Whatever you think of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare), you must admit that the recent rollout of the website, healthcare.gov, has been less than stellar. Hopefully, it will be fixed and we’ll learn what went wrong so it won’t happen again. But the damage is done, confidence is low, and the effort needed to rebuild the reliability and reputation of the website will take a long time, a lot of money, and more attention to infrastructure.
We’ve been there too and we’ve suffered for it. The eLearning world is not immune to infrastructure failures and their consequences. Some examples:
- A training group produced a video-intensive eLearning course and the CEO told all 40,000 employees to take it within a week. The result was a complete collapse of the company’s network under the stress of too many simultaneous users and too much bandwidth demand.
- A retail business built an online course that was designed to download to everyone’s desktop overnight. Unfortunately, the company’s network was tasked to transmit data from millions of very small sales transactions every night at the same time. The result was a traffic jam worse than the rush hour on the freeways of Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, DC, combined.
- A virtual classroom initiative at a major corporation got off to a very rocky start when it took more than an hour to connect learners to the course because a lot of locations had different platforms, software, protocols, and restrictions regarding network access. Many users gave up.
Whether you are running a healthcare website for millions or an eLearning course for just a few hundred, failure to pay attention to infrastructure, networking, and other technical issues can result in disaster. eLearning professionals and their management should take note.
Building a complete eLearning technology architecture
A complete eLearning technology architecture is not just the tools and programs you’ve purchased for your work, like authoring tools and learning management systems, because there are many infrastructure issues to consider as well. You must make sure you have all your technology architecture bases covered. This includes, but is not limited to these seven areas:
- Access and connectivity. The first step in getting eLearning out to users is to make sure they can actually get it! Do they have reliable access to the network and to your programs when and where they need it, and with as little inconvenience as possible? Login problems, firewall issues, “page not found,” and other error messages don’t help build confidence with your users.
- Capacity. Does your network have the capacity to efficiently deliver eLearning programs, including rich-media content, to the workforce without degrading other mission-critical applications? If eLearning disrupts access to other business services, you’re in trouble.
- Load and performance. Can your network handle the expected demand generated by lots of learners trying to access the course at the same time? Stress testing for the largest anticipated load on the network is essential; don’t overlook this.
- Bugs. Clearly, you want to purge any bugs that would cause your program to perform poorly or crash. Thorough, methodical testing is key here; some bugs are harder to catch than others.
- Platform compatibility. Does your eLearning program run on all user platforms? Granted, ubiquitous internet and browser technologies have mitigated this issue somewhat, but making sure your content is available on desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other devices, running different operating systems, is still a concern that you must address. Responsive design and decision-making related to Flash vs. HTML5, for example, are keys to success. With the B.Y.O.D. (bring your own device) movement emerging, the challenge may become greater.
- Security. If you are dealing with proprietary or competitive information, you need to make sure that your content does not get into the hands of those not authorized to see it, and that those who are, can pass through system-security checkpoints to get access.
- Transaction tracking. Responding to learner input, administering evaluations, tracking and recording results, confirming registrations, and generating transcripts are some of the many types of transactions critical to a successful eLearning program. If you do not capture, report, archive, and organize these transactions accurately, end-user trust in the system will plummet. Think of it this way: What if Amazon or eBay could not keep track of your purchases?
All of this comes on top of testing your program for usability (navigation, screen design, etc.), content accuracy, and learning effectiveness. Total technology preparedness requires that you:
- Put a strong emphasis on project management. eLearning is no different from any other software development and delivery project; it’s complex, and can easily get away from you. Test your infrastructure, and then test it again.
- Build infrastructure quality assurance and system testing into your plans. Adjust your timelines and reset your milestones to make sure you have all of your technical delivery ducks in a row.
- Partner closely with IT. The days of training and eLearning groups running their own infrastructure are over. IT owns the network, the platforms, and the access; we own the content. Neither can be successful without the full cooperation of the other. IT knows how to test software, platforms, and more, especially on the networks they manage. Listen to them.
- Look forward. The question is not whether your network and infrastructure architecture was able to handle your last program; it’s whether it can handle your next program.
A CLO with extensive eLearning experience once told me, “Content may be king, but infrastructure is God.” True enough. Too bad the folks in Washington, DC didn’t take this to heart with healthcare.gov. Let’s not let this happen to us.
Learn more about eLearning infrastructure strategies, challenges, and opportunities at Ecosystem 2014, a special program co-located with The eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions 2014 conference in Orlando, in March.