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Has Offshoring Online Course Development Gone Mainstream?

By Laurie Rowell / October 2008

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If the recent global financial crisis has taught us anything, it's that where business is concerned we're all connected. A few years back, shouting terms like "outsourcing" and "offshoring" in a room full of software developers was like leaping into the stampede at Pamplona with a red cape in either hand. Yet in well-run development environments today, people working on the same team are colleagues no matter where they happen to live and work. And attitudes toward overseas workers and the threat they supposedly represent appear to have softened overall in the U.S., election-year hyperbole notwithstanding.

The truth is that outsourcing—that is, sending projects out-of-house for cost or other advantages—has a long history in the U.S. marketplace, and in educational publishing in particular. Publishers have outsourced textbook development for years. In recent times, the Web has just made it easy to send the work farther away, enabling offshoring.

As we approach 2009, how prevalent is offshoring in development work for online courses? Has it proved a key to success for developers? What have years of experience taught us so far?

"There are very few full-bore outsourcing realities," says Elliot Masie, the e-learning consultant who heads up The Masie Center. "We have 252 members of our consortium. Six of them will tell you that they're really outsourcing. Probably 100 of them will do some degree of their development with a company where some of their programmers may not live in the U.S."

U.S. companies do turn over e-learning development projects to other firms, however, including large e-learning design and development companies like NII or Tata Interactive Systems. These multinational companies implement turnkey e-learning projects where much of the development is done in India.

A Two-Way Street
Yet even in these instances, it's not clear how much of the work goes overseas. Often pieces of the project are handled by a content expert or an instructional designer in the U.S. "I know of an Indian group that outsourced some of their work to a group in South Dakota," Maisie explains. "If we think about it as a global economy, what's true is that work doesn't necessarily stop at the borders in or out."

"Some offshore houses are hiring American freelancers for their familiarity with the English language and with the American K-12 education system," says Richard Tracey, who is Group Manager of Curriculum & Assessment for Measured Progress in Dover, NH.

Tracey has seen this phenomenon from more than one angle. A few years back he was part of a U.S. team of freelance English Language Arts experts hired by a company in India. The e-learning project was being built for a client in California. "I was one of about five American ELA experts engaged, and the Indian company supported our work by providing IDs [instructional designers] and programmers."

Unless there is careful oversight, this kind of ad-hoc team development can lead to holes in the work process that someone may need to fill. "In actuality, the Indian company was fortunate that I and some of the other ELA experts were also IDs because it fell to us to provide our employer with the template we used to hand off our writing, like movie scripts, to the programmers," says Tracy.

What is quite common these days is a model that ships some of the work overseas while some is done in the U.S. "There are clearly some pieces of the puzzle that are easy to send far away," says Masie. A classroom design with "well-articulated content" to be turned into a Flash module might be just such a piece. "That's pretty easy to send anywhere, including overseas," he observes. Projects that require lengthy discussions with subject matter experts are another matter. "Probably it's not going to work well to send it overseas—or I may go to a supplier who in turn may go to somebody overseas."

Intrepid Learning Solutions, a Seattle-based company that provides learning services to client firms, is one supplier that has had success using overseas partners for key pieces of their e-learning development. "In our case, we've got our own team of onshore instructional designers, and that's where we see ourselves adding value," explains Mike Flanagan, executive vice president of Client Services at Intrepid. "We're looking very clearly for a partner who's going to help us with the actual production, taking the storyboard from PowerPoint and converting it into the actual online product in Flash, XML, or what have you."

Communication is Key
This kind of labor division is trickier than it sounds. "The key is being willing to invest time, particularly around the area of communicating expectations," observes Flanagan. "The challenge for us isn't necessarily getting good work from a partner; the challenge is collectively defining what 'good' looks like." This can have a profound impact on the end product. "We don't have any examples where we sent something off to a partner with instructions and we got something back that was much, much better than we had expected. When it works really well, we get pretty much exactly what we expected."

Flanagan sees the partnerships that Intrepid has been building as very advantageous to the company, but he cautions that success here depends on communication that has been refined over time. "Frankly," he says, "first iterations with any partner aren't really as good as we might hope. The investment here is in being able to communicate very clearly where the gaps are and then generalizing them so that with each iteration we are spiraling in on that definition of good."

Surprises can crop up, even when you are very experienced in this kind of long-distance working relationship. Flanagan cites one project with a design document calling for sample dialog written in conversational English. "We didn't think twice about that," he says, but the offshore partner found it a stumbling block. "It wasn't a difference between so-called standard or U.K. or Indian English and Americanized English. It wasn't about idiom. It was really about the level of formality." Intrepid decided to pull that piece back and do it in house, letting the partner company focus on other work where it had been consistently successful.

Using the peculiar nature of time zones to your advantage, sometimes known as time-shifting, makes sense in global development. "Early on in the project there is an enormous advantage to be gained by the time differences," says Flanagan. "You're basically able to set up the equivalent of a global relay race where you're handing the baton off at the end of your day and they're picking it up at the beginning of theirs. It enables you to compress the schedule."

But early time savings can come at a price. "You're going to need all that time you saved at the back end as you start dealing with the last round of changes," he explains. When you reach the point where you're 90 percent finished, the kinds of fixes you need can require lengthy discussion. "The cycle of time—having 24 hours between meaningful responses—becomes a bit more of a detriment. At that point you do need somebody who's willing to get on the phone with you and do troubleshooting." While it isn't essential, keeping a local troubleshooter on call can allow you to pull work back into your time zone when necessary. "It's a good thing to have in your back pocket, where that timeline is critical."

And the cost? Is there a savings?

"We've been really pleased," says Flanagan. "We're actually moving more of our production offshore because of that cost leverage." In that regard he's careful to underscore that Intrepid does not use the large turnkey e-learning providers, what he calls "full multimodal larger offshore companies" that have "both U.S.-based and offshore resources." He doesn't feel such companies offer the kind of price edge his firm needs. "We've made an explicit choice to use folks that are almost purely offshore and to invest our time working through any of the hurdles because we need that cost leverage to be competitive."

Putting in the Time
What advice does Flanagan have for those looking to source out e-learning software projects? "Be really clear about what your inputs are going to be, about what you're going to hand off, and about what you're expecting in return," he says. Your best bet may be to present a partner with examples of what you want. Intrepid has had their best results taking a pilot or proof of concept to the partner and asking for eight or nine more modules built along the same lines.

"Don't expect quick wins," Flanagan advises. With your first project, "you're not going to see those advantages of cost or time. We invested for almost a year in some of these relationships." It can take time to establish agreed-upon procedures for things like handoff operations, reliable document control, and bug tracking.

"Be willing and ready to spend the time," says Flanagan. "Either you're going to spend it up front proactively looking at processes, making sure that you have shared agreement on what you're actually building, or you're going to spend it on the back end fixing things—and anyone who has done a lot of project work knows that's a much less pleasant place to be."

Working with partners involves making them part of the team, establishing processes, and developing a relationship with your co-workers.

"A lot of people say, 'Hey, I can just ship these modules over and they will come back done,'" says Elliot Masie. "And they will come back done. But they won't come back great."


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