The Mechanics of an eLearning System ...or... Why you shouldn't build it yourself

When large fleets start looking at the prospect of providing online training for their drivers, it usually doesn't take long before someone suggests that they build it themselves. The thinking normally comes out of looking at quotes from vendors, thinking about how many staff they could get for the same money, and figuring that it's better to just build their own rather than paying someone else. Added to that, fleets have "IT" people in house already, and they likely have several "trainers" too, so they figure they already have the necessary skillsets, and it would be cheaper to build rather than buy.

I understand that math (as a business owner I do similar calculations all the time), and I don't blame people for thinking about it, but in the case of eLearning for trucking companies, I don't think it's smart to try and build it yourself.

Here's why.

First, let's address the issue of existing staff. You may have IT people and trainers on staff now, but I'm going to bet they're run off their feet as it is. I've yet to see a trucking company that has IT people and trainers sitting around bored, so dumping another big project on them is probably not going to go over well. On top of that, the existing people are highly unlikely to have the right skillsets.

IT people are focused on keeping desktop PCs functioning and virus-free, managing printers and general network issues, and maybe helping build a website. They're not software developers.

Trainers are invariably ex-drivers who have ability or interest in delivering stand-up training, with reasonable proficiency in building the PowerPoint they use in those stand-up sessions. That may be perfectly fine for delivering orientation and doing performance coaching with drivers, but that doesn't make them expert educators.

Since the existing staff don't have the right skillsets, and are too busy as it is, new people will need to be hired. If you assume that the annual fees for a vendor's eLearning system are comparable to a few salaries, then you could certainly hire some people for the same money.

So, what job roles or skillsets are required?

An eLearning system has two main components - the Learning Management System (LMS) that tracks assignments, activity, and progress, and the content that gets served out through that LMS. Let's look at what's involved in building each of those.

Learning Management System

Any fleet large enough to consider building its own eLearning platform is going to need a properly designed, flexible LMS with good usability. That means you'll need a database developer to build the foundation, a middle-tier developer to build the business logic, and an interface developer to design and build the part that users actually interact with. For a system this size, you can probably get one person to do the database and middle-tier, but it's extremely rare (read: expensive) to find someone who can do all three.

What about Open Source? Aren't there free components available for use?

Yes, there are definitely Open Source LMS available, the most prevalent being Moodle. The problem with these systems is that they're built for K-12 or post-secondary users, not corporate. Systems like Moodle are designed to help teachers provide text-based content to their students and track marks. There have been many attempts to try and make these work in a corporate environment, but the fundamental approach is so different they rarely succeed. If you're going to use Open Source as a foundation, you'll end up spending nearly as much adapting and customizing as you'd spend building from scratch.

Well, what about these cheap, web-based LMS that are available?

There are companies now providing basic LMS services for cheap monthly rates. In most cases, you upload your content, assign it to users, and track the performance. As with the Open Source options, though, there are lots of trade-offs here as well. Most of these are designed for audiences that are very tech-literate (i.e., not trucking) so the usability often isn't great. They also generally have limited functions for managing users or reporting on activity. They're designed for small implementations, so the functions tend to be limited. A big fleet using something like this will end up spending more in administrative costs to manage it than they'll save through the discounted fees.

So, you end up either building a proper LMS yourself, which takes time and money, or you cut corners on a cheapo solution and end up spending the same time and money on customizations or admin staff. But even after you solve that problem and get an LMS, you still need content.

eLearning Content

I think this is the main place where most people figure they can do it themselves, since they have trainers building PowerPoint now, and they think they can just post those on the web and their problems will be solved. There are a couple of reasons why that doesn't work, but the most important one is this: self-paced learning over the web is WAY different from classroom training.

Building effective eLearning means creating content that people get value from without an instructor present. That means that you have to cover all learning styles, account for different learning preferences, deal with technical issues like color-blindness and dyslexia, and present an enjoyable experience that keeps learners engaged throughout. That takes skill and experience to execute effectively.

Building eLearning content generally encompasses three different job roles - an instructional designer to organize and write the content, a visual designer, or graphics person to provide the images and animations supporting that content, and a subject matter expert to ensure the content is accurate. (Good eLearning also has professional voiceover as well, but that's always outsourced anyway so we'll exclude that here.) Trucking companies generally have subject matter experts (the existing trainers) but not the other skills. After 10 years in this industry, I can count on one hand the number of people I've come across that have education degrees or formal background in adult learning.

It's possible that there's a graphics person in marketing who can be tapped to help with the visuals for the eLearning, but you're probably still going to be hiring an instructional designer - and buying them the software they need to build courses, which can be $2500 - $5000 per license.

Putting it all together

So, let's say you hire an instructional designer to build content, and a couple of developers (on contract) to build the LMS. Great, you're ready to get started.

Three months from now, if all goes well, you'll have one course and a basic LMS to store it in. Of course, that's assuming everything goes smoothly, but since you're doing this for the first time there will likely be bumps along the road. Even if it does all go smoothly, you can realistically expect to have 4-6 courses built in the first year. Not a bad start. Except that the vendor had 50 (or more) when they quoted you the price, and they're continuing to crank out more all the time.

The reality is that you'll never catch up to the vendor since this is their core business and a side project for you.

I'm certainly not against building things, but I think it's important to focus on building things that make sense. For example, we don't host our own servers. I have managed servers in the past, but running a modern, secure server environment takes A LOT of work, so you need to be fully committed in order to keep up with changing standards and have any chance at success. We're not interested in committing that level of resources to server management, and there are plenty of people who focus on just that, all day every day. We're much better off paying them to manage the servers so we can focus on building eLearning, even if it seems like a lot of money is going out the door every month.

For trucking companies and eLearning, I think the equation works out the same - focus on delivering freight in the safest, most efficient, and most profitable way possible, and don't get distracted by side projects that aren't core competencies. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by building an eLearning product from the ground up, a better approach is to find a good vendor and work with them on any enhancements or customizations you need. They'll be able to turn it around more quickly since they have more efficiencies, so you'll get a better product, more quickly, and over time it ends up much cheaper.

That math always makes sense.

A postscript: I know there are fleets that started building their own eLearning years ago when there weren't packaged products available on the market. In those cases it certainly made sense, since there were no other viable options. However, in today's market, where there are plenty of vendors with complete products, it's a different story.