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Apr 2015

Market update April 2015: A decade of rapid elearning

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Shaping the future of learning

What does the phrase Rapid eLearning mean to you? Is it a set of authoring tools; the timeline for the project; the quality of the output; the budget you have available; or is it eLearning created by a Subject Matter Expert? Does the term inspire you or leave you distraught and desperate?

No matter your viewpoint, if you’ve been in the eLearning industry for any length of time, you’ve probably come up against the term. Let’s take a look now on where we’ve been with rapid and where we might be headed.

A Brief History of Rapid eLearning

Urban legend has it that Josh Bersin first coined the term “rapid eLearning” back in 2004. Bersin Associates published a report: “Rapid e-Learning: Market, Tools, Techniques, and Best Practices for Building e-Learning Programs in Weeks”, about this rapidly emerging category, which accounted for one-third of all training-related projects in companies they surveyed.

Branding of the various tools used to create rapid E-Learning.The Bersin analysts defined rapid eLearning as “web-based training programs that can be created in a few weeks and are authored largely by subject-matter-experts. Often based on PowerPoint presentations or other in-house documents, this new, fast-growing category of online training is best suited for information broadcast and critical knowledge transfer.”

These were tools like Articulate and Breeze that made the conversion on PowerPoint into eLearning SCORM objects as easy as a few clicks of a button – so easy that even a Subject Matter Expert could do it! Bersin’s definition was pretty tight with rapid eLearning categorized as something that could be developed in less than three weeks.

So that was the beginning

In 2006, we started talking up rapid eLearning at Kineo. One of our earliest Market Updates was a July 2006 report on Rapid eLearning in which our then MD, Steve Rayson, argued that the industry had turned to rapid eLearning for two key reasons:

  1. The need for speed (organizations needed new elearning content in three weeks, not three months)
  2. Budget constraints

In 2007, Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann started writing “The Rapid eLearning Blog”. Now with over 80,000 readers, Tom’s one of the most widely known names in the industry. He writes weekly posts that help people get the most of out of whatever tool they’re using, emphasizing, above all else, that it’s good design that matters.

By 2007, the term was wedged deep into the industry. For better or for worse.

So where are we with rapid eLearning today?

Ten years in, I wanted to stick my finger in the air and see which way the wind was blowing in terms of rapid eLearning. My sense is it’s become a little bit of a bad word and that Bersin’s original definition has probably been lost along the way. 

I did some informal surveys among my eLearning network to see what other professionals had to say. Here’s what I heard:

  • Rapid elearning tends to be an information dump,” says one seasoned eLearning developer who works within a major global organization. "Because the speed of getting something out there is more important than the learning and performance outcomes.” Even in the best of intentioned organisations, sometimes speed trumps all.
  • David Kelly, VP of Program Development eLearning Guild, said that for him, rapid eLearning speaks mostly to the development approach and to reducing the barrier of entry for use of authoring tools. “Does it eliminate my need to code? Does it reduce development time?” He goes on to say, “I just think rapid is the wrong adjective for today's environment, for many reasons. It's an adjective that speaks to churning out content.
  • Clark Quinn, Quinnovation says, “What I hear is, ‘We care more about quantity than quality, we value being seen to do something rather than actually have an impact.  We’re not serious about elearning, we’re just going through the motions. We have no idea what learning really is.’
  • Steve Howard, Manager, Technical Training Development at FireEye, wrote back, “When I hear 'rapid elearning' I think , 'We care more about getting it quick and cheap, and less about it being good.’ There's no doubt that plenty of people in our industry can and do churn out great learning solutions, but all too often their leadership just want cheap.
  • Tracy Hamilton Parish, an experienced eLearning designer and developer who’s been working with Articulate tools for almost ten years, works internally at a hospital to develop eLearning for staff. She said, “Rapid e-learning from my perspective are those elements of design that I can use over and over to speed up my overall design time.
  • Julie Dirksen, author of “Design for How People Learn” told me, "L&D has always had a hard time measuring the value of what they do, which has made it hard for them to establish their value to the organization. I believe that this had led to the industry focusing on 'Rapid Development' because (lacking a clear value definition) the only way to show improvement is to do what they do in a fastercheaper way, instead of in a more effective way."
  • Someone else I spoke to said when she thinks of the term “rapid eLearning”, she’s thinking about how rapidly the content can be digested – think short content nuggets and videos. I saw this same idea on the Wikipeida ariticle on rapid eLearning, so the term is now being used to describe the pace at which a learner can go through the materials. Therefore microlearning or bite-sized chunks would be considered rapid eLearning because you can breeze through them really quickly.

Some positives in there for sure. But a few key words that stand out: Faster, cheaper, churn, dump, less effective.

Is this all that “rapid eLearning” has to offer? Should we all be running away in horror?

Perhaps some people are. Articulate doesn’t seem to use the term “rapid” very much, except as the title of Kuhlmann’s blog. (Because why re-brand something with 80,000 readers?)  I even saw a Tweet from Articulate’s David Anderson this week titled “low-tech, high-speed course design”.  No rapid course design here these days!

What Today’s Market Needs

Things really haven’t changed that much since that first Rapid eLearning Report we wrote in 2006.  For our end of year Learning Insights report for 2014 we interviewed 35 of our clients and heard that the same constraints are still out there.

As we heard from them, today’s challenge is still time and money: “How to do more with less is an ongoing challenge for corporate learning departments. Organizations today still want eLearning fast and cheap, with the biggest constraints still placed on time and budget.“

The difference today is that we’re seeing more emphasis placed on the need for quality. As we stated in the Learning Insights Report, “It is no longer good enough (if it ever was) to reduce costs; learning departments have to prove the value of learning in improving business performance…They have to demonstrate they can drive ‘behavior change’ and make an impact on performance.

So while there’s a real need to keep costs down, companies are also realizing that they need to get MORE out of the learning experiences they create.  This is a good thing and one that really speaks to the maturation of the eLearning industry as a whole.

Perhaps ten years of poor-quality eLearning that’s just been converted PowerPoint decks of text bullets has left a bad taste in people’s mouths. It’s this kind of thing, really, that’s given eLearning a bad smell. My hope is that stakeholders are wising up and starting to expect more from the solutions that are put in place in their organizations.

As we wrote in the Learning Insights Report, organizations don’t want passive learning and tick-box management; they’re looking at creating experiences that change behaviors. Departments appear to have been thinking very creatively about how to maximize their use of resources to support the business and change behaviors. This has resulted in many new and creative learning approaches including curating content, peer learning and line managers.

Steve Lowenthal, the CEO of Kineo US says, “The realities are that a lot of our clients need eLearning delivered fast and don’t have a lot of budget.... so the question we grapple with at Kineo is how do we make eLearning as good as possible within those constraints?”

I really think where we’re at today is that nobody wants to sacrifice any of the legs of the classic stool: quality, time, and budget. They ALL matter in today’s learning environments. So how does rapid really fit in?

What Does “Rapid eLearning” Mean to You?

Is it about the tools you use to create eLearning? Is it the process you follow? Is it who is building the eLearning? Or is it the output – the final deliverable itself?

And finally, should we stop talking about “Rapid eLearning” altogether? Has the word “rapid” become a bad word? What do you think?

We’re not done with Rapid eLearning. In fact, we’ve just launched a new service in the US to help clients get the speed, budget, and quality they need.



Shaping the future of learning

Kineo helps the world’s leading businesses improve performance through learning and technology. We’re proud of our reputation for being flexible and innovative, and of our award-winning work with clients across the world.

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