Can Learning Outcomes Be Improved While Lowering Costs?

It is fairly easy to lower learning costs: create and deliver fewer courses, and/or move classroom courses online. Maybe even dump formal training altogether and switch to “user generated content.” But is it possible to lower costs without negatively impacting learning and business outcomes—and perhaps even improving them? As COVID-19 continues to escalate in the U.S., this question is more important than ever. In this blog, I’ll discuss how corporate learning and development (L&D) can answer the CFO’s call to “do more with less.”

         As more learning goes online, replacing the in-person classes and training that needed to “go remote” because of the pandemic, budgets are getting squeezed. Eliminating face-to-face training can absolutely reduce travel, facility, and other costs, and yield short-term benefits to the bottom line. It is tempting to move to cheaper alternatives such as putting an instructor in front of a webcam to deliver the same course virtually, or to spend a few bucks on tools that promise you can “convert your PowerPoint to e-learning in just two clicks!” Is this really cheaper, or simply “penny-wise, pound foolish?” What is the hidden cost to the business? And what are the long-term consequences?

            In many other blogs, I’ve discussed the powerful benefits that learners—and the business—can gain by moving to adaptive learning. Historically these benefits have come at a cost: authoring personalized, adaptive content was cumbersome and expensive, often prohibitively so. But times change, and the changes forced upon us by the pandemic make it a great time to revisit the question: can you have your (learning) cake and eat it, too? Can we achieve the cost savings that simple online authoring tools promise, yet deliver better learning outcomes than even face-to-face training? It’s time to become your CFO’s and CEO’s best weapon in the “new normal.”

            Practical experience shows that our clients’ costs of authoring content adaptively are at least on par with the costs of developing traditional e-learning courses—and potentially as much as 30 percent lower. To prove this point, we offer ourselves as a case study of sorts: an example of how adaptive learning comes together with efficiencies and savings realized throughout the process.

Who’s Present: Learning Engineers

            The backbone of Area9’s adaptive learning content development process is a team of about 50 learning engineers. This relatively new role was inspired by Bror Saxberg, who heads learning science at the Chan Zuckerberg Institute and serves on Area9 Lyceum’s advisory board. He has described learning engineers as “talented, creative, user-centric…professionals who understand the research about learning, test it, and apply it to help more students learn more effectively.”

            At Area9, learning engineers apply the science of learning through technology to create adaptive content that’s both effective in imparting the desired knowledge and skills and efficient in terms of the time and effort involved. Often, they work directly with our clients’ subject matter experts (SMEs); Saxberg described this teamwork as “specialists who…respect each other’s expertise.”

            Working with SMEs, our learning engineers are an integral part of the content-creation journey, from idea to creation to roll-out. Their job is enabled by the use of an advanced suite of tools found in Area9 Rhapsode™, our fourth-generation adaptive learning platform.

Who’s Absent: Project Managers

            Missing from our adaptive content creation process are the 5 to 10 project managers who would normally be found in a traditional “content shop” of this size. We have zero. An experienced project manager can easily command a salary of up to $100,000 a year. Without the need to hire 5 or 10 project managers, our process can save $500,000 to $1 million a year.

            Beyond the salary savings, the bigger issue is why we don’t need project managers. There are three main reasons:

  1. Our authoring tool, Rhapsode CURATOR™, reduces effort and eliminates repetition. The tool is purposefully designed to be intuitive and easy-to-use. One major advantage is that adaptive learning content can be developed linearly using much simpler designs that are already interactive. In contrast, the only way to make nonadaptive content interactive is to add that feature, which takes additional work and increases costs. In addition, Rhapsode CURATOR allows us to “templatize” many aspects of content creation, which removes repetitive tasks from the process.
  2. Review Technology reduces errors and improves efficiency. Content development is a “team sport”—that is, many people are involved. A big source of both costs and errors is the series of hand-offs that occur among instructional designers, SMEs, graphics professionals, technical writers, and stakeholders who approve the content. In most organizations, the review process involves emails, Word documents, and spreadsheets that are circulated to everyone. Often, this sets the stage for confusion, such as whether all the changes were made (and, perhaps, why some of them were not made), as well as manual “version control” to ensure people are not reviewing an out-of-date document. With Area9 Rhapsode, all review occurs seamlessly inside the platform. Feedback is routed to the appropriate people, and a complete audit trail of every change—who made it and what the change was—is generated automatically. If changes need to be rolled back to a prior version, that can easily be accomplished as well.
  3. Workflow keeps everyone involved—and everything happening, in the right order. Area9 Rhapsode’s Workflow feature keeps things progressing smoothly, with automatic notifications disseminated when something needs to be done. Instead of using project managers to check on progress, write reports, and chase down people to complete a task, Workflow allows these steps to occur automatically—and in real time. In addition, the platform automatically tracks the amount of effort required, which can help with resource forecasts for upcoming projects or with internal cost transfers. And there’s no need to track the data—it’s automatically generated.

Getting More—for Less

            As I’ve stated often in this blog, adaptive learning avoids the “one-size-fits-all” approach of traditional e-learning, making corporate L&D more personalized, time-efficient, and cost-effective. Adaptive learning identifies what learners have already mastered and instead focuses on where they need to build knowledge and skills. When learners struggle, it delivers additional support and resources. The result is a tutor-like approach that allows virtually every learner to become competent.

            On their own, these are compelling reasons for adaptive learning. Adding in the cost-effectiveness (and, potentially, even cost savings) of developing adaptive learning content should serve to remove the last impediments—allowing organizations to provide a personalized approach for every learner. Here, indeed, is proof positive of doing more—and getting more—while potentially spending a lot less.