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How to Choose an LMS

Had a great conversation with a fellow Learning and Development consultant about Learning Management Systems. It’s so refreshing to look beyond the cubicle and hear the successes and challenges of others in the field. We’re not so different no matter where we are in the world.

Petra, you inspired me to pen a post on Learning Management Systems. No, not exciting, but the wrong choice can make the gap between technology and what we just want to get done so painful to bridge.

So a few thoughts on the subject based on my experience with a range of clients: Fenergo, Hibernia College, and ThinkRite, the most recent. As well as 20 years of experience with eLearning and software implementation projects.

So the basic question is: “How do you choose an LMS?”

I began to write , but realised I was getting a bit wordy. So I decided it needs to be more than one post. I’ll split it into two.

In this, I’ll focus on two areas:

  • Due Diligence
  • Requirements Gathering

Due Diligence

As I told Petra, I have about 120 bookmarks to LMS vendors. In the past year, I’d guess 30%-50% of those have gone bust. It’s been a hot, hot market for a few years and the boil hasn’t gone off yet.

You don’t want to invest in a solution only to have it disappear in a year or two. How disruptive to your business would that be? Imagine having to recreate/reupload all the content and learning pathways. Painful. Costly.

Check out the financial stability of the LMS provider. Many of the recent startups are running off investor money. That’ll dry up. So find out how many fee-paying clients they have and try to get some idea of their burn rate. Will they be around in 12 months? 2 years?

You might have to get creative here. Don’t rely on the vendor for this. Go to LinkedIn, #eLearningIndustry or your own favoured sources and ask the group questions. Treat the answers like a Wikipedia entry – not the final word, but a good place to start your research.

Having said that, maybe your company is willing to take a few risks for long-term gain. If you’re one of the few clients at their top tier of service, you can probably influence their roadmap. In other words, you can use your strength to get exactly what you want from the vendor. Most of my clients wouldn’t choose that path, but it would well for some.

I put this section first, not because it is the first step in the process, but because it is so important. Your first step is to gather requirements.

Gather Requirements

There are a range of methods to gather requirements for a software selection project. You might use User Stories, Persona Stories, Use Cases, or some other approach I’m not familiar with. Use whatever approach you’re familiar with and works for your organisation. I won’t go down these rabbit holes. Rather, I’ll mention the general approaches you might take and what to look out for.

Integration

Get your IT department involved right from the start and keep them involved. You want to make sure that the solution you select integrates seamlessly into your infrastructure. For example, one client had selected an LMS without checking integration. Every time a staff member joined or left, L&D had to update the LMS manually. If someone got a promotion, they had to update the system manually so the new manager could assign training to their direct reports – and be assigned management-level training. How much change does your organisation have? Think about the administrative pain that would cause.

Integration also relates to sign-in. Do you want your learner to sign into their machine and then sign in again to access their training? You want to remove barriers, not add them.

Integration also relates to HRIS as well as a range of other systems such as your internal social media platform, your collaboration software, or the support/helpdesk software. Many HRISs now incorporate LMSs. On a basic level, that means things like career progression and succession planning are integrated.

Management Requirements

As you start the process to select an LMS, start with a few brainstorming sessions. Begin with the HR and the managers who’ll use the system most. If that’s a lot of people, separate the sessions.

They’ll probably be concerned about reporting and analytics. They’ll want a dashboard view for a summary, but they’ll also want to drill down to the learner level and to the course or module level.

What about learning pathways and certification? For some, an internal certification programme is a powerful incentive. Will the system support what you need? What about badges or other external displays of certification?

Some of their staff – such as salespeople – may be travelling most of the time. Does the system support learning on their smartphones or will the salespeople feel like second-class citizens?

Many up and coming LMSs use a flat Excel file or table for reporting. Or they come with canned reports you can’t change. That data is essentially unusable and few managers have the inclination to work with Excel pivot tables to gain the insights they need.

Make sure your managers and HR have the tools they need to support the needs of all employees.

L&D Requirements

I’d run a brainstorming session with L&D next. What are their requirements? Most every LMS supports SCORM and uploading of video and PowerPoint. But what about PowerPoint with audio? What about indexed video? What about podcasts a learner can listen to on the way in to work? Is L&D considering the use of microLearning? It’s a great solution for the salespeople who are road warriors. Ask about the current and future state of learning – there is a lot of change afoot and you want to be ready for it.

Many LMS providers focus on creating a slick and appealing front end. That’s where the C-Suite decision makers look, so it makes sense. More times than not, though, the administrative interface is not nearly as impressive.

Ask L&D what they need to administer the system. For example, how do they port existing content into the LMS? Many LMSs I’ve seen embrace a manual process. By manual, I mean someone in L&D has to upload every single course separately; has to create course titles, descriptions, and codes using multiple screens; and even enrol learners individually on each course.

Be clear on what the L&D team require and pay close attention to process they will have to follow in the administrative back-end.

End User Requirements

In a perfect world, you’ll also run a brainstorming session with end users, the learners. You shouldn’t skip this step, but most companies do. You’ll want to find out what is wrong with the current system, if you have one, and what is good about it.

Do you have different groups of learners – staff, clients, partners – each with their own requirements? Will the LMS support these different groups? Can you ensure your clients can’t access internal-only training or see staff on the system? Does you need an LMS that supports white-branding?

How do your end-users learn? Ask them how they go about solving the problems they face on a daily basis. For example, your developers probably rely heavily on stackoverflow. It lets them find the best answers to specific questions or to ask questions of experts in the field and get an almost immediate response. Should your system support just-in-time learning like that, or would it just be duplicated effort?

Is there a lot of deskside learning that gets lost because it’s just a quick chat? Do you need a tool to capture that knowledge and share it widely? What about community-created content? If you use Skype or similar tools, perhaps you want an end-user to record a info-dump session and post it for others – saves the expert repeating themselves when someone else has the same question.

Do your learners prefer videos and podcasts like many articles tell use millennials prefer? Do you run classroom training session you need to track? What about external training providers? Do you use them? Will the LMS track those courses for learners?

Summary

As you run the brainstorming sessions, come out of them with a clear set of requirements and ensure those requirements are graded in some way. Some of them will be deal breakers while others are just nice to haves. It is never a simple process, but clearly defined and graded requirements will make the job significantly easier.

Again, the IT department can help you understand the software selection process they use. Add to that some facilitation tools – approaches that help a large group make decisions but avoid group-think – and the requirements gathering process will be easier – not easy, it’s never easy – and more fruitful.

A second post in the series will appear shortly.

Convert PowerPoint to eLearning in 5 Steps

Have you got a folder filled with PowerPoint presentations? Five steps will convert them into eLearning.

Click on the Infographic to the right for summary of the five steps to convert a PowerPoint presentation into eLearning.

Below is a more detailed guide with links to useful resources.

Gather

Gather the PowerPoint deck and other material in one place.

  • Get more than just the PowerPoint deck. The source content and background material can help make sense of the material and speed the process.
  • Ask for any assessments (quizzes) for the course. Often overlooked, assessments are a window into the really important content.
  • Look in the Notes section of the PowerPoint for extra content such as speaker notes, references, and so on.
  • Gather the references and links you find in one place. They may not go into the course itself, but you can quickly build a handy learner guide.
  • Check all images, graphics, videos for copyright. If you’re not sure, don’t use it. You don’t want to get sued for using copyrighted material.

Refine

Refine what you’ve gathered so the course covers the critical content a learner needs to be successful in role.

  • Speak with experts – managers, subject matter experts, people who are top performers. Ask them the barriers to success and how to overcome them. Ask for tricks and approaches that they find helpful.
  • If your experts are too busy – and they often really are – appeal to their vanity or explain they will save time in the long run as many staff can tap into their knowledge via the training.
  • Focus the training on what the learners don’t know but need to know. Focus on that gap.
  • Ensure every piece of content brings real value to the learner.
  • Be clear on the desired outcome of the training. When you evaluate the learning, what will be measured – Increased sales? Higher customer satisfaction score? Increased production? If content does not support the goal, remove it.
  • Whittle the content down as much as possible. Pareto analysis will help you identify the critical knowledge and skills. These critical need to knows (CNtKs) are the topics and sub-topics of your course.
  • If there isn’t an assessment (quiz) for the course, ask your experts to create one. It will focus the course on the CNtKs and remove the fluff.
  • Put the discarded content into the learner guide, or use it to create another course or deliver it via social channels as microlearning.

Arrange

  • Scaffold and chunk the content so it helps learners bridge the knowledge gap and presents the content in more easily digestible pieces.
  • Connect each new topic to the previous and ground it in practical examples familiar to them.
  • Keep the learner – not the content – foremost as you structure the training. They’ll need extra hand-holding and signposts to make sense of the material.
  • Give the learners a chance to use the new information in a real-world scenario similar to what they face on the job is best. A simple, clear request to reflect on and apply what they have learned to their daily work works as well as a flashy interaction.
  • Keep each screen of the PowerPoint shorter than 3 minutes (350-400 words). For eLearning, your learners have a short attention span and frequent distractions. Chunking allows them to pick up where they left off more easily.
  • Ask your experts to review your content – most are keen to share their knowledge and experience. Reviews can be time consuming, so consider how much value every change will bring.

Build

  • Create basic PowerPoint templates for your course. They’ll help structure the course for the learner and reduce development time.
  • Learners will not read screens filled with text. Summarise the main points on-screen or use visual elements that support the message. The audio should do the heavy lifting.
  • Minimise the use of animation. A lot of learners don’t like it and is makes development longer.
  • Courses without audio can work, but include audio if at all possible.
  • A simple way to capture audio is to record the expert as he/she presents each screen. (Learners pay more attention to the expert.) This can be done in PowerPoint, audio recording software, or even conferencing software such as Skype.
  • Record audio using a good quality headset or external mic. Poor audio undermines your message and is distracting.
  • Summative assessments – did you understand what you learned? – are vital to verify understanding. Assessments should not be optional.
  • The quickest method to build the course is to create a video directly from the PowerPoint deck. PowerPoint supports this.
  • If you will be using a learning management system (LMS) it will allow you to track who takes the course. Be clear on the reporting and upload options before you begin to build the course.
  • If you are not using an LMS, the assessment will be your tracking tool. Third party survey tools such as SurveyMonkey allowing for tracking and reporting.
  • Before you build the assessment, decide how learners will take it. If you do not already have a solution, aim for one that supports uploading the questions to speed the process.

Evaluate

  • Evaluation – did learning improve job performance? – often is overlooked. Improvement requires clarity on what did not work.
  • Ask learners their opinion of the training – happy sheets. If possible, adjust the training in response to the feedback or make a note of feedback for future revisions.
  • Evaluation is more than Did you like the training? It asks managers and the organisation if the training had a positive impact. It happens in the weeks and months after the training.
  • Agree to evaluation criteria, approach, and timing with stakeholders up front.
  • The Kirkpatrick approach to training evaluation is widely known, though others exist.
  • Incorporate the lessons learned into future updates of the training course and of all training content.

microlearning as a nest

microLearning: Your Time Has Come

microLearning – a standalone fragment of training content – is a training approach you can readily include in your learning stream to respond quickly to the training and development needs of your audience. It also helps you make your training – eLearning or classroom based – sticky.

microLearning is one of those concepts that can be difficult to wrap your head around, but once you ‘get it’, you wonder what took so long.

I’m privileged to live beyond the River Shannon, in the West of Ireland. I am surrounded by pine trees, old laurels, and thick hedgerows. This morning, I’m having a cuppa watching the two usually vocal magpies acting suspiciously furtive. I watch them select twigs from the ground and with deliberation hop branch by branch to a nest just beginning to appear near the top of a tree.

Those carefully chosen and placed twigs are deftly woven together to form a complex, stand-alone structure fit for purpose. Without the careful intervention of the magpies, they would just be a stack of twigs.

Like the nest, a training course is built from many components parts – chunks – that an instructional designer intelligently weaves – scaffolds – into a stand-alone structure fit for purpose. Without that intelligent application of structure, a training course is just a loose mound of information. (We’ve all been subjected to those courses!)

microLearning can be thought of as the twigs in the nest. Each small component of microLearning content – a minute or two at most – stands on its own. For example, training for salespeople may include a short video or presentation on how to handle one specific customer objection. The information is useful in itself, but an intelligently structured collection of microLearning events form a complete training programme. (And like any training, can be assessed and lead to certification.)

Why is microLearning such a big deal lately? Is this just another fad? Definitely not.

Companies and their staff are being expected to do so much more with so much less. Few companies have the luxury of sending people to a training event – though there is an inherent advantage to time set aside for training – and the rise of mobile devices as tools of work has shifted the paradigm. Those genies are out of their bottles and they are aren’t going back in.

So small components of training delivered just in time, consumable in ‘found’ moments, delivered via any device, including mobile, has been a solution searching for a problem. (I’ve been involved in microLearning in different forms for almost a decade now, and the field existed long before that.)

Also, if you have a body of microLearning content available, you can easily resend content at pre-defined intervals or in response to an uptick in challenges with or queries on a specific topic – such as to the helpdesk – to help make the training more sticky.

From a content development viewpoint, retooling to include microLearning in the learning stream is not a massive undertaking. It involves chunking the information in a way suited for reuse as microLearning and structured for delivery via a variety of delivery vehicles such as corporate social networking sites, Twitter, Facebook, texts, and so on. Break those 10 minute screens in your eLearning course into segments you can easily extract for reuse.

microLearning is a valuable tool in the learning and development hero’s toolkit. Explore using it in the next training material you’re going to develop and experiment with using it. I’d be interested to hear how you get on.

Explore More

SHRM – How to Make Microlearning Matter

Action Meetings

This short training video we developed explores ways you can improve your ability to run effective meetings that get results. (Please note: this video does not have audio.)

Course Development and Your Audience

This short training video we created explores ways to learn about your audience so you can develop learning programs that are relevant and sticky.

The Thick End of the Wedge—Rapid Course Development with Subject Matter Experts

Training moves knowledge and skills from those who can – Subject Matter Experts – to those to cannot – Learners.

The entire point of instructional design and training development is to move learners from the thin end of the knowledge and skills wedge—not knowing—to the thick end of the wedge—filled with knowledge and skills—as rapidly as possible.

We focus on what a person needs to know in order to be successful in role. We separate the hard kernels of knowledge from the chaff of distraction.

The role of a learning specialist is to help those who know—the subject matter experts—examine their expertise from the eyes of a novice. To bring to the surface those hard kernels of knowledge that the learner must master in order to be effective.

The role of a learning specialist is to help those who know—the subject matter experts (SMEs)—examine their expertise from the eyes of a novice. To bring to the surface those hard kernels of knowledge that the learner must know in order to be effective. To structure that knowledge so the learner moves most rapidly form the thin edge of the wedge to the thick.

One of the greatest challenges I face as I consult with businesses—many of them software companies—is that their SMEs are too busy. It’s understandable—growing software companies especially are pressed by market demands and investors to get to market and grow rapidly.

My industry uses ratios of how long it takes to develop a course. They range from 20:1 for a simple ILT to 150:1 and up for complex, bespoke interactive eLearning simulations. Many clients have a tough time understanding why the ratio is not 1:1: why does it take more than an hour to create an hour-long course?

I could go into the whole discussion about the value of training and education here and the impact on the bottom line a well-trained workforce has, but that’s not the point of this post.

The point is, how do we as learning specialists most rapidly extract and shape the SME knowledge so others in the company can benefit?

The fastest way I have found to extract the information from SMEs is through a highly structure interview process. If we think of the time taken to develop an hour-long eLearning course, the most expedient approach that can work is:

  1. Define the audience
  2. Find the best SME (not just the most knowledgeable, but the most communicative, the most responsive, the most embracing of the value of training).
  3. Gather and review topic-specific information such as documents, guides, videos.
  4. Prepare detailed and focused interview questions.
  5. Conduct a short SME interview, half hour or less, with the sole purpose of defining the outline.
  6. Use your skill as an instructional designer to shape the outline so it is appropriate for learning.
  7. Get that outline reviewed and approved.
  8. Schedule another meeting, about 60-90 minutes, with the SME. Go in with a PPT deck. One slide for each topic.
  9. Record the interview. Ask the SME ‘For this topic, what are the most important points someone new to this must know? Will find most difficult? Most counter-intuitive?’ Write those points in bullet point form.
  10. Use your skill as an Instructional Designer to refine that content using the recorded interview (SMEs love to talk about their subject, so they will have shared more detail than just the bullet points you captured.) Is there foundational knowledge required? Is there content missing? Is the sequence right? Where would demonstrations, activities, or knowledge checks be best placed? What visual aspects need to be improved?
  11. Get that deck reviewed and approved.
  12. Develop the assessment questions.
  13. Schedule a final meeting with the SME to have them walk through the deck and review the assessment. Ask them to present that deck as if they were in a classroom. Record them using the best quality audio equipment possible.
  14. If the audio is great or if this is intended for an internal audience, process the audio, sync it to the slides. If not, have the audio professionally re-recorded and then sync it.
  15. Get it reviewed and approved.
  16. Publish.

How long with this take? It depends on many factors including the nature of the inputs (quality of the source material, ease of extracting info from the SME, experience of the interviewer, availability of templates) and the quality of the outputs (animation, interactive elements, embedded demonstrations).

Experience tells me that an hour of eLearning on a moderately complex technical topic should take about 12 hours of development using this model.

Experience tells me that an hour of eLearning on a moderately complex technical topic should take about 12 hours of development using this model. Better quality inputs and lower quality outputs will reduce that time.

How much of this is SME time? 4-5 hours.

For a business not mature enough to understand the value of formal training and the instructional design overhead needed to quickly move staff from the thin to thick end of the wedge, ask them which is better? To use that 4-5 hours of valuable SME time to develop scalable, reusable material or use that same time to deliver ad hoc one-to-one deskside training or one-to-few workshops.

I am biased, but I know what my answer is.

Learning Management Systems – How to Avoid Wet Socks

I live in Ireland. It rains here. As I’m getting soaked waiting for my bus, another one pulls up. Not as convenient as my preferred bus, but close. Wet socks and cold feet are certain if I stand here much longer. A quick decision and I hop on the bus in front of me hoping I can avoid wet socks at the other end. That sums up the process to select a Learning Management System (LMS). Most clients become understandably bewildered by the options and management often ends up just hopping on the first bus.

It may work out for the best, it may not. The LMS may be flexible enough to bend to your requirements or maybe your requirements will need to flex a bit or a lot. Wet socks now because you waited for the perfect bus or wet socks later because you picked the bus in front of you?

Picking the right LMS is complex, so here are a few pointers I’ve picked up along the way.

You need an LMS because you want to upskill or reskill employees/clients/partners by hosting training courses and tracking learners. The courses might be bespoke eLearning courses or PowerPoint click-through content delivery vehicles. If you have a bunch of PowerPoints you want learners to view, then it is best to pick an LMS that lets you just upload the PowerPoint files. (This is not eLearning, this is not even training, but it is what many companies need as they make the transition.) PowerPoint will let you export to several formats, including video. You might let PowerPoint fill an LMS gap, but don’t underestimate the effort this ‘translation’ will take.

If you intend to create eLearning courses (the traditional click-through with audio, animations, and interactions) you’ll want the LMS to support SCORM content. That’s a fairly low bar these days, so almost certainly supported, but be sure to check. Not sure if you’ll go that route? Assume that you will. (One client made it clear at the beginning of the consulting process that classroom-based training was the only solution for them. Six months down the road, 90% of the developed content was for eLearning.)

What about video? If you have existing video you want to host on the LMS, ensure the format you’ve been using is supported. Converting the old video to a supported format takes more time than you think.

Have you a repository of content such as implementation guides, guideline documents, anything employees use to do their jobs? In some cases, it’s valuable to wrap these in a learning path to help new hires or ‘new-to-role’. Does the LMS allow you to upload these documents or do they have to be converted? (Do not make the mistake of using the LMS as a document repository nor of placing duplicate copies of documents into the LMS. That way madness lies.)

How will your learners access the content? If they remain dutifully at their desks from 9-5, then most LMSs will meet the need. Most likely many will use tablets or phones. How usable is the content on those platforms? What about bandwidth for road warriors? Test the LMS under real conditions to see how it works for you and your content. (Do you have early-adopters in your organisation? Enlist their support to test the LMS. Dig through log files to find out which platforms learners currently use.)

Will the LMS produce the level of reporting that you need? The most basic should at least tell you what every learner started and completed. That is often the minimum that companies ask for at the start. Once they get a taste of the data capture possible, they always want more. But it is easy to become awash in data that does not enlighten. (And always ask what does ‘completion’ mean for your LMS. For many, just clicking on a video equals completion—not watching it to the end, just clicking on it!)

All that is the bog-standard stuff. (With the rain, we have bogs in Ireland. Lots of bogs.) This is where the difficulty and complexity really start to come in. Decision-makers often become daunted by the options at this stage and end up just picking something and hope it’ll work out—the ‘wet socks later’ approach.

A primary consideration for me at this point is integration into your ecosystem. Does your company have HRIS, internal social media, CRM, a support desk (especially relevant for client services or software companies), etc? As much as possible, you want you LMS to integrate into these systems. Integration makes management and reporting so much easier. (The LMS you’re considering may not support full integration out of the box, but it may have APIs exposed you can make use of.)

Integration and the type of training content you are going to deliver converge here. If you are going to use only 30 minute or longer traditional eLearning courses, then ignore this paragraph. But that type of learning is quickly going the way of the dinosaur to be replaced by microlearning—short, focused learning content. For example, if your competitor releases a new feature, you may want your salespeople to have a ready response. A 3 minute video or short interactive game will be more timely and effective than a 30 minute eLearning course.

So can your LMS host these types of microlearning events? (If learners have to click through login screens or folders of courses and modules, they’ll be less likely to engage.)

Can the LMS integrate these microlearning events into an existing stream? For example, if your company uses CRM, can the microlearning be fed into the streams the salespeople use everyday? If they can click-to-play in a stream they already use, they are far more likely to engage and benefit. An LMS isolated from everyday workflow is a barrier.

This short(ish) article is intended to offer a few travel tips I’ve learned from consulting with a range of clients over the years. A proper software evaluation checklist for an LMS covers a lot more ground.

But I do hope this gives a little more info to help you avoid sitting around in wet, cold socks because you jumped on the wrong bus. (I deserve wet socks for pushing that metaphor too far.)

Counterfeit Engagement

‘The learning and development industry just needs to cop on to itself.’

So said the senior executive—one of my clients—about the effort ratios, aka the time taken to develop eLearning.

Harsh perhaps, but like a driver too close to you on an icy day, it created a pressure at the back of my mind.

More recently, ‘learning engagement’ was the topic with someone else. Did a search on Google. 438 million hits.

Some kind of resonance happened. The two ideas joined forces.

Change is the mother of learning. Care about the change enough, and learning will follow.

When you update an app on your phone, is engagement an issue as you figure out where the settings disappeared to?

No. You’re focused on figuring out where the ‘push notifications’ setting disappeared to. That’s your motivation. ‘Engagement’ is irrelevant.

Counterfeit engagement may lead to learning, but if learners believe in the transformational nature of your content, engagement follows.