This month I delivered a special workshop on lean eLearning. The preparation brought to mind my first epiphany about lean eLearning back in the early 2000s, when I was working on the first draft of my first book, eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring. Even then I had already seen way too many “over-solutions”—usually in the form of far more content than the problem required—and solutions intended to be a one-size-fits-all training answer for employees who were in vastly different jobs for which one size of training most decidedly didn’t fit all.

The epiphany: Waste

The example I was working with involved the terminal performance objective, “learner will differentiate heart sounds.” The answer: a screen with clickable links to different, labeled audio clips of heart sounds available free online. Could learners perform after reviewing the sounds? Yes, provided we didn’t ask them to deal with too many at once, and we gave them ample opportunities to review. Were stakeholders happy with the solution? Of course not.

Apart from what seemed to be a general distrust of anything so simple, things quickly fell into the common sins of waste: over-production, over-processing, and waiting.

Although listening to heart sounds is a purely auditory task, for heaven’s sake, we needed visuals. We needed graphics. We needed an accompanying printed workbook. We needed more interactivity. We needed a cartoon avatar, or animated hearts, or whatever else would delay the project four months and add $50k to what otherwise was a free solution. Again: the learner could achieve the performance with what was essentially a zero-cost, 10-minute-to-build solution.

I’d used “heartbeats” as an example in workshops for a couple of years, and found immense satisfaction in 2006 when ran a piece about growing concerns that doctors, losing the ability to listen to heart sounds, were ordering expensive diagnostic tests when good stethoscope skills would do. The solution? Having physicians learn by listening to heart sounds on iPods. So there!

Making lean eLearning

That first book on inexpensive eLearning is now nearly 10 years old and woefully out of date. The first couple of years after publication the industry evolved as new eLearning-course tools and simple communication technologies came into popular use: this new authoring tool, that new discussion board format, etc. Then things began to evolve in other ways. Social tools offered vast new opportunities for student collaboration. Web 2.0 technologies like YouTube and blogging products put creating content and publishing to the web into the hands of Everyman, not just IT and programmers and people with access to servers and expensive photo-editing software.

Lately I’ve seen examples of lean solutions that were the perfect answer to a performance problem. There are things like Snapguide-created job aids, collaborative Pinterest boards, and six-second Vine videos. I’ve seen skilful repurposing of the YouTube comments section go from endless empty responses to lengthy meaningful conversation about a video scenario. A participant at an eLearning Guild DevLearn DemoFest showcased a great example of using voiceover with still images to create an online simulation quickly, without the cost of video production. And just yesterday I went looking through the library of Articulate-member-created videos in search of a solution for a colleague.

So consider: What brings the most value? What gets you the performance you need in the least amount of time at the lowest cost, without taking people away from work for longer than necessary, and without piles of paper manuals printed, shipped, and never used?

Lean today: Resources for low-cost eLearning design

So what are some lean solutions in 2014?

  • Classics, like the Mecklenburg County Public Library-designed 23 Things, that used a blog to deliver a whole, fun course based on the premise: If they need to learn to use tech, how can we have them use the tech while learning about the tech?
  • Snapguide, a delightfully straightforward tool, tutorial built-in, for creating concise job aids with user-generated images.
  • Pinterest, a visual-bookmarking tool allowing quick aggregation from web and user images.
    • Better: items allow for comment, and boards can be collaborative.
    • Think: board offering a virtual tour of an employee’s first day at work.
  • Screenr videos for the Articulate community, with end users sharing their quick solutions of use to others.
  • Apps, not courses: “Apps for the Army.” This one is decidedly not “cheap,” but consider how many other, wasteful, solutions, they could have developed.
  • Embedding.
  • Using still images and voiceover instead of video.
  • A six-second Vine video showing how to tie a knot.
  • Using the YouTube comments section for actual conversation, not mindless commentary.
  • My favorite lean solution: Go Google, “Soldier reading book to child via Skype.”

Still interested in resources for low-cost eLearning design? Tracy Parish is building a wonderfully complete mindmap of tools, grouped by uses. Go contribute.

And go Google! That, folks, is a solution.

So what are your suggestions for or examples of lean solutions?