Delivering Quality eLearning Projects On Time and Under Budget

Oct 2011
Issue 20

by Kathy Dressel

We have a new client today who wants to create a self-study course that provides an overview of the company’s procurement processes. This is part of an on-boarding program, and we can expect new hires to take the course within the first week of their employment. The client wants to keep the course to about 2 hours in length and, while there are some broadly defined goals for the learning, the project needs to start with creating the specific learning objectives and determining what topics need to be covered. The procurement director is assigned as a subject matter expert (SME), and the course must be finished in time for employees coming through the next hiring cycle, which begins in 2 months.

You’re assigned as the project manager. You think “Great! I’ve got all the main details, the resources, the timeline – it’ll be a slam dunk.” What could possibly go wrong?

An eLearning project has many of the same potential pitfalls as a traditional learning project. Things like poorly defined learning objectives, inadequate understanding of the audience, use of improper training methods, miscommunication or lack of cooperation among team members … all of these conditions can result in costly mistakes. In the world of eLearning, however, the mistakes can become greatly magnified because in most cases the costs of eLearning development are considerably higher than traditional classroom learning.

The good news is that, regardless of the type of learning project it is, most of these pitfalls can be mitigated through proper project management.

Let’s take a look at just three areas that often lead to budget overruns, missed deadlines, and unhappy sponsors if not managed appropriately.

  1. Lack of understanding of the learner’s technical environment
  2. Lack of a clear articulation of learning design (and an “e” educated sponsor)
  3. Lack of a defined eLearning design and development process (and unclear roles, responsibilities and expectations of the team)

1. The learner’s technical environment

One of the biggest differences between traditional learning and eLearning is that in a traditional learning arrangement the instructor can make (or break) the learner’s experience, whereas with an eLearning product you have little control over what the user does with the product or the environment in which the learner takes the self-study course once it’s been released. The end product must stand on its own and rely exclusively on the content and the design that surrounds it in order to create an effective learning experience.

To alleviate this pitfall, the entire team needs to have a full understanding of the technical environment into which the final product is being deployed. Before you begin your design you need to have a number of questions answered, including:

  • What type of computers will the self-study need to run on?
  • Will everyone have the same desktop?
  • What browsers and browser versions will we be dealing with?
  • Does the product need to run on mobile devices? Which ones?
  • Does the product need to be downloadable or will there always be an internet connection?
  • What type of internet connection will learners have?

There are checklists available that outline the questions that must be answered before an eLearning design can be completed. (Contact Kathy Dressel for examples of checklists.)

The technical environment not only touches the design of the course but also impacts how certain things are developed as well as how extensive the testing plan must be. The eLearning project manager can help to eliminate post-deployment issues by ensuring all the right questions are asked before design begins and to keep the learner’s technical environment top of mind in all design, development, and testing discussions.

2. Articulation of learning design (and an “e” educated sponsor)

That little “e” brings a whole new set of issues into the design phase of an eLearning development project. While the impact that technology plays in each phase of the project will vary, a lack of knowledge in how things translate when using certain technologies can cause huge problems when designing a course.

To be successful at designing eLearning you must have an understanding of the learning technologies available and how each technology can enable (or hinder) the learning. Key people on the team who understand the impact of choices must guide those that are not as knowledgeable. For example, a sponsor or SME may not understand the difference between a low complexity self-study course (e.g., a “page-turner”) and a higher complexity self-study program (e.g., electronic simulation). If they’ve experienced a simulation-based self-study program but the project budget or timeline only supports a page-turner, the road will only be paved with disappointment, and there will be an unhappy sponsor in the end if the expectations are not understood and addressed. A good eLearning project manager will ensure that those with the knowledge and expertise work with the sponsor, SME, and any other under-informed stakeholder to educate them on the different eLearning possibilities. This task of education continues throughout the entire project.

3. Clarity of eLearning design and development process

When managing an eLearning engagement the project manager needs to have an understanding not only of the learning design and development process, but also of the process by which software is designed and developed. While many companies follow the ADDIE model for designing learning (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation), the process an eLearning project manager should follow for creating a self-study is a blend of the ADDIE model plus some additional phases and activities from a traditional software development process. These additional tasks and steps are built in specifically to address the design, development, and testing of the technology.

The eLearning project manager should first create a draft project plan. Once the project leader has customized the tasks and steps for the specific learning technologies being used; defined the dependencies (critical path) and the project timeline; and determined what skill sets will be required to complete the project, the manager should then work through the draft plan with each team member to validate responsibilities, listen to concerns, and obtain buy-in. This step ensures that all team members have a clear understanding of the details of the process, their specific responsibilities, and the time required of them. The project manager also gains a clear understanding of each team member’s expectations and concerns.

Once the project plan, roles, responsibilities and team member expectations have been defined, a critical step early in an eLearning project is to articulate to the entire team at once the design and development process that will be followed and the associated timeline. It is also important for every team member to hear a clear delineation of the roles, responsibilities, and expectations of each member of the team. While many sometimes feel that this is drudgery, a good eLearning project manager always makes it a focus at the kick-off meeting.

In short, the keys to delivering an eLearning project on time and under budget – that also results in effective learning – has little to do with technology. Rather, it has more to do with process and communication. Define the project well, set expectations appropriately, manage all aspects of the work, and there will be more competent employees … and a happy sponsor.
For more information, please contact Kathy Dressel.

Next month

Five Keys to Implementing World-Class Training Programs

Most companies strive to have and many claim to have “world-class” training programs. Exceptional design of such programs is only half of the battle. Delivery of exceptional programs involves planning for their implementation as well as some critical program management steps to ensure program success. We will share five keys areas to focus on when getting ready to implement your world-class training program.