eLearning has become a burgeoning and profitable global business. While some names have come and gone, they are soon replaced by others all offering to be the best thing since sliced bread. So just how should those organisations wanting to buy in eLearning services go about choosing a supplier? Judith Christian-Carter provides some advice for dealing with this particular hornets’ nest.

It is probably easier to choose an energy supplier these days than an eLearning provider. At least the quality and appropriateness of energy is a constant factor, with the buyer only having to work its way through different tariffs, pricing structures and the inevitable small print. If only choosing an eLearning supplier was as easy, but with so many factors to consider, it is far from straightforward.

Key questions

What key, generic questions should a prospective buyer of eLearning services ask at the outset, assuming that a business case for its provision has been undertaken and an eLearning strategy exists?

  • What type of eLearning provision is required, eg off-the-shelf online courses, bespoke online programmes, virtual classrooms, blended learning programmes, social learning tools?

  • How much do the key decision-makers in the organisation know about the main processes and procedures underlying the provision of eLearning and how/where can they find out more if necessary?

  • Who are the leading eLearning suppliers in the types of provision required; which suppliers are other organisations using and why?

  • What, if any, major technical/technology constraints and/or opportunities exist in the organisation?

  • How much does the organisation know about its people’s learning and workplace performance needs?

In order to choose an appropriate, quality and cost-effective eLearning supplier, all organisations should start the process with getting answers to these key questions.

Types of eLearning

Most of the leading eLearning suppliers specialise in different types of eLearning provision, because that is how they have attained and kept their market position. The best suppliers are not “jacks of all trades”.

Therefore, it is important that the buyer knows what type of eLearning provision is required so that it can select appropriate suppliers.

Caveat emptor: Beware of any eLearning suppliers who tell you that they can provide any type of eLearning you want! Remember, the best ones specialise.

Existing knowledge?

If you are ill, you see a medical doctor and you trust in his or her diagnosis and treatment: you do not have to be a medical expert yourself or even have much, if any, medical knowledge. Why? Well, medicine is a profession, with a well-established and honoured (in the main) code of conduct. However, eLearning is not of the same ilk.

When it comes to choosing an eLearning supplier, a little knowledge is not a dangerous thing, in fact it is a good thing and the more you know, the better it is. Obviously, if you know everything then why look for an eLearning supplier, unless time and resources prevent you from taking on this role yourself? However, knowledge of the main processes and procedures underlying the provision of different types of eLearning is highly desirable in order to sort the wheat from the chaff and find those suppliers who do know what they are talking about, have robust processes and procedures, and are bang up to date. If you need more knowledge then talk to others, attend conferences and read the numerous articles, etc out there, so you know good practice and state-of-the-art eLearning when you see it.

Caveat emptor: A sound buying decision is an informed one. If you have not much of an idea of what constitutes good practice and current thinking in eLearning provision, then you are less likely to make a good decision.

Leading eLearning suppliers?

As there are so many eLearning suppliers out there, including offshore companies, it can take some time to identify them all. It is much better to ask around, check out those who win awards and for what type of eLearning, and attend some of the large exhibitions that the big names exhibit at, where you can see at firsthand what they are offering and quiz them on the spot.

However, this does not mean that the only eLearning providers of interest should be the large, successful ones, as there are also smaller, possibly local and often highly specialised suppliers out there, eg creators of virtual worlds, who not only provide a highly personalised service but possibly a cheaper one as well. Checking out local, smaller, specialist suppliers to meet specific needs may well bring dividends. Visit them on their premises and ask them to show you a range of what they have provided and for whom.

Caveat emptor: Recently, some big names have merged to create very large eLearning companies and it is too early to tell whether or not their increased size will have an impact on the quality of their provision. Sometimes small = much better value for money.

Technology constraints/opportunities

It is vital to know the nature of the organisation’s existing technology provision. It could be that some of an eLearning supplier’s suggestions may not be possible without further expenditure and technological upgrades. Equally, existing technology should be used to its full, so make sure a supplier does not suggest solutions in relation to time and budget that dumb down what is possible or needed.

Other considerations that need to be factored in are whether or not a learning management system (LMS) is used or provided, depending on why the eLearning is needed in the first place, and the extent to which what is provided needs to be maintained and upgraded.

Caveat emptor: Do not be fobbed off by suppliers who tell you that the eLearning has to run on an LMS or that some of your requirements cannot be met due to the limitations of the tools they use and the work processes they employ.

Learning and workplace performance needs

All good eLearning providers will start by asking how the eLearning solution you are thinking about will meet the needs of the organisation, learners and their workplace performance requirements — so have your answers ready! If they do not ask such questions, turn the tables and ask them how important they think meeting learning and workplace needs are (of course, if they have any sense, they will say “very”) and then ask them how they would go about establishing them.

Also check that any preferred eLearning suppliers start by considering the learners needs, be these workplace performance-based or otherwise, and that they also stress the importance of understanding fully the target audience for which the eLearning is intended. Most importantly, ask them exactly where and how learning or instructional design fits into their processes and procedures. If it does not lead everything and the wonder of technology does, then go no further; forget them.

Caveat emptor: Beware of eLearning suppliers who tell you what your people need based on no credible evidence whatsoever and, even more, of those who just happened to have “made a solution earlier”.

Avoiding the hornets’ nest

By asking the right questions at the outset, many of the problems in choosing an eLearning supplier can be avoided. Most issues arise when organisations are bamboozled into believing and thinking what a supplier wants them to believe and think.

Remember that while the organisation is the customer, by choosing a good quality eLearning provider, a long-term and potentially rewarding mutual relationship for both parties can result.

Judith Christian-Carter is a Director of Effective Learning Solutions Ltd. She can be contacted on 01926 614229 or via email: judith@effectivelearningsolutions.co.uk.

Last reviewed 6 October 2014