Online course management systems can help realise cost savings by making e-learning work. Ray Lawrence, Director of HowToMoodle, looks at how to make the best use of what is on offer.

What do McDonalds, the Samaritans, Lord Puttnam and John Cleese have in common? All are advocates of e-learning. Proof indeed that online learning has permeated every sector from legal to engineering, education and charity.

Technology is an increasingly essential part of every aspect of work, in every industry, and managers must keep up-to-date with developments in order to bring the benefits to staff and  business profitability.

Many organisations see releasing staff for traditional face-to-face courses as too disruptive to the business, whilst others proactively chase budget cuts in travel and out-of-office costs associated with face-to-face options.

Online courses also allow managers to expand the range of courses on offer and to respond to new training demands more quickly. That’s not to say that they neglect traditional telephone or face-to-face mentoring; indeed most choose blended learning rather than swap completely to online methods.

Some online course management systems (CMS) now available for e-learning offer much more than the opportunity to save costs through reduced travel time and cost.

New tools such as social networking and web 2.0 applications are proven to facilitate collaboration and knowledge-sharing before, during and after courses. They can encourage reflective learning, iterative developments on company projects, implementation of tips and techniques learnt and reinforce information gained in the sessions. 

IBM’s 2008 paper, The enterprise of the future, based on interviews with CEOs across the world, recommended that in order to improve their workforces’ ability to adapt to change organisations should consider measures including embedding collaborative tools such as wikis into work processes that involve individuals distributed across multiple locations.

Another suggestion was to elevate collaboration to a core competency by incorporating it into performance management, learning and recognition efforts. Such web 2.0 tools are is also currently in the HR Technology Conference’s Top Three hottest areas in HR technology. 

A number of CMSs now include web 2.0 applications such as blogs, quizzes, forums and wikis as well as links to files and webpages. Currently a significant number of CMS are seen primarily as repositories for content rather than being used to their full potential, but the next phase will certainly be to embrace these additional options.

A wide variety of software packages is available to allow companies to manage their e-learning. These include proprietary solutions, systems developed in-house, and open source software.

The most appropriate option depends upon a variety of factors including: in-house skills for initial set-up and ongoing administration; desired sophistication of the learning management system; accessibility; and the number of users (proprietary companies often charge per ‘seat’ or per user). 

Open source software is becoming increasingly popular - indeed researchers Gartner project that by 2012, 90 per cent of the world’s companies will be using it. Open source differs from shareware or freeware and can be defined as ‘both the concept and practice of making program source code openly available.

Users and developers have access to the core designing functionalities that enable them to modify or add features to the source code and redistribute it. Extensive collaboration and circulation are central to the open source movement’. 

Open source software can be managed completely by an end-user organisation or they can use a third party to provide training, hosting and customisation. Many organisations begin their experience of open source software with help from a third party and use the training they gain to upskill their own staff.

They may then choose to manage the ongoing administration themselves and use third party consultancy to help them explore more complex facets of the system and its application to their particular training environment. 

Choosing software (whether open source or proprietary) with a solid and active user base helps to ensure that the software provider will continue development and ongoing support.

Typically it’s best to start by introducing the CMS through aspects that are easy to implement and don’t usually require a dramatic reworking of the organisation’s approaches before moving onto collaborative, social methodologies that often involve a more in-depth appraisal prior to implementation.

Deploy resources by creating a central place where your trainees and educators can create, manage and coordinate resources such as PDFs and video clips. Finally, seek regular feedback from trainers and learners and don’t be afraid to revise your courses regularly!