The tools are cool but it is all in the planning

All too often I go out to visit a site interested in creating e-learning courses and the focus starts with tools. Now of course, this is the fun part and if you want to get people on board this is one way to get them interested. It can also be overwhelming and be a reason they may not jump on board and embrace your ideas.

Good e-learning starts with a solid plan. This will ensure you have a sustainable approach that considers your organisation’s requirements, your teachers/facilitator’s requirements and very importantly your learners.

I recommend you take a project management approach to planning your e-design. To make this easier for you visit my Moodle e-book and login as a guest.

The e-book includes four different topics but the one I recommend you start with is Designing an e-learning strategy for your organisation.

There are a whole host of resources for you to look at but I really recommend you download the project management template and worksheets. Now don’t get confused this is not an e-learning strategy but it will help you and your team to work through some important questions and document what you learn along the way.

Completing the appendix worksheets will help you to identify your gaps and the areas you might need to explore further.

Anyway I hope they are useful.

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What has been happening in e-learning innovations in NSW in 2011?

Yesterday I had a time to reflect on what has been happening in e-learning innovations in NSW in 2011 and the results are interesting to say the least. The Framework is coming to the end of the current strategy which focused on embedding e-learning into our everyday practices, and not surprisingly my focus was maturity.

Continuing the trends from past years there is substantial evidence to suggest some RTOs are well on their way to embedding e-learning into their everyday business practices. As I look at the 2011 teams I see a common thread; the focus is on developing models of best practice that are sustainable and appropriate to meet the needs of learners, teachers and other key stakeholders. I don’t necessarily see teams of practitioners who know how to use every e-tool or LMS (there is still plenty of need to develop our capability in these areas) but what I see is a more grounded approach to the e-learning strategies we develop and implement.

Many of the the 2011 innovation teams have set up working parties to provide advice and support on the use of new and emerging technologies in training and delivery. In particular these technologies are being evaluated on their ability to meet the clients needs (consider the Sterilisation in the Body Art project http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/content/bp038-sterilization-body-art-industry) with a focus on workforce capability building, cultural sensitivity and appropriateness.

Emerging technologies such as livestreaming in the Farrier industry is another excellent case study http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/content/el053. There are so many products out there but this particular project team see the potential of the technology for use with students who are learning outdoors on the job. Let me give an example of how this technology may assist…. sometimes in an industry rare events happen – consider the difficult birth of an animal out on a remote property. Students studying in this particular area are unable to attend every birth however as part of their course they may need to observe certain procedures. It may not be possible to bring your students altogether in one location either. With livestreaming you can record the procedure, play it over the internet and students students can watch it from their current location where ever they are while this event is happening. The event can also be permanently captured and stored for later viewing.

The third innovation project I want to introduce you to is the ‘Make that call’ project. Consider students whose first language is not English and who will need to practice their language skills, hear the language being studies and respond in this language. The challenge might be how this group of students will be able to complete oral assignments when they are located all around the country and not able to make it into your classroom. A possible solution to overcome this situation is to team a mobile phone with a piece of software (this team is using learnocity) and the internet and record assignment questions verbally. Your students can then listen to the questions at a time to suit them and answer questions verbally (this is recorded and saved in the cloud) also at a time to suit them. When it comes time for the assignments to be marked the teacher can access the recorded work and of course make their comments…. verbally :-).

As you can see there is so much happening in NSW in 2011. The teams are currently working on their case studies and they will soon be complete. Please bookmark the links above if they are of interest to you and visit them again soon…. the journey is happening in real time therefore their case studies will continue to evolve overtime (http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/content/2011-e-learning-innovation-project-teams).

Identifying project risks

My intention here is not to list every project risk you might face but to at least get you thinking. Every project is different, therefore not all of your risk will be the same, however there are also some generic risks.

One that quickly comes to mind is the implementation of new Training Packages. As you consider the qualifications and units of competence you will develop you should also spend some time identifying what is out there, its usefulness and currency. If you are looking at the TAA for example you need to explore TED 10 as some of the units you are used to will soon disappear or be merged with others.

Changes in staff are common throughout the life of a project. This too needs to be identified and stategies considered to counteract any potential negative affect this could have on your project.

Projects not achieving their outcomes due to poor planning and unrealistic expectations is another common risk. The key here is to develop some timelines (gantt charts, workbreakdown structures, network diagrams etc) to see how long your project will really take. If it will go beyond the current funding period (30 November) you will need to scale it back a little to make sure you are planning a successful project.

Technology issues also cause delays. Make sure you talk to your I/T people, get them on board and consider any limitations of your platform, hardware, software. Plan strategies in consultation with your I/T people to reduce or eliminate the risk.

Budget problems can also cause concerns for project teams. Carefully evaluating project costs and possible expenses at the beginning of the program is one way of managing this. Your project manager will also need to carefully manage your budget throughout the life of your project.

Lack of Management Buy-in can completely ruin a project. This is one of the reasons why you are required to get CEO and Business Partner sign off. Before you finalise your project application make sure they understand their commitment, the project outcomes (in terms of benefits to the organisation) and the roles they are expected to play.

The technical ability of your team can also cause problems if not assessed correctly. Appropriate strategies to help you may include staff undertaking skills audits at the beginning of the project to identify skill gaps and plan for any possible training required.

Projects not tracking correct are another likely possibility. Someone needs to take responsibility for monitoring project progress on a regular basis and informing team members of timelines, responsibilities etc.

Another interesting area is managing and interpreting stakeholder expectations. Careful planning and a strong communication strategy is the key to success. I came across a software project checklist that might give you some ideas of other project risks to consider as you work on your project application http://www.softwareprojects.org/project_riskmanagement_starting62.htm.

As you can see the list is starting to grow and we have only considered generic risks. Project risks are a very important part of the project lifecycle so spend a little bit of time on this section to ensure your project is a success.

Working on your budget

Okay so this is the hard part and probably an area that could do with some improvement to get your project application across the line.

Let’s explore some common budget areas. We will start by consider project roles.

You will of course need a project manager. Someone has to drive your project, monitor your project and evaluate it. As you think about how much to allocate to your project manager consider the types of duties they will carry out.

Your project manager will (this is only an idea not an entire list):

* understand the big picture
* control and monitor the budget
* liaise with key stakeholders and keep them informed of project progress
* document, monitor and assess project issues
* understand risk management (we will talk more about this in a future post) and identify, reduce and eliminate various project risks depending on the nature of the risk
* development, implement and monitor project milestones
* have an understanding of instructional design

With all the duties above in mind, how much time each week will your project manager need to devote to your project, what is their hourly rate? Will this amount go in the funding column or the in-kind column for the organisation?

You are likely to require the expertise of content experts. What will their role be and how much time should they devote to the project? As with the project manager you will need to make a decision which column the funds will apply against.

Will you require an instruction designer or do your staff on the project already have this expertise? If not, you may need to include this in your project budget.

Other roles on your project might include a web developer, audio/video producer, graphic designer and quality reviewer. You may also require the assistance of administrative support staff.

Your project may require some trials and evaluations. Who will do this and how will you cover the expenses?

Will your course be distributed online or on CD? Are any of these expenses legitimate expenses (refer to the NSW funding guidelines for clarification on what can and can’t be included in your budget)? Can you request funding or claim these costs as in-kind or RTO payments.

How will you support your learners? Are there any costs associated with this support and should this be included in your budget?

Will you use workplace coaches and mentors. Their time can be estimated and costed and included in your budget. If they are fulltime employees and their salaries are already covered you might like to consider including this in your in-kind contribution column (remember that you must match the funding amount $ for $).

How much is your organisation willing to contribute to the project (in terms of dollars and in-kind)? This too can be included in your budget.

How many team meetings will you need to hold and where will these meetings be held? If you are using a meeting room within your own organisation you can cost in the hire costs for such a room and include this in your in-kind contribution.

What other costs will you need to cover? Consider attendance at induction in Sydney, conference fees for e-learning 2010, travel etc.

By now you should have started to formulate a reasonable budget. Remember funding cannot be used to purchase infrastrure, hardware or software. It can’t be used to run a conference or other one off events and the focus of your project cannot be professional development for your own staff.

If you find your project is running on a tight budget you could visit http://creativecommunity.flexiblelearning.net.au/ for some useful tips and tricks.

Work closely with others as you develop your e-learning strategy

Your e-learning strategy will involve several departments in your organisation. It is essential to make sure you are in constant communication with them, that their needs have been discussed and considered and that they understand the role they will play in your project.

Prepare a project plan and include a realistic budget. If your application for innovations funding is successful you will be required to develop a full project plan. Don’t let this frighten you too much you will have access to plenty of support to assist you to do this. In the meantime you must consider some simple project planning techniques to ensure that your project application is realistic.

Carefully consider the resources you will need including human aspects and equipment. Do you have access to these resources? Will you need to purchase them (remember your project application will not allow you to purchase infrastructure, hardware or software [including subscriptions to online spaces such as wikis]). Having said this, you can hire equipment or if you organisation has the equipment calculate the possible hire fee and include this in your in-kind contribution).

If you are unsure about the hardware and software you will need discuss it with your I/T department. They can easily inform you of the type of software and hardware available and the platforms they can support. The important thing is to do your homework before you start and then you won’t have any nasty surprises later in the project.

Gather your team together and really consider what your online environment will look like. Will you use a learning management system (such as Moodle) or will you employ a team of programmers to create your own? As you research this consider the equipment your learners will have access to. What browsers will they use, what plug-ins will they require and how easy can they obtain and install these plug-ins. Sometimes I find it helpful to include this in my student induction and issue all students with a CD that includes all plug-ins they are likely to need and some step-by-step instruction sheets to install these (if you are developing instructional how-to guides these can also be counted as a project deliverable and given back to the Framework for others to use).

Another really important consideration is where your e-learning program will be hosted and what the limitations are, including access limitations. I once taught an online program and the web-designer decided that the platform would be updated over the Christmas vacation. This web-designer didn’t realise that courses run 24/7 and that this decision would impact an existing student group. The plan was to maintenance over a period of six weeks while everyone is on holidays. Communication and planning can easily identify potential issues and put into place appropriate strategies to overcome these hurdles.

Continue to consider how your e-learning course will look. Will you use a common style (by this I mean fonts, heading structures, page layouts)?

If you are just starting out on your journey this might be a good time to have a look at http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/content/plan-e-learning for tips on planning e-learning.

What tools will your strategy consider?

Of course this is the fun part. If you are like me you love the challenge that technology brings to the table.

This is the really cool part of designing a course that includes e-learning…. but don’t get too carried away.

My main message is making sure that your strategy will aid, improve and assist learners to learn, but having said that they should also have some fun.

This post could go on and on, but I won’t I will leave room for you.

As we are talking about considering a strategy for a project application we must consider the following points:

Start by identifying the e-learning tools you will evaluate and make a short list of those you will trial and implement (if applicable) during the project lifecycle.

If you are unsure you should first start by considering:

* What technologies do your learners have access to?
* What technologies do your staff feel confident to use in the learning environment
* Was your past strategy successful or do you need to introduce other technologies to better meet the need of your clients?

Someone asked me a question the other day that I think should be included in this blog. The question was ‘My learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they do not have computers at home and even if they did the internet connection (assuming they have one) is very unreliable. How can I use e-learning in my programs?’.

This is an excellent question and my answer is ‘consider the technology your learners have access to’. As the discussion progressed I discovered this group of learners all had access to mobile phones and many had iphones and mp3 players. My suggestion is to consider the activities that are useful to their learning program and where appropriate develop audio and video files that could be downloaded or bluetoothed to their phones and mp3 players for later viewing. You could even get them to listen or watch these applications and then contribute to discussions or discussion forums when they next attend class. Applications such as the ones mentioned above are also useful if you are demonstrating skill and the learner would benefit from watching this demonstration as many times as they need.

SMS is a standard feature that many learners would be very familiar with. How could you use this feature in your learning environment? Just to start this discussion you could use it to post course announcements, you could use to prompt discussions and promote collaboration. There are so many ways it could be used, we just need a little imagination. If you have some ideas you would like to share, make a comment and let’s get this discussion happening.

A 2009 project team developed an application for timber grading that could be either downloaded from a website or blue toothed to a phone to assist learners as they worked and graded timer. Checkout http://nswinnovations.wikispaces.com/09-44 for more information on this 2009 Framework project and for a link to their website.

Is the focus e?

Continuing on from my last two posts we will start to draw on some important criteria you must consider when you are developing your e-learning strategy to support your funding application.

We will start with the technical ability of your organisation to provide the required e-learning strategies.

Is your organisation ready to implement e-learning?

The answer to this question is critical to the success of your application of more importantly the success of your project.

What technical ability does your organisation have. Do you have the right mix of skills in your organisation to assist you to move forward and successfully implement e-learning? If you don’t have the right mix of skills how can you get it and do you have the money to pay someone who has these skills?

Do you have the skills in house or will you need to outsource? We touched on this in the earlier question. You also need to consider if you will develop your own content, create your own interactive activities, audio files, video (you may not need expertise in all of these areas it will depend largely on what is you are planning to do) etc. Will you purchase existing content and upload it into your own learning management system (LMS)?

Where will your learning content come from (developed by staff, incorportate LORN, Toolboxes and pre-purchased courseware)?

Make sure you familiarise yourself with the free resources available from http://www.flexiblelearning.net.au/.

There are a large number of resources available and you can also get assistance from Framework staff. If you are considering using toolboxes or customsing components of toolboxes or LORN then it would be a good idea to contact the NSW Toolbox Champion http://toolboxes.flexiblelearning.net.au/champions/nsw/index.htm#calendar

Once you know what you are going to do, make sure you understand your learners, their preferred learning styles, their skills and how you plan to support them on their e-learning journey. For example, what skills do they have, what training they will need, will they require help desk support and how will you make this happen? These are only just some of the questions to start emploring.

My next post will consider appropriate learning strategies. For now I will leave this post where it is but can I encourage you to comment and share your experience with others.