I’ve worked in government my whole career and learned long ago that if I was to do anything, it would always be on a tight budget. Based on my work experiences, in 2003 I wrote my master’s thesis about, and then in 2005 published a book titled, eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring. As we all moved from products like Authorware to PowerPoint and other slide-based tools, I wrote Better Than Bullet Points, now in its second edition. (Editor’s note: If you buy this book used, be sure that what you are buying is the second edition. We have heard that some vendors are selling and shipping the first edition. The link above will take you to the correct listing on Amazon.)

So, when The eLearning Guild approached me about presenting at a recent Spotlight session citing the breadth of my work over the years, it gave me a nice chance to revisit some of the things from way back. And I found that, while tools have come and gone, with possibilities beyond what I could even imagine, some things really haven’t changed.

Don’t overdesign

One of the reasons we ever got interested in eLearning was its promise of just-in-time training. Alas, over the years for many of us, development of even simple products has become anything but that. I have seen people struggle with design elements like decorative art, interactions like complicated games that are really just tarted-up multiple-choice questions, and creating and running video when a still photo would do. Be careful of working too long to create a perfect, elegant product instead of a quicker working solution. And keep your eye on the job-performance ball: The punchline to one of my favorite “eLearning on a shoestring” stories is that Duke Medical School, upon finding that physicians had become so dependent on technology that they could no longer just use stethoscopes, did some retraining via simple audio files deployed on iPods.

Remember: For most things, good eLearning is about design, not software

What makes eLearning boring? The same things that make classroom training boring: Someone reading content. Too much extraneous content. Content not relevant to the worker. No opportunities to think and engage with content.

One way to make it less boring: Show that you are attending to the learner’s reality. My husband, who is sometimes pulled to help at the front sales counter at his job, tells the story of a mandatory customer service video. It was clearly an expensive, polished product with high-end production value—that offered completely unrealistic scenarios. It was obvious the designer knew nothing about the worker’s daily experience. (Big tip-off: The customers in the video always had exact change.) A lower-end product with more credible content could have provided a better learning experience.

Always ask: Is there another way?

I’ve written before about the problem of trainers who complain that learners want to be spoon-fed but won’t let them hold the spoon. Look at how you can design to get learners thinking rather than letting content just wash over them. And realize this may not take complex interactions. See “Let the Learners Hold the Spoon” to see how simple changes to a single slide can move the learning experience from content-pushing to knowledge-pulling.

Remember: Content is abundant

This is a quote from our friend Thiagi, who reminds us that every time we set out to work on new “content,” the odds are it already exists. Learn to use what’s out there. Online quiz? Ask for permission to adapt and use it. YouTube video? Assign people to watch it and comment either on the video itself, or back on your discussion board, or on your SharePoint blog. Lots of text-based material? Turn it into a learning game. Spend some time looking around for inspiration. Google things related to the topic you’re working on. Try “Mine safety eLearning” or “Online course mine safety” or “mine safety training preview.” Odds are someone has found an unusually interesting take on that. Keep up with the weekly Articulate eLearning Heroes Challenges. If you can get to some live conferences, The eLearning Guild’s events set aside an evening for attendees to present examples of their work. Next up is DemoFest at Learning Solutions in March. And once you’ve seen something you like, ask: “How’d they do that? Can I do that? Can I do it with next-to-no money?”

Those of you who’ve been around a while, think back to what we wanted eLearning to be

Quick, easy to access, just-in-time, just-for-me, in bites both palatable and useful for workers. Get back to those roots, and you’ll find working on a shoestring doesn’t have to mean creating inferior products.

Editor’s note

Be sure to catch Jane at Learning Solutions 2017 Conference & Expo, March 22 – 24 in Orlando, Florida. Her session, New Ideas for Using Social Tools in Learning, is at 10:45 am on Thursday, March 23. It's a hands-on session, so bring your own laptop (BYOL).