, it’s likely the audio won’t be seamless which means more time recording and editing. If the internal resource isn’t trained in editing, it’s likely that someone else will spend time editing the recording, and that could take them away from other project work. When you consider the fact that internal resources don’t have unlimited bandwidth, they aren’t actually free.
Working with a professional voiceover artist means you can request and pay for updates at any time and expect consistent sound quality that will perfectly match your course, meaning you don’t have to re-record whole paragraphs. Many VO artists do have a minimum seat time, and this is where it helps to have the long-term relationship with them. Often you can bundle in your updates to other recordings to avoid a minimum.
When I was an internal designer and worked with vendors, I did run into a snag with this. If I wanted to update a small part of the course, I had to go through the vendor>studio>artist to accomplish this, and it was cost prohibitive. (Side note: we don’t put our clients through this level of hassle and markup.) If you plan to maintain your own modules after a vendor creates them, discuss this with the vendor to find a mutual plan for how you can get audio updates without stress.
In short, updating multimedia objects can get pricey! Look at the ROI including the potential costs of updates when you are selecting how to present your content.
3. Use established authoring tools.
First, let me say we’re all for customizing learning experiences! But, in a situation where you know your courses will need to be updated often and quickly, it’s advisable to use standard eLearning authoring tools that have great customer support.
For one, you can rest assured that as browsers, systems, and devices change, you’ll be able to publish your content in a way that works! (Also, you’ll be able to publish your content, rather than dealing with custom code or having a vendor do it for you every time.)
Using standard eLearning authoring tools also means that if you need to update quickly and need a colleague, freelancer, or vendor to help, you’ll have a larger pool to choose from to get the help you need as quickly as you need it.
New authoring tools are continuously coming to market, but some of the common ones are Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline, Articulate Rise, Techsmith Camtasia, Appitierre Evolve, iSpring, etc. Just make sure you know what files to retain for updates. If you’re going cloud-based, make sure you have an account or an agreement with your vendor to keep the files for you.
4. Maintain your source files.
First, make sure that you have the source files so that you or your vendor can update. Without source files, the time and cost for updates increases astronomically. Not all designers save source files, and frankly, not all vendors provide them. If you plan to make your own updates, make sure that you get all the files you need. Put this in the requirements for the project. If this is something you aren’t familiar with, upskill or get someone to help you determine what files you need to ensure that maintenance is possible.
Second, ensure that the files are up to date. I’m not saying you always have to keep your audio scripts up to date, but please do this if your course has a long shelf life (or you are doing any type of localization). The narration script can live in a document or in the course, just so long as it’s accurate.
If audio is the bulk of your content, your SMEs can use the script document to make edits. This can save you loads of time and reduce back and forth conversations as it allows SMEs to see the entire audio script in one place. They can edit it directly however they see fit, and you can use the find and replace features to help identify if any updates slipped by. (If you want to make larger updates, without updated scripts you may be looking at the additional time and cost of transcription.)
Knowing that maintenance can take time and budget, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of what media and content to include to meet your learning outcomes. Here are a few important considerations before you start making design decisions:
What are your goals?
Who is your audience?
How often and to what extent will the content change?
What is the intended shelf life of the training?
Are there any regulatory requirements for the training?
What is the internal skill set available to support the updates? Or will you need support?
If your content is being updated fully and frequently, and you have the internal skill set to create quick talking-head videos, this might be preferable to a fully-customized eLearning experience, depending on the nature of the content. You can use your LMS or a tool like Camtasia to create assessments for tracking completion, initial knowledge transfer, and recording compliance.
If your content is related to regulatory and compliance, and you have certain dates that updates happen or certain dates that updates need to be made by, then plan for that. If you have a larger pool of designers, you might be able to make things that are more customized. If you don’t have a large staff, but do have regular mandated updates that need to be made within a certain time frame, be sure that the level of complexity of the course matches the resources you have.
If you don’t anticipate updates, and you have a fully-staffed design team, go custom with your graphics, development, interactions, integrations, etc. We fully support it! Just know that maintenance will be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. You know your project goals, audience, content, team bandwidth and skill set, compliance requirements, learner expectations, and project and operations budgets.
If you’re hoping for a long shelf life, please consider maintenance before you build.