How to waste millions on an LMS by confusing features with benefits

These days, whizz-bang platforms in the world of e-learning are aplenty. The problem is that great content isn’t. In fact, the typical experience of e-learning content remains so negative that to many outsiders the word itself seems somehow doom-laden and ill-fated. (Forget this preconception at your peril, by the way.)

Now imagine an empty Facebook – no friends, no comments and no memes – and you are imagining the actual appeal to the learner of that shiny platform which looked so good at the Learning Technologies show. (Or you are imagining the final years of Friendster, MSN Spaces or Bebo … !)

Yet the continuing assumption that platforms somehow replace the content in them is what drives vendors to invest millions in developing clever platforms (and put them on sale at prices which are not so clever) whilst ignoring the most important person: the learner. She is not interested in features, but in benefits.

And real benefits are derived from content. Think about Wikipedia. That simple combination of useful learning and easy collaboration is the explosive formula you should be aiming for. Now think about search engines before Google arrived. That overburdened, ‘desperate to be useful’ mess is what you are not aiming for.

My point is that all features really do is facilitate the smooth delivery and discussion of content. Some features are indeed revolutionary, but mimicking those won’t redeem a poorly planned content strategy. And be economical – a feature which is cool but not used may as well not be there at all.

The uncomfortable truth which LMS vendors don’t like to mention is that spending your pennies wisely on an affordable open source option can do this facilitating just as well as spending millions on a proprietary one. Let the content sing – and make sure it can sing. That’s your why. The platform is just the how.

It’s all about conversation

Understanding the ‘why’ before you get to the ‘how’ is another version of the features / benefits problem. A case in point is mobile learning.

The putative ‘how’ of mobile is becoming easy. Most authoring tools now publish in html5. But will html5 redeem courses which are non-interactive, overlong and poorly designed? No. Will dull content become interesting just because it is on a smartphone? Maybe, but not for long. The delivery mechanism is a feature – not a benefit.

The real ‘why’ behind m-learning is the pressing need to create learning which competes with the far higher standards of availability, accessibility and user experience we have come to expect from e-content. This applies to any device.

Above all, you are aiming for a user experience which holds a conversation and rewards the learner for her participation. The first prerequisite to holding this conversation is to speak in her language. The second prerequisite is to have something worth saying.

Technology can help deliver on these prerequisites, but it won’t redefine them out of existence. And if you fail to accomplish either, you may as well have stuck a post-it note to her desk.

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About the author

Toby Harris - Creative lead and LMS product manager

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