The Scope's The Thing

Why do e-learning projects go wrong? Often because the scope wasn't clear. It ends up too big to achieve with the budget or the timeline, or not achieving the aims that the stakeholders had in mind, or delivering the experience that learners need. So what can you do to ensure you’re building on solid foundations? Follow these steps for a rapid approach to scoping e-learning.

1. Step back, size it

The devil may be in the detail, but salvation lies in the big picture. Before you dive into scoping in detail each section of the e-learning, you need to take a step back and do a rough estimate of the total size of the project.

If you’re converting from existing PowerPoints, work on a rough estimate of three e-learning screens per PowerPoint slide, because PowerPoints used in training usually only have bullet points that the facilitator elaborates on. E-learning needs to carry all of that elaboration, so you need to factor in an expansion.

Assume one minute per screen (a dubious metric, agreed, but the best one to use for averages), and you can quickly get a sense of how large the e-learning’s going to be. Likewise, assume three screens per page of A4 material if you’re working with an existing manual. If you don’t have either source, ask the SME how long they really think it would take to ensure that a learner achieves the aims of the training – then add at least 40% for questions, case studies and summaries, and all the things they’ve forgotten that you need to explain to someone who’s not an expert.

Take this very rough estimate to your stakeholders and ask them if that’s in line with what they were expecting. Add in a time and cost estimate and see if it’s still in line with what they’re expecting. If it is, move into the detail. If it isn’t, then now’s the time to determine what needs to come out – or what’s missing – to bring it back in line with their expectations.

2. What are we trying to achieve here?

It sounds obvious, but if you, your SME and your stakeholders are not in sync with the goals of the e-learning, you’re going to come unstuck later in the process. Define the learning objectives. Make sure they’re written as action statements that you can observe learners doing and achieving. Don’t take forward 'watery' objectives such as ‘appreciate the importance of…', ‘familiarize themselves with…’, etc. E-learning should bring about behaviour change. Six months from now, what has changed? Define that and work backwards to define the learning that will bring about that change. Don’t move on until everyone’s agreed on these objectives. If you have more than 10 objectives for a one-hour piece of e-learning, you’ve probably got too many to do justice to them all. Rank and prioritise.

3. Break it down into components

E-learning works best when it’s modular, with short, focused segments with a clear purpose that could each stand on its own as a piece of learning. What are the components that your e-learning should have? It could be following the process steps that underpin the topic, or the eight key benefits of a new product. The sooner you can agree how to break down the learning into short manageable components, the closer you are to moving into detailed scoping and design of those components. Think 'menu' at this stage – commonly e-learning modules will end up using these components as the menu. Would it be a coherent and logical menu for a learner? If it’s a mish-mash of points at different levels with no sense of order, then stop and rethink things with your SME, to check that you’re presenting a logical flow to the learner.

4. Get creative

The tricky bit! and one for a later insight. Once you’re clear about the components that work for the e-learning, it’s time to 'right-brain it' for a while and see if there’s an overall creative metaphor that will help to bring the module together. If you’re designing product knowledge for a digital camera, could the navigation of the camera itself be your visual metaphor for the module? If it’s about effective negotiation, is there an overall storyline, such as buying a house, which could act as a premise for the whole module? We’re not doing learning design here yet, but we’re combining visual ideas with creative design approaches to see if there’s a clever and engaging way to serve up the module to the learner. There may not be a preffered approach, or you may not see it for a while, but that doesn’t mean you should skip this step.

5. Identify the learning design approaches

Now’s the time to think about each component. What is the learning design model that will work for this e-learning? Is there an overall, tutorial-based model that suits? If so, what are the steps in that model, and how will you apply it to each component? What’s the engagement piece, where will you ask questions, where will you use a case study to explain ideas? If it’s a goal-based scenario, what’s the premise of it, which characters do you need to introduce, and what are the challenges you’ll present to the learner? We’ll explore these and other models later in future insights. You should aim to write at least a few sentences about how you’ll design each section: how many screens, what kinds of screens, to what end. Better to get these ideas identified here and now and engage the SME in helping you rather than hitting a blank page when it comes to scripting.

6. Estimate timing and effort for each section

Once you’ve started to map out the detail for each component, estimate learner time and screen time for each – and take heed of any proposed designs that have proportionally higher development effort. Here’s where you can bring more precision than the one-minute-per-screen metric. If you’ve got a short engagement intro that’s an animation, it may take less than 30 seconds of learner time but proportionately more effort to design and develop, and here’s where you should capture that. Do this for each section – then step back again (see what we’ve done here? Back to step 1…) and check if your detailed estimate is in line with your first rough cut. Widely over or under? Time for a chat with the SME and your stakeholders to see what’s crept in, or been missed out.

There’s more to scoping than this, of course – but make sure when you do it, there isn’t any less than this.

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