Leverage technology to virtually engage during a global pandemic

As COVID-19 spreads like wildfire, it leaves a path of disruption in its wake – but not all of it is negative news. In some ways, the current pandemic forced organisations in all industries to reckon with their status quo and acted as a catalyst to move away from ingrained processes. This included the way organisations are able to train their staff and run their business in a safe manner.

Those organisations that already had a foot in the digital world at the beginning of 2020 had a headstart – and for those who had to catch up, there were many options ready to go. And yet, not all technology proved to be useful in overcoming the challenges at hand.

Overall, we saw two tech-related approaches emerge that provided exceptional value for money and performance in these dire times.

The new virtual reality: VR in the education and retail sectors

Australian universities were hit hard with a complete halt to prospective international students travelling, attending classes or even going to open days, cutting one of their main income and marketing channels. Pair that with the simultaneous Australian Government reforms to student fees, along with the need to move all teaching activity online within 2 weeks, and you had a perfect example of ‘we need a magic wand and we need it now to turn this around!’

Image of finger pressingVR button on interactive technology screen

One solution lay in using virtual reality (VR) technology. In a fast-paced, low-budget project, Liberate Learning worked with a large Australian university to create a virtual open day experience. This allowed prospective students to virtually walk through the lanes of Melbourne, visit key campus amenities and learn about Australian culture. All the content was, and still is, available on web browsers from anywhere in the world, thus increasing the number of potential open day attendees way beyond what a real-life event could have catered for. Web-based VR has advantages over immersive VR (that’s the one set up in a specific fixed location with the VR goggles) in that it can be deployed to anywhere in the world via web browser using low bandwidth. It also helps participants avoid motion sickness and comes with a much smaller price tag and shorter production times compared to immersive VR. It is much more suitable for crisis application where timing, budget and remote access are all equally critical.

2021 can be a time to embrace the changes and advantages thrust upon us in 2020.
(Rodney Beach, Managing Director, Liberate Learning)

Australian universities were hit hard with a complete halt to prospective international students travelling, attending classes or even going to open days, cutting one of their main income and marketing channels. Pair that with the simultaneous Australian Government reforms to student fees, along with the need to move all teaching activity online within 2 weeks, and you had a perfect example of ‘we need a magic wand and we need it now to turn this around!’

One solution lay in using virtual reality (VR) technology. In a fast-paced, low-budget project, Liberate Learning worked with a large Australian university to create a virtual open day experience. This allowed prospective students to virtually walk through the lanes of Melbourne, visit key campus amenities and learn about Australian culture. All the content was, and still is, available on web browsers from anywhere in the world, thus increasing the number of potential open day attendees way beyond what a real-life event could have catered for.

Web-based VR has advantages over immersive VR (that’s the one set up in a specific fixed location with the VR goggles) in that it can be deployed to anywhere in the world via web browser using low bandwidth. It also helps participants avoid motion sickness and comes with a much smaller price tag and shorter production times compared to immersive VR. It is much more suitable for crisis application where timing, budget and remote access are all equally critical.

Another industry taking advantage of this VR solution were organisations in the fast-moving consumer (FMCG) sector who were faced with a higher-than-average infection risk and fluctuating staff cohorts due to quarantine requirements and panic buying.

They needed a way to train remote learners in authentic and locality-specific topics – and web-based VR delivered for over a hundred thousand learners. Unlike fully immersive VR, it also integrated into the retailer’s learning management system (LMS) allowing crucial training tracking for accountability and compliance in workplace health and safety.

The move towards minimum viable products (MVP)

The pandemic often required learning artefact development in timeframes way below the industry norm. As a result, some hastily produced solutions were under par in terms of learner outcomes, engagement, good learning design and measurability.

A case in point is that many organisations were uploading session slides and calling them ‘online learning’ – when at best it could be called ‘information dissemination’. One way out of death-by-PowerPoint was the rapid development of shorter minimum viable products – a pared down initial product with sufficient features to fulfil basic needs – using modern authoring tools, multiple deployment platforms, including mobile devices, and modern tracking mechanisms.

For example, we saw subject matter experts take videos of manual handling procedures with their smartphones, eliminating the need to put camera crews at risk on site. We observed learning teams embrace a new role as curators of such user-generated content. We also witnessed a higher sense of ownership of learning content from floor staff, as clips came straight from the horse’s mouth, produced by real-life Jack at the deli counter.

In the end, as the quality level of the videos was similar to self-made videos on social media platforms, learners felt part of the learning story because it was authentic and created a sense of collective effort.

Time will tell how long we will need to contend with this socially distant way of going about our business. However, it is very clear that the digital age has brought many advantages that our ancestors in the times of the influenza or plague pandemics did not have – so let’s be grateful for these opportunities.

2021 can be a time to embrace the changes and advantages thrust upon us in 2020, using them wisely for the betterment of these, and future, circumstances.

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The full article appeared in Training & Development Magazine, March 2021 Vol. 48 No. 1, published by the Australian Institute of Training and Development.

Scope creep – How not to work with an eLearning vendor

“Sorry, that’s not part of this project. 
 We can help you if you sign this contract variation.”

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced what we call the dreaded scope creep.

Scope creeps come in different forms and sizes. Still, they all have this in common, particularly when it occurs when you are working with an eLearning vendor: an aftertaste of sub-optimal process and possibly even deliverables, impacting your willingness to work with the said vendor again, and vice versa.

1. Scope creep by lack of planning

Scope creep happens when the initial brief is incomplete, unclear or does not include all the expected deliverables. This then forms the basis of the vendor quote (and ultimately the contract).

Especially when engaging a new vendor, make sure you include all upfront information the vendor will need to succeed:

  • project requirements including timelines
  • expectations on review cycles, branding and style guidelines
  • technical requirements and deployment environment
  • learning design requirements
  • assessment requirements
  • stakeholder environment and sign-off process, milestone payments on the successful delivery of project parts.

Providing complete documentation will help the vendor understand your specific environment. It is up to them to read, plan for compliance, and quote accordingly. A good, experienced vendor will know when and what to ask for to obtain complete information, and automatically include ‘obvious’ requirements in their scope, e.g., certain Government standards that need to be adhered to. An experienced and reputable vendor should also be aware of many of your requirements based on their years of experience even if you don’t formally identify the needs for said requirements. This type of working relationship would be more suited to being referred to as a true ‘partner’ versus a ‘vendor’.

avoiding scope creep: image shows business meeting between client and eLearning vendor who asks for signing a contract variation for a small client change

2. Lack of communication – beware of the word ‘Just’…

Competent vendors will work with you to develop a learning solution that suits your specific context and budget needs. And yet, in the middle of the learning development phase (i.e. in production), one of your key stakeholders may want to add “just a couple of branching case study streams” in a learning piece that was supposed to be short, succinct and very low budget.

A request like this can have a domino effect on the entire learning piece’s integrity, so the design phase may have to start again to integrate it well and ensure the solution is sound. The stakeholder may not be aware of the impact. Now you need to spend valuable time explaining and navigating conflicting requirements for a disjointed learning solution, with potential contract variations, and blown out timelines and costs.

  • Consult with your subject matter experts (SME) and key stakeholders before going out to market for a quote, or involve the solution designer early in the process. Ask them about their requirements and expectations of what a successful learning solution looks like to them.
  • Explain the impact of increasing content or functions, such as interactivity levels, scenarios, animations, or video, on both time and budget. Your vendor can provide various solutions and talk about the quality, cost or timeline expectations for each solution, so you can have these conversations before the work begins.

3. Lack of imagination

There are many ways to skin a cat, they say, and indeed there are many, many more ways to design learning. 

Design, in general, is one of the most challenging topics to discuss in words (try describing the hue of blue or grey in front of your window to someone right now). The same is true for the look and feel of a learning project. 

  • Please do not wait for the vendor to finish an entire learning piece to determine the funky flat illustration style they chose does not suit your law practice’s corporate, traditional style.
  • Ask your vendor to show you what styles they recommend and get a few test screens done so you can picture it better via an early prototype.
  • Get sign-off on the preferred style by other stakeholders that may need to be involved, e.g. marketing/internal communications, to make sure your overall branding is on-point throughout your organisation.
  • A vendor you can trust will genuinely advocate for a great solution and not just ‘take orders’.

4. Inattention to detail and testing

Generally speaking, a well-rounded and ‘engaging’ eLearning project consists of roughly 30% instructional design/pedagogical scripting (engagement of the mind), 30% goes towards creative visual design and on-point artwork elements (engagement by the eye), and 30% function development and media production (engagement by the ear and screen). Noting, roughly 10% goes into project management.

All parts are equally important to get right, 100% of the time, as they build on each other. The treacherous belief that “We signed off on that script so the copy in the learning screens should be correct” has tripped over many a deadline. 

  • Ensure your vendor has robust QA processes in place. You should expect to receive error-free, complete proofs for your review. Still, human error is real, so it is the instructional designers’ responsibility to check every proof in detail for its correctness and completeness before you can be signing it off to go to the next phase.
  • Test and ensure the solution works in your technical environment and according to all specifications (e.g. WCAG accessibility, various browsers and SCORM compatibility just to name a few). If your vendor says, ‘it works fine in our test environment’, ask them for validation in the form of a test certificate, and still test it yourself given you’re ultimately responsible for final sign-off. An easy way to do that is to upload the SCORM package to a free SCORM platform.
  • Sometimes, a learning piece takes two weeks to make it through all the internal technical mills and get uploaded to your LMS. That’s a long wait to see if all works correctly. If you work with a vendor you have built a trusted relationship with, you can share access to your LMS and they can do the testing directly in your environment for you.

5. Scope creep as vendor business model

Our least favourite scope creeps happened to some of our clients in previous vendor relationships they’ve had. These are veritable scope traps, set by vendors on purpose. Some vendors will win projects by underquoting and try to make their margins back by forcing contract variations at any opportunity (including project administration fees each time) for every single client request of alteration, no matter how small. That is undoubtedly not a sustainable way to work with clients long-term, yet they exist from what we hear.

Here is how you can protect yourself:

  • Set boundaries and list upfront what will warrant a contract variation and what will not, agree on this with the vendor and make sure the contract reflects this agreement.
  • A well-established learning provider will be interested in building a longer-term business partnership (as opposed to selling to you), so may more likely be willing to help you with small change requests, even after the project has been signed-off and deployed. Over time, give and take will even things out, and often it is better to get the project out the door than to squabble about minutiae. 

We hope this article will help you avoid some of the pitfalls we have seen over the past 10 years. If you’d like to explore what it is like to work with learning experts that are interested in building long, trusted working relationships with their clients, that’s us!

Contact our Managing Director Rodney Beach if you are interested to learn more.