How to decide between using a rapid elearning tool or bespoke development

It seems as though it’s all about rapid tools or bespoke development in elearning lately. But defining these terms does not receive the attention it needs and unsurprisingly, their meaning is not undisputed. That’s where my post comes in – I want to shed some light on this.

Rapid development

First off – what exactly is rapid development? Don’t let the terminology fool you, the term ‘rapid’ doesn’t actually describe the whole building process. In fact it refers to the software that is used to create the course. There are several in that category, among which are Adobe Captivate, Lectora or Articulate Storyline, that my colleague Karthik describes in his very insightful blog post. All offer a slightly different user interface and approach to creating a convincing elearning experience; what unites them is the output: a SCORM package in some shape or form which is compatible with most learning management systems.

So what exactly makes those tools ‘rapid’? The idea of a tool being ‘rapid’ is derived from the process that was used some years ago, when it was common practice to create PowerPoint slides and ‘enhance’ them with elearning aspects, such as interactions. Obviously, this was far more time-effective (and thus cost-saving) than traditional, bespoke, elearning development in HTML or Flash. Authoring tools are really just the result of years of enhancing this rapid process and building software to do it instead of using PowerPoint.

Today, the main advantage of these tools is that the developer doesn’t actually need any coding experience. Their claim is to bypass the technical aspect of building elearning to be able to concentrate on the actual content. All of the techy bits like SCORM output, LMS tracking and scoring or audio/video compression are taken care of by the tool. So even if you’ve never spent a single minute wrapping your head around a coding conundrum but rather spend your time working with tools like the Microsoft Office suite, there is some good news. You’ll most likely still be well-enough equipped to work with a rapid development tool!

Now you’re thinking, ‘So why don’t we just build the thing in-house and save the cost of hiring an elearning development company altogether?’

Put it this way: just because you can buy a sewing machine, you wouldn’t sew your own suit, would you? Certain things are better left to the experts. This applies to the development of an elearning course, too. Even if you want to use a rapid tool. When engaging the services of a firm you don’t just pay them to simply build an elearning course. There is a whole thought process, years of experience in instructional design and dozens of man hours involved before the development even starts, not to mention the entire process of quality assurance to ensure your elearning delivers value. Whatever your tool: a bad storyboard equals a bad course!

Let’s enlarge upon that subject. It can be feasible for a company to develop their own elearning solution. There are just a few factors that need to be taken into account, for instance the number of learners they are trying to engage. Do you need to build an elearning solution for just ten people? Generally speaking, you don’t. It could even be more sensible to find an offline approach for your problem, like a group activity. Even if you can’t do that, because they’re not office staff but maybe mobile workers, it’s probably more advisable to arrange a screen share meeting with the relevant people.

However, it becomes a bit more difficult with several hundred or a thousand people. That’s when you reach what’s often called second tier elearning (with classroom training or screen share meetings being tier one). A rapid development tool is perfect for these situations. Involving not too big an effort to produce not too small a learning experience, they usually provide a fairly extensive range of possibilities and options within the software’s limits.

While we wouldn’t always advise you to build your own tier two elearning course, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for an editable solution. It’s not rare for content to change or be updated somehow and the course would just need some minor tweaks to stay relevant to your organisation’s strategy. A remarkably high number of clients we work with identify the ability to edit the course afterwards as one of their key requests. In fact, most of them see this as the prime reason why they want their course to be developed ‘rapidly’.  But to be able to edit a course, they need a licensed rapid development tool, which can itself be quite expensive and require training.


Bespoke development

On account of this, Saffron has come up with a simple solution for clients to be able to also revise bespoke elearning solutions via the Microsoft Office tool, InfoPath. We also include an InfoPath training package to teach you exactly what you need to know to make changes.

As you may have already suspected the term ‘bespoke’ is a little misleading in this context. The main difference from rapid development is that there is no authoring tool used for the build process. Instead Saffron has created their own elearning container with HTML5 and JavaScript. So, to explain this a bit more thoroughly, an authoring tool does not really provide you any possibility to tailor the output exactly to the client’s needs (or to their LMS specifically) – you are dependent on the native capabilities of the software. But many clients may have very specific infrastructure restrictions or a bespoke LMS set up. With Saffron’s bespoke container it’s possible to create a course that works perfectly in any environment.

Speaking of possibilities – with bespoke elearning solutions they are seemingly endless from a development and design point of view. There isn’t really anything you can’t do nowadays on the internet in terms of web design, making the learning experience even more immersive. So when a solid elearning experience is just not enough, and a very large audience justifies a larger investment of time and resources, a bespoke solution is probably most advisable.

Coming back to the suit-analogy: It really depends on the occasion you’re going to wear it for. An off-the-peg solution is perfectly fine in many contexts. And obviously, in terms of content, design and features, Saffron can tailor even courses built in a rapid tool quite closely to your needs as well. But if you’re aiming for a big game-changer that reaches an extensive audience, it’s going to be more impactful if you decide on a bespoke elearning experience. After all, for learning that needs to deliver on engagement and performance, your real competition is not other elearning courses, but the wider world of consumer apps and websites!

No matter what you decide, we at Saffron would be excited to talk to you about your plans and maybe answer your questions about rapid versus bespoke. It’s our belief that each organisational need deserves to be addressed in a specific way, with specific behaviours to be changed in order to improve the company’s performance. This means putting the learner first, whatever your development approach. Get in touch with us to find out how to do it for your requirement!

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About the author

Paul Pirkelbauer - Instructional design intern

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