eLearning: Choosing the Right Learning Management System
By Freddie Batista (WHITE PAPERS: CHOOSING THE RIGHT LMS FOR YOUR DEPARTMENT)
As a 20+-year Fire and Emergency Medical Services instructor, and a pioneer in e-learning, I understand the financial challenges your department may be facing. The need for having 24-hour access to training material, or wanting the value of gaining additional training knowledge from experienced Fire Service instructors and Subject Matter Experts from the comfort of your living room/firehouse. Then, you have come to the right place! I will show you how to make your training both accessible and affordable though your very own online e-learning portal.
Fire Department training has evolved. With shortages in staffing, and the inability to send personnel to conferences or to out-of-state training, departments need to look at another avenue to help them facilitate their training. Several learning management systems (LMSs) exist, but which one is right for your department?
We’ve all been to trade shows and have seen what many companies have to offer, but is the training they are providing useful for your department? All of the platforms out there will make it easy to deliver and track the course material that you’re training bureau puts out there. There are over 500 LMSs now available to the Fire Service industry by subscription ($50 to $120 per member) including Jones and Bartlett’s Navigate 2, Target Solutions, CenterLearn and Great LearningWorks XLearning Management System. However, the content provided by these LMSs may not meet your department’s standards.
The bottom line is, at the end of the day, they all pretty much do the same thing. They all deliver, track, and report the delivery of your online content. So, what do you need to know before choosing your Learning Management System? An LMS is basically an electronic tracking system for managing your employees’ training. Running reports is an important requirement and it’s the #1 reason why people change their LMS, and change their vendors. With all of these choices, it’s hard to know where to start and what is the difference between them all.
The most Common problem an LMS can solve is tracking your employee training by running reports. If your training is still “old school”, the info is still tracked by hand. An LMS allows you to run reports quickly showing who took the training, as well as deploying courses out automatically. As an admin in many LMSs, reports can be run by sorting departments, shifts, rankings with just a few clicks of the mouse. If you are not on an LMS, it is very tedious to gather this information. As you start to look for your LMS, you need to start to think about the training and content you will house within the platform. Who will be my authors? Who will be my Subject Matter Experts (SME)? Does my department have online content already that we can transfer into the system or does the system come already stored with a content library? The key point to remember is that training happens 24/7 365 from the comfort of your own home or firehouse. So if training needs to be delivered fast, then an LMS with the right eLearning content is right for you!
As you start to look at several vendors you may start to think that the costs may seem high, but you need to look at the balance online training has to offer. When you look at the price, you have to consider what you currently spend in your current training. The cost is greatly reduced with an LMS. It will not only give you uniformity to your current training, but it will dramatically reduce your training costs by not having to send your employees to out-of-state or city training by reducing travel times flights, cost etc. You can eliminate the need to bring in outside trainers to facilitate your programs. as well as freeing up your current instructors to build an eLearning library. This will keep the information fresh and updated for your department. Incorporating an LMS will give you better monitoring of your training, as well as giving you the ability to measure specific competencies. As an admin user, you will be able to see when members have logged into your training system, and how many times they have taken a course. You will also have the ability to monitor grades received by the learners and the ability to monitor the learners’ activity and progress.
The first thing you need to do is establish a committee or team and come up with a list of training needs. Making sure that each member of the team plays an essential part when choosing the right LMS. Next, you will have to meet with your IT department and see if the computers you have in your stations can withhold the training that the LMS will deliver. Do you have good internet speed, sound card, memory, speakers and graphic cards? These are top 10 factors to consider before purchasing your Learning Management System:
Training Department’s Vision:
What’s the Fire Department going to look at after a successful implementation of the LMS? What do you hope to achieve? Can you easily run reports? Each person can throw in what they see and see if what they see is helpful. This can give you a full high level view of what you may be looking for. Not everything can accommodate you, but you need to look at your budget. It helps if you have an LMS, because you know what it does and what it doesn’t do and what you would like for it to do. Write down the pros and cons, and if you don’t have them it may seem difficult, but look at your neighboring agencies, network within the Fire Community via eLearning blogs such as www.eLearningFD.com or write down the things your existing training is currently lacking and what you would like the training stored in the LMS to actually do. Have a good starting point when you start to look at the different vendors.
Every fire department’s training division has several courses already tailor-made around the department’s Standard Operating Procedures. This is especially true in an emergency medical services-type of fire department where your protocols differ from neighboring agencies. The same courses that now offer continuing education can be created and approved by your medical director and uploaded for online delivery. The content you may have within your training department may not be as designed and tailored for retention, but following the models instructional designers follow may help improve the retention and view for which your department is looking for. When a course is being created, the instructor/facilitator needs to remember that different generations may be taking this course. Keeping that in mind, the courses need to be tailored around different learning strategies and broken down into modules. Make sure that when you create your modules, you are keeping them simple but interactive enough that keeps the learner engaged. A rule a thumb is for every 4 minutes of online education some type of learner interaction is needed. When a class uses a “read only” document, five percent of course material is retained within 24 hours of taking the course. A course created with audio and visual material increases retention to 20 percent over the same period of time. And, a course built with a demonstration feature embedded in the class increases retention to 30 percent. So based on the findings what library of courses are you looking for? Do you require NFPA related courses, Standing Operating Procedures and EMS Protocols? What components are going to be instructor-led, and what components are going to be eLearning? Will you be housing both styles of training in the LMS? Is the training going to be a Flipped training model, also known as hybrid/blended learning?
In the fire service, some of the hands-on style courses must be created around the “Flipped”, “Hybrid” or “Blended” training model. In which a portion of the course can be done online and the remainder of the course in the classroom or virtually via an eLearning Virtual Classroom such as Adobe Connect or XL Virtual Classroom by Great LearningWorks. This is where retention increases dramatically. A course designed with social learning environment increases retention to 75 percent; it increases to 90 percent once a practice section is included! The classroom-based portion can be delivered online through computer-based training followed by a hands-on approach with the learner/firefighter; this will put more attention into the hands-on portion of the training program. Get people to think, always include open-ended type questions and scenarios, and get students to explore areas in which they may be unsure. The “what if” method is important because we all know anything can happen during real-life events. Will the system be able to track your traditional brick and mortar training? Will the LMS handle it? Can the system keep track of your training for ISO? Ask the vendor? Are you going to buy or build your eLearning content? If you decide to buy them where will these courses be coming from? Who are the SMEs that helped design these courses? There are a few options that we consider in the in eLearning community as “off the shelf”. These topics are what we consider generic, basically teaching the basic functionalities or fundamentals that you learned while you were at the Fire Academy or EMT/Paramedic School. Companies such as Jones and Bartlett and Target Solutions have a robust library of courses that may fit your training department’s needs. Or, are you just going to build your own? There are several software solutions out there such Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate and Zenler that can convert your existing PowerPoint training into online content; or, you can get with a content development company such as Great LearningWorks that has Instructional Designers and Content Developers on hand that can convert your existing training that you may have or they can create new courses by meeting with your Subject Matter Experts. So who are your SMEs within your department? Subject Matter Experts basically are the ones that are currently delivering your existing content or are experts in various topics within your Fire Department. They are not designers, but they know the information well enough to help the designer build the course. Instructional designers meet with the SME and they help them build the course by putting together a storyboard. This storyboard is considered the foundation of the content that is going to be created. Once the storyboard is complete and reviewed, the stakeholders will then sign off on it and the eLearning content developers will go to work and create the robust interactive eLearning course your SME helped to put together. These are all important things you need to keep in mind because content is important: you can have a great system but no courses! Make the most of the LMS…with good content that would want to keep your learners engaged by making them want to log into the LMS and take the courses/training your department will have to offer.
Return on Investment (ROI)
How do we recoup our investment and how do we measure ROI. We look at the training cost we have now within the department, instructors, out-of-state training, flights etc. Instead of spending the money to send them out to the training, you put money back into the department and develop your very own engaging content by utilizing your existing training. Firefighters/Learners would then take the robust training and give the knowledge back for the benefit of the department. The key thing to keep in mind when measuring your ROI is balancing the cost of the LMS with the cost of the content. The last thing you would want to do is spend high on an LMS, tracking deployment system, and not have enough money in your budget to load it with content your department may actually need.
External or Internal Hosting
Is the LMS going to be hosted internal behind your firewall, or external? If the LMS is going to be hosted externally, you need to look at the servers’ down times. Is the external hosting configured with load balancers in which the system puts out another instance or a mirrored identical version of the LMS when the LMS reaches 70% CPU usage? Here is an example of an LMS hosted externally with load balancing configurations through AWS/Amazon. These are important things to consider when looking at the vendors and see what hosting services they may have to offer.
eLearning Training Department
Who will run the team? Is the Training Bureau going to take the lead on the LMS? Who will be the stakeholders that will signoff on courses that are going to be developed? Is the Medical Director going to be included? Is he going to have to look over the storyboards and approve EMS related content for development of CEU’s? The main thing to consider is to put together a team who will look over the LMS site and the content that is going to be housed and delivered. When configuring the permissions in the LMS you need to have a minimum of two high level administrators that will have the overall rights to delete, remove and control the training content that will be stored within the LMS. Once the admins are established, you will then need to layout the permissions by setting up a hierarchy on what levels each user in the LMS will have, e.g. Chief, Medical Director, Officer, Instructor and Firefighter/Learner. What permissions will they have? Can they add a course or delete a course? Can they remove or enroll a user from the site? Have an idea on the structures and tell the vendors this is what system requires and this is what you are looking for.
Do we support SCORM? Tin Can API? SCORM stands for Sharable Content Object Reference Model which was originally designed by the Department of Defense. SCORM is set of technical standards used in the eLearning world that can be shared across several Learning Management Systems. A better way to understand how SCORM works is an example analogy I always use. When you purchase a new DVD movie you don’t need to check if it will work on the brand of DVD player you may have at the house. A regular DVD movie will play on a Sony the same as it will on a Toshiba or Panasonic. That’s because DVD’ movies are created by a set of standards. If these standards are not produced when the DVD movie is created then the movie will not play on several DVD players. SCORM content is similar to how the DVD is originally produced, with SCORM you can load it on several different LMSs that support the universal language of eLearning content, which in today’s technology, 99% of them do…and if they don’t-STAY AWAY! SCORM tracking makes the courses movable and easy to track and report specific data to the LMS. How long the user took to complete the module Did the learner skip slides or did he or she fail the knowledge check questions embedded within the content? TIN CAN is the newer version of a standard which has similar capabilities as SCORM and is sometimes referred to as the NEXT GENERATION OF SCORM because it collects a wide variety of data that the original SCORM standard cannot do. The main thing when comparing Tin Can to SCORM is Tin Can doesn’t just start at the LMS. It starts whereever the learner or whatever device the learner chooses to use. Do your research and find out if the LMS you are looking to purchase will require other standards in which your department may need to adhere by or comply.
Do you need to communicate with your Human Resources Department on integrating employees into the LMS’s database? Do we need a developer to create an API to communicate with the integration with other software that the LMS needs to communicate with? Does the LMS support single sign-on; can we add it to the Active Directory, in which the usernames communicate with the department’s email software such as Microsoft Outlook? Or, your incident reporting system and/or shift scheduling platforms? What data will the LMS need to feed to other applications both internal and external. These are some of the main things that get overlooked and down the line you end up paying for it before catching it in the early phases of actually establishing your LMS.
As a training officer, what data will you need to analyze? How hard is it to produce? Will you need a separate plugin? Does the plugin need to be customized to fit your department’s needs? The reporting feature is what, 9 times out 10, will make or break the purchase of the LMS. Many of the platforms report data to different agencies depending on where they want the data needs to be reported. For example, Jones and Bartlett’s Navigate 2 compares your academies grades with other fire academies across the US, while Great LearningWorks XLearning Management System gives the instructor an analysis on the most missed questions in an actual exam which gives the instructor an accurate number on what he or she needs to focus on or even if additional training maybe required.
Will the content on the LMS need to satisfy a regulatory body? In my home State of Florida, some courses need to be reported to the Department of Health, CE Broker, and FCDICE for CEU’s to be acknowledged and recognized. Can custom plugins be created? These are things you want to address before you commit to an LMS because some of these costs can be added and charged after the contract is has already been signed.
Does the LMS have the same look and feel as your department’s website? Or is the LMS basically an “off the shelf” platform? What if the LMS needs specific customizations that are not part of what the vendor calls the “standard” package? The two main things to consider when looking for your LMS is: recognizing the customization needed sono additional costs can be added; and the Time this customization will actually take. Because per every customization deliverable you may require, this will stretch the actual deadline of your system implementation/Install. Does the vendor let you customize the LMS to your liking? Or, will you be limited on what items you can customize in your system, i.e. change headers, footers, logos etc. Depending on what you may be looking for, some vendors will tell you if the option is available or not but make sure the customization you are requiring is what we call a MUST HAVE and not a NICE TO HAVE option because at the end of the day how important is that customization? Is it important enough to affect the learning goals and objectives you want to deliver via the LMS?
Open Source or Vendor
Once you have gathered your list of questions and have spoken to your neighboring agencies, you need to decide which type of LMS will be right for you. Will the LMS be an Open Source System in which you can download it for FREE and hire the necessary employees who will have the programming knowledge and skill sets to support the platform? Or, will you look for a vendor that will offer you the platform and relieve you of any installs, upgrades and helpdesk support issues? In case a problem occurs, that person has to be ready to fix the issues that come up, (in ample time) so learners are not affected. There are several open source platforms but the most widely used platform is MOODLE. And, if you were to personally ask me which platform I loved the most, I would tell you the open source Moodle platform because the sky is the limit on the customization that your department maybe looking for.
Moodle (Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) is a free, open-source LMS or e-learning platform that serves educators and learners across the globe. It is the most widely used LMS in the world, and currently has more than 68 million users worldwide supporting over 81 different languages. This is the very same platform that many of the vendors have used as the foundation of their platforms. LMSs such as Navigate 2 by Jones and Bartlett and XLearning Management System by Great LearningWorks are all created with the MOODLE system as their backbone where they have created several customized plugins and integrations taking this platform to another level. These types of vendors have turned this free open source platform into a robust powerful reporting Learning Management System.
When you finally decide on the LMS and the vendor has reviewed and answered your questions, the last question you need to ask them is: how much will it cost? Is there an initial install fee? What does the maintenance fee consist of? Is the content library included? Is there a “per user” fee? Is the per user fee in increments 50, 100? Or is the user fee based on my department’s actual size? If I only want the LMS and not the content, do I still need to pay the user fee? Always get the cost upfront and make sure you have them send you an official document, including a detail of all of the items, customization and integrations you are requiring in the purchase of the LMS. If you have a few vendors in mind, ask them about your specific requests because some of these requests maybe initially included their original package price. In the end, select the platform that works for your Fire Department’s learning needs.
So Let’s Review your List:
- One-hundred percent browser-based for the learner and the administrator—no plug-ins required!
- Offers three types of user registration: open, approval, or manual.
- Publishes SCORM courses.
- Offers a multilevel course catalog/content library.
- Launches and tracks courses via reporting features.
- Keeps track of bookmarks, scores, and results of individual questions.
- The ability to access online reports.
- Fully supports SCORM and Tin Can API.
- mLearning; will the system work on an iPad’s? Is the system html5 compatible? If the system is not html5, be weary and find out if there are plans or how it will function on an iPad or mobile device.
- Places learners in groups or cohorts; or by shifts, making it easier to enroll in specific courses.
- Look for any out-of-date appearance reflecting the company’s inability to adjust to changing needs.
- Career path planning such as Fire Officer 1, 2 and 3 or Instructor 1, 2, and 3. These career path goals can be established when they get hired and they can follow the career path benefiting them for future promotions and upgrades.
- Customizable PHP based or software integration, if needed
- Exporting feature of data reported in csv format.
- Automatic reminders to login and finish a course.
- Provides immediate access to training.
- Offer testing that allows you to build quizzes, as well as uploading questions into a question bank that are associated with a specific course or topic.
- The ability to deliver new product trainings on time, memos, statements, etc.
- Is the LMS going to be an ecommerce site to sell my courses, or will the online courses be for internal department use?
- Get more value from the training budget by keeping the LMS purchase cost between 25-30% and the remainder of the cost on the content library.
- Having a well-versed reporting system giving training personnel more time to create and add content to the LMS.
- Printable Custom Certificates at the end of your courses.
- Assigns courses to all members, specific personnel or assignments, and newly registered rookies.
- Customization to match your department look and feel with logos, taglines, and other marketing identifiers.
Now, stop reading and make your way out to FDIC and visit some of these eLearning LMS Vendors!
If you would like more information on getting your eLearning and your online content up or you’re looking for more LMS advice, please contact me at www.FirefighterFreddieBatista.com or share your resources and design ideas by joining the eLearning Community in Fire Engineering at www.eLEarningFD.com