When it’s time to buy e-learning off-the-shelf

Off-the-shelf training software is starting to look and act a lot alike. This is not surprising given that most vendors have the same goal in mind: credible, self-directed course content using an almost universal “info-byte” presentation style — PowerPoint-looking screens with three to five bullet points each — punctuated by interactive events of varying complexity.

Most vendors develop content by hiring writers with reasonable credentials in a subject, who then merge content with instructional design and spice it up with crowd-pleasers like video, audio, simulation and games, dimensional graphics and other gadgets. And voilà, course produced.

But as Martha Stewart likes to say, “It’s a good thing.” With more than 400 vendors of off-the-shelf learning content, offering thousands of courses, it’s nice to see some predictability even if the end product is not that sophisticated. Modest offerings can serve modest goals, and those using generic e-learning products are catching on. Restraint is the watchword these days. At the overflowing e-learning buffet table, the right provider, with the right courses at the right price is a welcome treat when you’re hungry and pressed for time.

Still, in most cases finding the right vendor takes some work. Customers have to worry about the technology, cost implications and roll out. The following suggestions should help HR departments move quickly to weed out vendors who will not work for them.


If vendor technology doesn’t work with yours, move on to another provider. Some of the initial research should include:

•Will the vendor’s technology work for IT staff? Many vendors use web technologies and open source tools that the IT staff don’t know.

•Are special plug-ins or proprietary software needed for end-user computers or network servers? If so, implementation may be complex and time consuming or may contradict IT policy.

•Will the content be delivered in-house, or will the vendor host the content? If in-house, do you have the equipment and expertise to set up and operate it correctly and, if not, can it be bought?

•How will the new system interact with existing systems like company intranets or websites? And what about home equipment and bandwidth?


If the content doesn’t work with the organization’s culture and work context, move on. Content must speak to the culture and context of the organization otherwise it will be ignored.

Once the razzle-dazzle has ceased to impress, learners are the ones who must deal with what is left. Consider the following when looking at a vendor’s content:

•Is the content presented from an academic perspective or does the content present the approach preferred by the management guru who wrote it? If the organization doesn’t apply the principles of the guru, you may be doing the learner a disservice.

•Do I need the content to be compliant with international development standards for online learning like SCORM, AICC or IMS? Standards compliance is only required if the content must work in another learning management system.

•Is the granting of a credential or recognition upon completion important? If so, the vendor must report on course completion at least. Additionally, it will need to have some of the courseware recognized for credit with colleges or universities. If this isn’t valuable, don’t rule out smaller providers.


The vendor is obviously an important element in the buying decision: If you don’t think you can work with them, move on. Consider the following:

•How predictable is the vendor? Has it been around a while, and will it continue? Has it worked with a company like yours before? The e-learning industry is young and as such can be volatile.

•Is the vendor an aggregator/reseller of content or does it produce its own? If it is the former, be aware of the support and update chain. The selling company may not be the same organization that supports and updates the product.

•What types of support are offered? Do you need the vendor to answer learner’s content questions or will that be done in-house? Will end-user technical questions be handled by the vendor and if so, how?

•How is content updated? With office application training in particular, the content can change often. Know the vendor’s commitment to remaining current.

•Can the vendor meet reporting needs? Without stats such as courses ordered, time in a course, and course results, you will have a difficult time assessing the impact of the initiative.

Roll out

Roll out is an important consideration often overlooked. The following suggestions can help in the design of an effective plan.

•Start small: Pilot the system with a representative group of learners. You will learn how well the courses go over and will be able to predict the need for more licences when the time comes.

•Determine how learners will complete courses: Will you give them time at work or will all learning happen in spare time?

•Determine how learners will be rewarded. Intrinsic benefits of completing courses work for a while but learners who are rewarded tend to engage more. Rewards needn’t be large but they should indicate the employer appreciates the employee’s extra effort to improve skills.

•Determine how to grow and improve the system. When will more courses be brought on and other delivery methods introduced?

While the information provided is not exhaustive, it should give you a great starting point for off-the-shelf content acquisition and implementation.

Brendan Nagle is president and CEO of the Winnipeg-based Technologies for Learning Group. He can be reached at (204) 940-4550 or [email protected].

Beware ‘hidden’ costs

When it comes to direct costs, most vendors sell individual licences in predetermined amounts. The licences cover access to all, or sections, of the vendor’s course catalogue. This pricing model ensures costs are predictable. If the licences aren’t well-used, though, you still have to pay.

The other predominant pricing model is pay as you go. Each course ordered is charged to the account. For those who use it wisely, this model can be excellent. For those who don’t, costs can skyrocket quickly and unpredictably.

There are also hidden costs to be aware of. These can be more difficult to understand and predict. Some of the easier ones are in technology, such as hosting, IT and administration training, equipment and maintenance fees.

The vendor may also require ongoing fees not included in user licences including maintenance fees, costs for storage or bandwidth or for server capacity if it is hosting.

Other hidden costs include:

Internal marketing and roll out: Learners will not use the system just because it is there. Money should be committed to launching and marketing the system and for communication to staff about the system.

Internal help desk and tutorial support: Because people will need help, you will need staff to help. Learners will need orientation and someone to call if they run into trouble. Some of this can be done in groups but ideally, each interested learner should have a plan and a contact person.

Evaluation strategy: In most cases, evaluating the program regularly is valuable even if you are simply reviewing invoices. The best approach is to implement a process of survey and observation.

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