Get Enriched Quick: The Rise of Rapid Elearning

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May 09, 2006

May 2006 Issue

Elearning is already old school. In fact, what used to be cutting-edge digital learning is now referred to as traditional elearning. The new kid on the block is Rapid Elearning, and this younger sibling of old (and presumably slower, less agile) elearning is getting all the attention.

Multimedia tool heavy-hitter Macromedia is betting the farm on Rapid Elearning, and well-known training consultant Josh Bersin has characterized it as a "new paradigm." In a recent market report, his company Bersin & Associates said that the Rapid Elearning market is showing an 80% compound annual growth rate and predicts that it will outgrow the traditional elearning market in three years. The appeal of Rapid Elearning is clear: it promises to reduce the development of training content to point-and-click simplicity, slashing development costs in the process.

"In the past, in order to build an online course, you pretty much had to know HTML, you had to know Flash, be a good graphics editor, and be an instructional designer," according to Bersin. "One of the very hot development methods today is to use PowerPoint and publish it to Flash; we call that Rapid Elearning." While not all the tools in this category output to Flash, the top two—Macromedia Breeze and Articulate—do. "They are very easy tools," says Bersin. "Rapid Elearning is a very fast-growing approach because it doesn't require you to know HTML and get your hands dirty with all the details." 

Enriching the Learning Experience 
Central to Rapid Elearning is rich media, which is essentially a catchall term for the content (mostly media) that lies between HTML text at one extreme and full-blown video at the other. When vendors or developers want to brag about their products or services that may not be capable of video, they use the term rich media. The pinnacle of rich media is something just short of video, usually Flash. PowerPoint slides are another rich media staple.

In the Rapid Elearning market, PowerPoint is king. Countless solutions employ PowerPoint as their central content authoring tool, and even those that don't at least offer the ability to import and incorporate PowerPoint slides. Joe Gustafson, CEO of Brainshark, says that PowerPoint was pivotal in the creation of his company's offering. "We wanted to build a Web-based self-service platform that allows any business user to create rich content instantaneously, with low cost and no user training. So we started with [the question], what do most people create and deliver information in? The answer: Microsoft Office documents, and for the purpose of transfer, it's mostly PowerPoint," he says. 

Get Brainy Fast
Gustafson is one of Rapid Elearning's most vocal cheerleaders. He began developing computer-based training (CBT) courses in the late 1980s, and noticed how labor-intensive and expensive content development was. It took a team of 12 nearly 75 days to build a single four-hour course and it cost his firm $50,000. "We could never solve this big issue, but I knew there had to be a better way to deliver information and make it richer but take the expense out of creating it," says Gustafson. 

After the advent of the Web, he began to pursue his vision of using new online technologies to streamline the elearning content development process. "We decided to pick what we felt was the huge sweet spot of the market: knowledge transfer, information transfer," says Gustafson. "And if we could make that richer and at lower cost and go directly to the content experts and let them be the publisher, without requiring any kind of special tools or training on how to use those tools, then we felt we could unlock something really big." 

This brainstorming led to the development of the Brainshark Communications Platform. Gustafson defines the platform as "an on-demand, asynchronous way of creating rich content with tools you've already got and then deploying it out into business situations, such as selling, marketing, manufacturing, etc., in order to get a better experience with that information." 

Gustafson had learned from experience at his old CBT company that requiring specialized skills to use a tool drives up the cost of courseware for an organization. So with Brainshark he was determined to take the content development power away from the specialists (instructional designers, video producers, graphic artists, etc.), and put it into the hands of the average worker or subject matter expert. "The more complex you make something, the higher your development time because you've got to get specialists involved," says Gustafson. 

With Brainshark, Gustafson didn't want content creators to have to worry about installing software or plug-ins or even using a microphone. Subject matter experts add their voice narration to PowerPoint slides within a Brainshark presentation by simply talking into their telephone (no audio-recording hardware, software, or skills necessary) as they run the presentation from the Brainshark site. 

An add-on module called Brainshark Rapid Learning essentially turns Brainshark presentations into courses. It also adds what Gustafson calls a "mini-LMS," meaning it provides some of the functionality you'd get from one of the training industry's many (and expensive) Learning Management Systems. 

Managers and course creators can invite and enroll learners, schedule courses, define completion and pass/fail criteria, manage access, and track attendance. And they can monitor learner progress through reports that can be scheduled to be sent automatically to their email boxes. They can also add tests, surveys, and polls. And they can create a course catalog and send certificates to students who have successfully completed a course.   

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