The e-learning market is white hot. Over the past two months, the average e-learning stock has grown at an annual rate of over 100 percent, while the rest of the market continues to muddle along. What’s driving the values of these companies? It’s the ever-changing needs of technical organizations.

With the fast pace at which companies implement new systems or upgrade older ones, the need for inexpensive training on internal systems continues to grow. However, given the current economic climate, organizations are now turning to e-learning after taking a hard look at the cost of local instructor-led training and the travel and expense costs associated with off-site training. In this article, I’ll look at how companies can now modify their own e-learning systems, as well as some typical strategies for deploying them.

E-learning comes of age
E-learning systems have been around since the age of dinosaurs (a.k.a. mainframes). In the past, companies were slow to adopt these systems, in part due to the difficulty involved in deploying and maintaining client executables. But, as the Web became the dominant distribution mechanism, Web-enabled instruction eventually caught on, making interactive online training less expensive to deploy and manage. In fact, several companies have taken the Web delivery paradigm and created their own versions of e-learning platforms. Although none of these companies have greater than 10 percent market share individually, several of them are beginning to get significant traction.

Traditionally, the problem with these platforms has been the requirement that all of the content be created with their (insanely expensive) authoring tools. The learning platform was a way to force companies to buy, learn, and propagate the authoring tools. During the last year, however, the online training industry has begun to consolidate around a single format for learning materials, called the LRN format.

Most authoring programs now have a way to export their results to the LRN format, and most learning platforms have the ability to import the format, making it much easier to move content between platforms. This has also opened the door for companies, who own massive amounts of content, to port their content to a standard format that any learning platform can utilize. The end result is that learning platforms and authoring tools are less expensive, and the amount of content available to license has grown exponentially.

E-learning deployment strategies
Even though the cost of buying an e-learning platform has declined, the costs of configuring, deploying, and maintaining these platforms has stayed constant or increased. When developing your own e-learning strategy, consider these important questions:

  • Who provides the platform?
  • Who provides the licensed content?
  • How will you (or will you even need to) add your own content?

One of the most common strategies is to build your own platform and content. For organizations that have sophisticated in-house development teams and instructional design talent, this can be an effective strategy. Good Web developers can use existing toolsets to build fairly complex learning systems in a short amount of time. Unfortunately, most of the homegrown systems focus only on content delivery and management and don’t have advanced learning management tools such as testing, user tracking and management, and statistical analysis of courseware usage. Most companies who start out with homegrown systems also eventually figure out that their cost for developing and maintaining courseware is significantly higher than purchasing pre-built courseware in the LRN format.

The next logical strategy is to license the platform and the content. Purchasing one of the many existing e-learning platforms and deploying it yourself allows you to focus your efforts on engineering and installation rather than burning development resources. You also get the advantage of having a fully functional learning system rather than limiting the functionality to what your developers can create. You should make sure that your e-learning vendor supports the importation of the LRN format and works with authoring platforms other than its own. For companies with a few locations who have a good telecommunications infrastructure and security mechanisms in place, this is an excellent strategy.

Although the Application Services Provider (ASP) strategy may not be viable for outsourcing key infrastructure or line-of-business systems, it’s becoming one of the leading distribution points for e-learning systems. The e-learning ASP can leverage its economies of scale to deliver e-learning platforms more inexpensively than most corporations. And by signing higher volume contracts with content providers, ASPs can typically provide a wider variety of pre-built e-learning content at a lower per-user cost. Furthermore, a company looking to “test the waters” with an e-learning platform can start using an ASP with no up-front capital costs.

Before pursuing a hosted e-learning strategy, make sure that you still have the option to upload your own content with any tool that can create LRN content. You should also have the option of signing your own content providers and having their content hosted on the ASP’s e-learning platform. For many companies, starting off by paying a per seat/per class or per seat/per month fee to an e-learning provider will be much more cost effective than buying, installing, supporting, and importing content into their own e-learning systems.

The evolution of LRN as a de facto standard, together with the new efficiencies of Web-enabled distribution, has launched e-learning into a stellar position in the IT marketplace. E-learning now boasts greater capability and feasibility for many organizations.

The particular mix of in-house and outsourced e-learning resources that is best suited for your enterprise will depend on the size of your organization and the breadth of the applications you need. Finally, be sure to have a clear strategy that makes sense, and monitor and adjust it as your e-learning needs change.

What is your e-learning strategy?

Are you fully exploiting the new capabilities of Web-enabled e-learning? Do you have success stories to report? What about problems, disappointments, or shortfalls? Share your experiences by e-mail or post a comment below.