The rise of rapid e-learning

Computer keyboard sat on top of booksRapid e-learning software has meant many companies getting rid of outside consultants and writing courses in-house themselves, says Mike Alcock, managing director of an e-learning software vendor.

Consultants ought to embrace the new technology and create a new niche in the market for themselves, which would transform the e-learning market over the next five years.

The e-learning industry has grown from zero to a major worldwide industry worth an estimated £25 billion in the space of 20 years. It is unrecognisable today from the online text books that first emerged at various US campus universities in the mid-1980s.

What you could do then with computer-based technologies was very limited with the internet and multi media technologies way ahead in the future. In fact, it took a great deal of skill and dedication to produce effective e-learning courses. Hence, e-learning became the preserve of specialist consultants and e-learning companies.

They came to dominate the industry since they were the only ones who had the expertise to produce quality e-learning materials from the more limited technology available.
     
These e-learning consultants often used to pour scorn on attempts by companies to produce their own DIY versions which were often uninspiring and very basic. Not any more.

The past five years has seen the emergence of a new generation of rapid e-learning tools. These have made use of major advances in WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get ) editing software for word processing and website writing which has enabled non programmers to produce high quality e-learning materials quickly and easily.

Far from producing results that can be mocked by consultants, rapid e-learning tools have made it difficult for some consultants to compete.

Companies and organisations facing pressure on budgets have unsurprisingly started using the rapid tools to produce their own e-learning courses rather than take the more expensive option of outsourcing.

Some might argue the specialist consultants and e-learning houses are therefore facing an even more difficult future as a result of the advances in software.

Only this year, advanced features such as automatic accessibility features for disabled users, authoring for mobile devices, and for EPOS terminals have been released by rapid e-learning developers. After all, the rapid technology will only get better and the capacity for companies to produce quality materials in house will only get greater.

However, I would argue that the new technology presents a major opportunity for specialist providers. If consultants continue to sell their products on the basis of having additional technological features and capability they will fail to compete since consumers will not pay a higher price for what may only be a slight difference or advantage.

So if consultants don't have a technological advantage anymore, what advantages do they have? The answer is that they are specialists in learning. They know what works and what does not work in the e learning format.

They have tried and tested expertise in this area. They have the creativity to make e-learning interesting to the student, they understand the techniques of the medium and they understand the importance of interactivity in making courses alive and interesting.

These skills are very much in demand. The solution for e-learning consultants is therefore to capitalise on the rapid e-learning technology available in the market place and focus on their core skills.

One of the key features of more advanced rapid e-learning development software is that it is server side, enabling a variety of people to have access to it. Consultants can develop e-learning packages and allow their clients to collaborate in the development process and have their input.

They can make amendments to courses as they are developed and once produced they can make changes to them to bring them up to date and extend their lifespan.

Clients no longer want e-learning programmes in which they have no input or which they can't change afterwards without having to bring the consultant back again. Why should they? The technology is available for them to have this flexibility without using a consultant.

By offering the new rapid technology and collaborating with clients to develop e-learning programmes, the consultant can still add value. And, in reality, perhaps add more value than before this technology existed.

The client can have an input into any training programme at a key development stage, checking whether it is progressing how they want it. Because it is server side, potential users from around the world can also have an input.

It also does away with the problem that many find when they have had training programmes developed by outside specialists. There might be small or annoying errors in the course.

Company names may have changed after a course was developed or there might have been some change in the law not reflected in the original training programme. Such detail can now be amended in-house without the need for further work from a consultant.

By taking advantage of the technology in the marketplace and not regarding themselves as technology specialists, the price of using e-learning specialists will inevitably come down.

The effect of this is to make clients more willing to invest in developing e-training programmes with specialists since they will be confident they will be able to extend the shelf life of their e-learning packages.

Consultants who adapt to the new technology environment will become more cost-effective in the eyes of clients and once more the dynamics of the market place will change.

Far from being marginalised or forced out of business by the advances in rapid e-learning software, the consultant will have a new stronger role in the future.

I confidently predict that the e-learning industry, which has undergone considerable change over the past five years, will look entirely different again in a further five years as new relationships emerge between consultants and clients based on the new rapid e-learning technology.
  
Mike Alcock is managing director of Atlantic Link and a committee member of the E-learning Network.

July 2007