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Rapid eLearning: Building a House Without an Architect

By Guy Boulet / February 2012

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I was under the impression over the last couple years that the "rapid eLearning" wave had reached its crest and was fading, but after recently stumbling on some articles it seems that the concept still has its believers.

What's Rapid eLearning?

Rapid eLearning is a label used by tool vendors to indicate their products will help customers develop and deliver eLearning content faster and cheaper by allowing subject matter experts (SMEs) to create eLearning without the intervention of eLearning professionals.

For many of its advocates, rapid eLearning refers to the conversion of existing learning content such as slides from an existing classroom course into a Web-deliverable format, although content can also be developed from scratch using commonly used tools such as PowerPoint or Word.

According to tenants of rapid eLearning, what makes it rapid is the reduction in development time provided by the fact that applying user-friendly tools and templates eliminates the need for instructional designers and multimedia developers. SMEs can directly put their knowledge and expertise online to be rapidly accessed by learners.

What's Wrong With That?

Although I recognize the merit of rapid eLearning tools, I must however disagree with the idea of developing eLearning without the intervention of learning professionals. Sure, having SMEs put together their own content, rather than having them feed it to an instructional designer who then assembles the content into a storyboard and passes it to a multimedia developer, can save time but how do you make sure what is produced by these SMEs has any pedagogical value?

Simply porting existing classroom content into an online format does not make it better; it can even make it worse. Transferring classroom content to an online format might sound like an easy way to create eLearning but cutting corners always brings drawbacks. As an example, how will you replace classroom interaction with the instructor? With peers? You could probably use social media to replace the face-to-face interaction, but if content was originally created for face-to-face delivery, social media might just not work—at least not without adapting the content.

Even if you create your rapid eLearning content from the ground up, how will SMEs determine the best learning approach? They may only have one or a few development tools and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If all they have is a PowerPoint conversion tool, then all their content will be online presentations, whether or not it is the best approach to deliver the material. And when we know that most people only use about 10 percent of PowerPoint capabilities, it's no surprise that so much rapid eLearning content ends up being e-reading.

What Does That Mean?

Simply having a set of tools and some material is not enough. It's like building a house without asking an architect to draw some plans. Can it be done? Yes it can, but it is more likely to end up not meeting the construction code. The same reasoning applies to eLearning, and for that matter learning in general: You can develop learning content without an instructional designers, but it is more likely to miss the requirements.

Having been involved with SMEs for many years, I came to the conclusion that SMEs are often not the best people to determine what must be taught in order to achieve a desired performance. Not that they don't know their job, however they simply tend to expect learners to know too much. A car engineer knows probably everything there is to know about a car but if you ask him to teach you how to apply the breaks he will likely tell you about the hydraulic break system and how it operates, while all you need to know is where is the pedal and how much pressure to apply. You don't really care about fluid dynamics and heat transfer; they won't help you step on the pedal.

How Can We Address That?

Don't take me wrong; I believe there is a place for rapid eLearning tools. In many cases they can save time and money during the development phase, but if the content is not designed correctly learning and retention will be insufficient and you can expect some costs down the road, be it loss of productivity, injuries, equipment breakdown, or others. I am not convinced keeping the instructional designers out of the process is a sound idea. I however think their role may be different in rapid eLearning projects. Instructional designers can become instructional advisors and help SMEs do some design rather than do it themselves. They can assist them in defining the objectives, advise them on the delivery options, coach them in designing interactions, and help them validate the results of their training. Such an approach has the potential to provide better rapid eLearning content while at the same time helping SMEs develop their instructional design skills and knowledge.

About the Author

Guy Boulet is an instructional designer for the Canadian Navy e-Learning Center of Expertise in Quebec City where he is currently designing 3D simulations and serious games interactions for training. He received a Master's of Arts in distance learning from TELUQ-UQAM.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/02 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2129230.2145884


  • Mon, 12 Mar 2012
    Post by Guy Boulet

    Thanks Robert for your comment. To me, using rapid elearning tools to build elearning content is like using power tools to build a house. It is indeed faster that using traditional hand tools but it does not change the process: you need a plan and you need to meet certain standards (e.g. walls must be built before the roof)

    If anyone thinks that using rapid elearning tools changes the process in any ways, they are doomed for failure. Whatever the tool, proper analysis and design must be performed before any content is built. An of course, one tool cannot do everything, learning professional must choose the appropriate tool to build their content, otherwise it might just not work.

  • Thu, 08 Mar 2012
    Post by Robert S. Becker, PhD

    Thank you Guy for the discussion of rapid e-learning. While I agree with you, I might hesitate to juxtapose rapid learning strategies with the preferences of learning professionals. Though learning pros should want to create programs within the traditional ISD model that you describe, they often seem to be the most vocal advocates rapid e-learning! I sometimes wonder why they don't call themselves code developers rather than learning pros, since their focus seems to be 80% on tools and 20% on teaching.

  • Sat, 18 Feb 2012
    Post by Guy W. Wallace, CPT

    Excllent! From Dr. Richard E. Clark: Studies that make heavy use of self-report strategies for capturing the knowledge of subject-matter experts through task analysis and think aloud protocols (e.g. Davison et. al. 1997) are most likely flawed because once cognitive processes are automated they are no longer available for conscious monitoring and so cannot be accurately and completely described during a task analysis or think aloud protocol (Wheatley & Wegner, 2001; Feldon, In Press).