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Ensuring E-learning Success: Six Simple Tips for Initiative Leaders
by Frank J. Troha, Ph.D.

 
   
 
   

Leading a major e-learning or blended learning initiative is a relatively new, complex and high-stakes challenge. Success depends on a variety of factors, not the least of which is the project leader's ability to manage threats in the form of miscommunication among key constituents, excessive rework, missed milestones, cost overruns, poor quality deliverables, etc. To help ensure the success of your organization's learning initiatives, consider how you might apply these proven tips:

1.

From design to development to deployment, consider everyone your learning initiative will impact, identify the key players within each constituency and involve them from the very start. The success of your initiative will depend just as much on the input, cooperation and support of various key individuals at various levels in your organization as it will on the work you and your project team members contribute. A recent e-mail from a senior instructional designer illustrates the point: "When we asked our internal subject matter experts to review our work for accuracy of content, they instead ripped it apart from an instructional strategy standpoint and said we'd need to redo everything. They resented our 'springing' a near final product on them. We had been designing and developing in a vacuum. The SME's felt left out and wanted to inflict some pain." He went on to write bruised egos, lengthy delays and other kinds of negative fallout ensued, though all of it could have been easily prevented with a little forethought.

 

2.

Precisely define -- and get agreement on -- roles and responsibilities from the get-go. Too often it is just assumed everyone will be reasonable, play fair, keep their promises and generally look out for the good of the many instead of the self-interests of a few. Rather than gamble on everyone doing what you believe to be the right thing, assume they will do just the opposite if you neglect to take preventive measures now rather than later. For example, the fact that management is willing to fund a major learning initiative does not imply it will later be willing to hold recalcitrant learners accountable for finishing their coursework and applying their learning on the job. Such contingencies need to be anticipated, defined and accepted by all concerned parties up front. Similarly, in the aforementioned case of the senior instructional designer and the subject matter experts, the apparent failure to explicitly define and agree on roles and responsibilities at the start of the project helped lay the groundwork for a turf dispute. The subject matter experts, instead of assessing the accuracy of course content (as is customary), critiqued the course's instructional strategy and insisted it be revamped.

 

3.

Do not bring in e-learning providers until you have clarity and consensus on your target audience's needs, management's expectations, the scope of the initiative, likely constraints (e.g., limited resources), learning objectives, content to be covered, evaluation strategy and a host of other basic design matters. If you and your initiative team members believe you lack the time or expertise to gather such vital information, hire an outside consultant - with no connection to e-learning providers - to do it for you. Similarly, if you and your team lack instructional design skills, hire a competent, independent ID consultant who can help you scope out a preliminary design document (see Figure 1: Main Components of an Instructional Design Document). The rationale for doing so cannot be overstated. Until you -- and all other internal key players -- are at least generally agreed on where you need to end up, where you are now, what resources you have and what resources (from both inside and outside of the organization) you will likely need, you are in no position to intelligently communicate your organization's needs and desires to prospective e-learning providers, much less speak on behalf of your constituents.

 

4.

Carefully select the right provider for the job. Buying e-learning or blended learning services is fraught with challenges. To greatly improve the odds of choosing the most appropriate provider, consider the following guidelines.

  • Develop and confirm precise, comprehensive selection criteria (e.g., past experience addressing similar topics for similar organizations, fee structure, service standards, references, etc.) before meeting with any prospective providers. Without such internally developed and approved criteria, you are likely to wind up comparing apples with oranges. Additionally, unless key internal stakeholders are involved in setting and approving the selection criteria you will use, you may - come hiring time - encounter resistance to the provider you favor.

  • Use the preliminary design document and selection criteria to interview prospective providers. The preliminary design document should enable you to clearly and efficiently communicate what you have in mind to prospective providers as well as respond informatively to any questions they ask you. Further, the document should position you to pose this crucial question: To take our design to the next level, what exactly would you recommend and why? The prepared selection criteria would prompt other important questions, such as: How long would it take your organization to deliver what we need? How much would it cost us? What might cause the price to exceed that figure? What guarantees can you provide in terms of our satisfaction with the quality of your work and client service? Will you prepare - at no cost to us -- a sample unit or lesson, to demonstrate what you would do for us? If you are awarded the project, how do you see us collaborating during design, development and deployment? By virtue of applying the agreed upon preliminary design document and selection criteria, you and everyone else involved in the selection process can compare apples with apples and base your choice of provider on an objective, internally-accepted scorecard.

  • If you are new to e-learning or blended learning, start small. According to Forrester Research (www.forrester.com), only 30% of employees bother to complete an e-learning course. With statistics like that (and others that are equally worrisome), it is not only wise to choose outside help carefully, it is imperative that you limit your initial financial commitment to a small initiative or a portion of a larger one.

5.

From start to finish, keep all key individuals informed and appropriately involved. A successful e-learning or blended learning initiative requires careful project planning, solid instructional design, the development of all instructional components based on an approved design document, ongoing attention to project management issues (e.g., budget, scheduling and communications), various formative evaluations prior to launch, deployment of the learning and ongoing evaluation and maintenance of the entire learning system. With so many activities affecting so many people, you simply cannot afford to neglect ongoing communication with all key players throughout the process. But, doesn't such communication open a Pandora's box of questioning, second-guessing and time consuming follow-up? Ironically, failing to communicate regularly is more likely to delay progress - or much worse. A couple of noses out of joint over being left out of the loop has been known to foment a crisis. Worth noting is the fact that precisely defining and agreeing to roles and responsibilities up front helps to preempt a significant, if not substantial, number of queries later on.

 

6.

Strive for self-sufficiency and control. Though live, instructor-facilitated, face-to-face classroom instruction will not likely be replaced by e-learning, rest assured e-learning is here to stay. As you gain experience with e-learning and blended learning, consider bringing as much of the total effort as practicable in-house. Besides saving money, you will become less dependent on the efforts of outside providers who have much less of a stake than you in the success of your initiatives and their impact on your career. Already some of today's Learning Content Management Systems make updating existing e-courses a snap for anyone who cares to invest a few minutes in learning how to do so. Further, most in-house training personnel are capable of preparing preliminary designs for e-learning and blended learning courses. By virtue of producing a design in-house, the involvement (and cost) of an outside design consultant can be limited to providing feedback on the preliminary design and enhancing its overall effectiveness. (For a free report detailing how to independently produce preliminary designs for e-learning and blended learning courses, send your request to: frank@franktroha.com.)

Perhaps you have personally experienced some of the many threats that can plague major e-learning and blended learning initiatives. If so, I think you would agree upon reflection that all such threats can be successfully prevented or mitigated. Foresight, diligence and know-how, including the application of the six simple tips shared here, are all key to initiative success and well worth your time and effort.

Figure 1: Main Components of an Instructional Design Document

  1. Course Title
  2. Purpose Statement
  3. Audience Description
  4. Duration
  5. Prerequisites (if any)
  6. Learning Objectives
  7. Constraints
  8. Content / Learning Activities Outline (For each item of content to be addressed, indicate how it would be conveyed to audience members and the estimated time required.)
  9. Transfer of Learning Strategy
  10. Evaluation Strategy
  11. Content Sourcing (What We Have vs. What We Need)

Add any other sections that are needed to clearly and comprehensively communicate your design, including all project management documentation.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Frank J. Troha, Ph.D., is an independent corporate learning design consultant, instructional designer and author. He is also adjunct associate professor of instructional design at Fordham University Graduate School of Education, New York City, where he teaches corporate human resource and training professionals. His e-mail address is: frank@franktroha.com . Web: www.franktroha.com .

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2002 by Frank J. Troha. All rights reserved.

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