For years, it seems that everyone in our field has been looking for ways to produce eLearning on a shoestring. In fact, my debut as a voice in the L&D industry came with publication of my first book, eLearning Solutions on a Shoestring, back in 2005. (Note: DO NOT buy a copy! It’s still available here and there and is woefully out of date. Feel free to buy any of my other books, though…) While so many great new inexpensive tools, open-source resources, creative design techniques, and friendlier pricing models have emerged, a few things seem to remain constant.

Not understanding the reality of development

“But if we buy the magic Gee-Whiz Acme eLearning Generatorizer, our courses will be interactive and engaging!” I’ve said this many times, but great eLearning is about thoughtful design more than it is about software: You can’t push a Kia into a carwash and expect it to come out a Lexus. In the right hands a great authoring tool can certainly help, but just throwing an expensive tool at inexperienced or untrained designers isn’t going to get you a better product.

Not knowing what you already have

Years ago, Ina Fried of CNET News reported: “In user testing, Microsoft found that nine out of every 10 features that customers wanted to see added to Office products were already in the program.” And here, in 2017, I still get the occasional call from people who will, for instance, want to buy a tool because it will “let them add narration to PowerPoint.” I’ve seen shops where staff already have access to product X and a manager decides everyone must have product Y without realizing it replicates half the features already offered by product X. I often see duplication of licenses for similar clip art or character galleries and template libraries.

The tech that will “change training forever”

In my career, I’ve seen everything from video discs to smart boards to AR and VR touted as the thing that is going to solve all our problems. Pay attention and invest wisely, but be careful. A training colleague, formerly a middle-school teacher, tells this story: In the late 1970s the school’s principal returned from a conference enamored of a new technology called the “VRC.” (That is not a typo. He thought it was “VRC,” not “VCR.”) At the next faculty meeting, the principal announced that the VRC was the “wave of the future” that would “change classroom instruction forever.” He then said he’d spent more than half of the next year’s budget on beta video cameras and other equipment. His plan: to tape his teachers delivering their “best lessons” (fractions, geography, and so forth), which middle-school students would then be eager to watch at their leisure. The result: unwatched videos, wasted time, and the loss of half the annual budget.

Cart before the horse

A real recent email: “I want to buy this library of online courses. Do you have any assessment tools I can use to show management why we need it?”

Other missteps:

  • The large company that estimated first-year eLearning course usage at 30,000 people and purchased licenses accordingly. Actual first-year usage: 2,000.
  • The agency that bought a product, unaware that running it would require the purchase of another product.
  • The school that bought an authoring program so complex that no one could ever figure it out.
  • The training unit that purchased an LMS that didn’t fit with any of the organization’s other data systems.
  • The Midwestern state government system with such poor internal communication that at one point 40 different agencies had negotiated 40 different contracts—with the same eLearning vendor.
  • The organization that spent half its eLearning budget on expensive game-creation software: Only one person can run it, and employees are already sick of being “gameshowed.”

So what?

While we’ve come a long way at helping those working on limited budgets, we still see lots of areas for savings—which can free up funds for more savvy buying. Sometimes it’s making sure staff have the training and skills they need to use products well. Sometimes it means finding a way to inventory existing resources. In nearly all cases it’s a matter of getting better educated, or helping those above us become better educated, about options. Be careful of the real costs that can come from having lack of strategy, lack of research, and wrong decisionmakers.

Want more?

Interested in learning more about tools for creating eLearning on a shoestring? Check out Tracy Parish’s great compilation of resources.