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. It was based on my experience of several years spent working to introduce eLearning, with no money at all, to a state government workforce. It’s great that so many great new inexpensive tools, open source resources, creative design techniques, and friendlier pricing models have emerged since. But a few things from those early days seem to remain constant.

Here’s an overview of some lessons I took away from that experience. I’m looking forward to sharing details in April during the upcoming eLearning Guild's "L&D On a Shoestring" Online Conference. (Editor's note: Read about the conference at the end of this article.)

It’s about design, not software

“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 software: You can’t push a Kia into a car wash 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 2020, 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—or worse, that everything already created in product x will have to be rebuilt.

The tech that will “change training forever”

In my career I’ve seen everything from video discs to smart boards to now AR or VR touted as the thing that is going to solve all L&D’s 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 was 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 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 government 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 funds up for more savvy buying. Sometimes it’s making sure staff has 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 decision-makers.

Inexpensive eLearning: The human factor

One thing that has become clear in my years working with crafting good eLearning solutions on a shoestring budget: The person matters as much as the technology, the tools, and the assets. People who are successful with this tend to be technology lovers, persistent explorers, and tenacious experimenters. We showcased three of them, all with different work situations and needs, in our 2018 research report eLearning on a Shoestring. You can also meet one of the people profiled, Tracy Parish (inexpensive resource curator extraordinaire), at the "L&D on a Shoestring" Online Conference. Don't miss it!

From the editor: Here are the details

Jane Bozarth will give you even more cost-saving ideas about producing eLearning April 22 in her session at the "L&D on a Shoestring" Online Conference, Nuts and Bolts of eLearning on a Budget. You'll learn about:

  • Making the “buy vs. build” decision
  • Identifying inexpensive means of adding interactivity and visual interest
  • Making better use of tools and resources, including those you already have
  • Breaking down examples of online training programs into essential parts and identifying ways of cutting costs to produce similar products
  • Leveraging social and collaboration tools to extend learning beyond formal courses
  • Identifying some key behaviors and attitudes of successful “shoestringers”

Register today!