Rapid e-learning is emerging as the fastest-growing category of online training. It is generally defined as Web-based training that can be created in weeks and is typically authored by subject-matter experts (SMEs). Bersin & Associates research indicates that the category has grown 80 percent in just the past year and will likely reach a market value of $410 million by 2006. Rapid e-learning projects account for more than one-third of all current training-related projects and likely will comprise half of all e-learning initiatives within the next three years.
Two primary factors are driving this boom. The first is the demand for rapidly created learning resources to address business events, competitive developments, product updates or other business needs. A survey of training and HR managers conducted in spring 2005 showed that 72 percent of their projects had to be completed in fewer than 90 days in order to be timely.
The second driver is the need to maximize the time and talent of SMEs, who often are primary resources for such ad-hoc training projects. Too often, these valuable individuals lose days or weeks of work time delivering the same training over and over again. In addition, because they are not professional trainers, presentation development can be painful and less than engaging. How many times have you sat through a presentation that was obviously prepared the night before by a brilliant but sleep-deprived, stressed-out product expert?
The Business Impact of Time
The development of a formal online training course, created with a traditional content authoring tool, can take months. For those training needs that are urgent and time-sensitive, a long development cycle can mean direct revenue loss. For example, many companies have an average product lifecycle of 12 to 18 months, after which the product becomes obsolete. Typically, the time between completion of research and development and product launch is short—sometimes only weeks. If employee training for the new product is not available until a quarter after the product launch, as much as 15 percent to 20 percent of the total product revenue potential could be lost.
Business abounds with other examples. When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) introduces a new regulation, pharmaceutical companies may have as little as three months to train all employees for compliance. In high-turnover organizations, such as retailers and call centers, new employee training must be delivered in days.
Critics of rapid e-learning contend that these kinds of learning resources fall short of the criteria for instructionally sound learning. Indeed, that’s often the case. However, lost revenues and other business costs may outweigh the benefit of investing more time to make learning 20 percent more effective.
Rapid e-learning does not mean rapid development. Rather, it is a new category of content development that enables SMEs to quickly build content, often using the training staff as coaches and assistants in the process.
The two overarching elements of rapid e-learning are short time frames and ease of development. The key to successful rapid e-learning is having tools and templates that make it easy for virtually any professional to quickly create a meaningful course.
Rapid e-learning programs also have these characteristics:
- Programs can be developed in a few weeks.
- SMEs act as the primary resource for content development.
- A well-known tool such as PowerPoint or user-friendly templates forms the starting point for courses.
- Simple assessment, feedback and tracking are usually provided, but not always necessary.
- Media elements are used to enhance learning.
- Modules can be taken in less than one hour and often in less than 30 minutes.
- Synchronous (live) and asynchronous (self-paced) models can be utilized.
Rapid e-learning is not replacing other types of e-learning. It is one of three e-learning categories: rapid, traditional and strategic. Problems originally solved with conference calls, e-mail and PowerPoint presentations can now be addressed more effectively with rapidly developed training materials. Figure 1 summarizes the differences between e-learning categories.
The Sweet Spots
Virtually all corporate learning—leader-led, online or blended—falls into one of four categories: information broadcast, critical information transfer, new skills and competencies. Each category has different learning goals, and tracking and assessment characteristics.
Rapid e-learning does not fit well into all of these categories. It’s best used to address needs that are largely informational in nature, have a high degree of urgency or are likely to have short shelf lives, and do not require mastery.
The first two categories—information broadcast and critical information transfer—are the perfect types of training for rapid e-learning. For the other two categories, rapid e-learning can be used for introductory material, prerequisites and updates, but for the core training elements of these programs, formal courseware (ILT or online) or blended programs continue to be most appropriate.
Many instructional designers are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy. In general, this taxonomy arranges educational objectives (and consequently skill levels) from conceptual awareness to mastery of the entire skill. Figure 2 explains Bloom’s categories of learning objectives and how they relate to instructional strategy and media selection decisions. More importantly, the figure indicates where rapid e-learning fits into this taxonomy. Remember, not all training problems require mastery, which is expensive to create and often is not justified for the business problem at hand.
Rapid e-learning tools for the creation of content are designed for simplicity and integration with desktop applications such as PowerPoint. Many also include tools for creating robust templates. The tools generate Flash-based output for easy delivery and automatically build AICC and SCORM tracking for use in any industry-standard learning management system. Most include easy-to-use assessment tools that even let the publisher create quizzes and tests to measure knowledge absorption. They typically enable the author to record audio directly into the slides and enable simple branching to let users move from page to page easily. Content creation tools include Brainshark, CourseAvenue, Articulate Presenter, Trivantis Lectora and Macromedia Breeze, as well as others.
Rapid e-learning programs usually incorporate some type of live webcasting technology. Web conferencing services, such as WebEx, Microsoft LiveMeeting or IBM/Lotus Sametime, can be used to deploy rapid e-learning. The market also offers a variety of learning-oriented services including iLinc Communications, Centra and Interwise ECP Connect. Especially valuable for learning programs are services featuring hand-raising, note-taking, polling and other learning features.
Evolution of Roles and Processes
Rapid e-learning requires learning professionals and instructional designers to assume facilitative and coaching roles and increase their interaction with business units. Instructional designers, trainers and other learning professionals are often nervous about the use of rapid e-learning and the empowerment of SMEs to build content. In reality, the role of the learning professional becomes even more important in rapid e-learning. By empowering SMEs to develop content, rapid e-learning harnesses the information and expertise owned by the experts to break one of the biggest learning bottlenecks.
In organizations that utilize rapid e-learning, training professionals establish guidelines, standards and workflows for the programs. Guidelines cover format, look and feel, audio length and program length. Standards enforce rules for font use, program length, amount of audio, and slide and frame formats. New workflows put learning professionals into coaching and facilitating roles, often working with SMEs to review content development and help conduct live sessions. Learning professionals are also integral to ensure that the company’s library of rapid e-learning programs is consistent, easy to use and continually updated. In addition, learning organizations usually own the training of SMEs in the use of rapid e-learning tools and the development of corporate-approved templates.
Most importantly, rapid e-learning frees learning professionals to work more closely with business units to define training needs, prioritize projects and align programs with strategic initiatives. They also can focus their expertise and consulting on real mastery programs, which are required to build new skills, culture and certified competencies.
Trends and Directions
Looking ahead, rapid e-learning tools will begin to overlap in the space currently occupied by more traditional authoring tools, such as Authorware and ToolBook. While current rapid e-learning tools are excellent for use by nonprofessionals, they are not sufficient for more sophisticated content developers and Flash users. This will change as some of the current rapid e-learning tools incorporate more advanced features, such as the ability to import Flash movies, improved assessment capabilities and nesting.
There also is a trend toward greater incorporation of simulations into rapid e-learning tools. Simulations are useful for many learning and communications programs, such as product demonstrations for customers and software training for employees. Some vendors in this space, such as Macromedia, are already working to add simulation capabilities. The challenge for vendors will be to add these advanced capabilities while maintaining ease-of-use.
In the next year, most major learning organizations will adopt rapid e-learning for prerequisite and information-centric learning content. Many organizations new to e-learning start with this approach because it is inexpensive and fast.
Most exciting of all, rapid e-learning tools are unleashing a whole new set of solutions for “critical information distribution”—distribution of corporate information that is too valuable to be sent through e-mail, yet must be developed, delivered and tracked quickly. This market, enabled and fueled by PowerPoint, is as big as the training market itself—and the learning organization can lead these initiatives by proving that it can develop the tools, processes and systems to make rapid e-learning effective and efficient.
Josh Bersin is the principal and founder of Bersin & Associates, with more than 25 years of experience in corporate solutions, training and e-learning. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.