In your work on e-learning projects, your e-learning expertise constitutes just one piece of the puzzle. Your project management skills are also essential to guide any project toward the finish line at the right pace, from initial kickoff to final sign-off. Juggling project management responsibilities can be a challenge, but must be part of your repertoire if you want your course to succeed. To help you manage it all, we’ve outlined some practical guidelines that will help you set up and run your next e-learning project smoothly and effectively.
Starting the Project
Find Out Who’s Really in Charge
Find out who the final authority is and what that person’s expectations are. You need to know who is signing off on your work and what criteria need to be met. It’s important to do this up front so you don’t spend a lot of time and money on your course only to find out that it needs to go through a final review by someone who hasn’t been involved in the project, or provided any guidance or feedback. There’s nothing worse than spending weeks designing a course, calling it ready to roll out, and then having someone say, “Now, let’s take it to Bob so he can review it.”
Establish a Common Understanding of Success
Your customer’s vision of success determines how they will judge your project, and perhaps even whether they will want to work with you again. Once you agree that e-learning is an appropriate solution—but before you start planning the details of the project—you should confirm that you and your client share a common way to measure the project’s success.
Detail the goals, timelines, and deliverables with the client, and then capture them in a simple, easy-to-understand document. This step ultimately goes a long way toward reducing extra work, wasted resources, and frustrations. It’s as much for your benefit as it is for the client’s.
This type of document has the added bonus of serving as a basis for completing milestone reviews during and at the end of the project.
Clarify Learning Objectives
After you define the project’s goals, the next step is to drill down to identify the specific learning objectives necessary to achieve those goals. As you define your learning objectives, you’ll discover what content you’ll need to include in your course. One way to start is by answering these three questions:
- What needs to be learned?
- Who needs to learn it?
- What do they need to know before they can start?
Identify Technology Considerations/Issues
An e-learning project comes with additional challenges. Your course needs to work smoothly on a range of possible hardware and software configurations, without interfering with any other existing applications. This means you will need to address technology-related questions and potential issues, such as:
- Do the learners have access to computers and/or mobile devices?
- Do they have headphones or speakers to listen to audio?
- Where will the e-learning course be hosted?
- Do you need to track the course?
- How much multimedia can your network handle?
A large number of technology issues relate to accurately identifying the constraints you face. Often this involves finding the “lowest common denominator” or worst-case scenario you’ll have to account for.
Be sure to involve the appropriate technical people, such as your IT technician or LMS administrator, at the start of the project so they can help you identify and address any technical issues that could impact the delivery of your course.
Remember, creating your e-learning course is only half the battle. Even the best course is no good if it doesn’t work for your audience when and where they need it.
Planning the Project
With a clear goal and well-defined objective in hand, you have enough info to start planning your project. The next step is to identify the necessary tasks, estimate their durations, and allocate resources. With those pieces in place, you’ll be ready to map out your timeline and the key players.
Establish a Realistic Schedule (Deadlines/Dates)
Everyone wants the project to stay on schedule. In order to do that, you’ll need to set up a timeline that’s attainable, corresponds to your customer’s needs, and is communicated clearly to all stakeholders.
The best project plans include just enough detail to keep the project moving. It is usually sufficient to target the major milestones, and avoid bogging things down with scheduling and tracking details.
To create a realistic and attainable project schedule, you should:
- Identify the necessary deliverables, along with any interdependencies
- Outline the due dates of key milestones and when you expect to have the project wrapped up
- Include deadlines for items the client must provide to you, so they know their responsibilities
- Plan for rework after each stage of review
- Build in time at the end of major phases as a buffer for any unexpected issues or events, since no project ever goes 100% as planned
Get the Right People
Once you’ve identified what needs to be done, you need to assemble the people who will either work on the project or provide the feedback needed to make it a success. The “right people” will vary by project, and will commonly fall into four basic categories: administration and oversight, content creation, multimedia design, and course development.
You should also consider the availability of the people filling these roles for your project. For example, it is often a challenge to schedule time with subject matter experts (SMEs) or to hire external resources, both of which can delay your project’s progress.
Keeping the Project Moving Forward
Use a Flexible/Iterative Process
While having a plan is very important, your process should be flexible enough to handle the inevitable adjustments that will occur without inviting the chaos of uncontrolled changes and excessive scope creep.
Making adjustments during the course of a project is not a bad thing. In fact, changes can represent great opportunities to make a project better. The challenge is to decide which changes to make while balancing budget and timeline expectations.
Typically, there are three types of limiting factors on projects: scope, resources, and schedule. As you consider a change to your project, it’s helpful to know which of the three is most important to your customer. For example, when the schedule is the most critical success factor, project change requests should only be approved if they can be accomplished without delaying the completion of the project.
Critical or Inflexible
Adaptable or Negotiable
Accepting or Will Concede
When you use an iterative process to share prototype or beta versions of the course as they become available, you can continually gather feedback throughout the duration of your project. Then, you can identify issues and make any necessary adjustments early, which is more efficient than waiting until the end, when changes are much more difficult and expensive to make.
Remember: change is good when it leads to better results. Check out this article to find out more about SAM, a more agile approach to e-learning development.
Maintain Open, Transparent Communication
Communication is the single most important factor in the success of any project. As a project manager, it is your responsibility to provide the right information to the right people at the right time without bombarding them with details. The best project managers understand what level of information each team member needs, and consciously select the most appropriate communication method for each.
Take the time to get to know how your stakeholders like to communicate and try to avoid any bottlenecks in the flow of information. Posting information to a commonly accessible location (such as a shared drive or a project review app like Articulate Review) is a great way to avoid miscommunication and confusion.
A helpful idea is to create a simple matrix that identifies who needs what information, why they need it, and when and how best to provide it. The bigger the project, the more important it is to make sure you don’t miss anyone or anything. Here’s a responsibility assignment matrix template made by community member Holly MacDonald that you can adapt to fit your needs.
Establish an Effective Review Process
One of the major things that keeps projects from moving forward is an ineffective review process. According to a recent survey of e-learning developers, they spend a whopping 40 percent of their time iterating their courses with SMEs. But it doesn’t have to be that way!
In my experience, the two main obstacles to an effective review process are a lack of understanding of the review process and the absence of an easy way to collect stakeholder feedback.
The good news is that you can resolve these issues in two simple steps.
- Schedule a meeting with your reviewers before the first review cycle to explain the process to them. Tell them what kind of feedback you expect from them at each stage of the process. Walk them through how to give meaningful feedback that’s easy to interpret. Explain to them that if they don’t agree with something another reviewer has suggested, they should discuss amongst themselves (which they can do directly in Articulate Review, if you’re using it) and come to a consensus so you can apply the necessary changes.
- Use a tool, like Articulate Review, to centralize all stakeholder comments. That way you won’t waste time compiling feedback received from each reviewer just to discover that they have contradicting points of view. They can simply add and reply to comments in context, making sure any discrepancies are resolved without you playing referee.
For more tips on how to simplify the review process, check out this article: 5 Steps to an Easier E-Learning Course Review Process.
Completing the Project
Plan for Completion
It may seem obvious, but when you’re planning your project it’s important to pinpoint the exact moment the project will be considered complete. Is it when you provide the published output to your customer, or when it’s been successfully loaded into the LMS? Failing to agree on a clearly defined project completion point can result in repeated extensions of your timeline and additional costs.
Creating a reusable checklist for wrapping up a project is helpful and might include items such as:
- Final sign-off/acceptance
- Course works in LMS
- Communication to audience
- Completed course provided to customer
- All source files provided to customer
- All administrative tasks and relevant paperwork complete
- Arrangements made for course maintenance and updates
If you documented the project’s expectations, timelines, and deliverables during the planning process, you’ve already got a list of the required deliverables to reference.
Debrief after the Project Is Complete
You should follow up with your customer after the project to learn what went well, and what improvements you could make for your next project. You will want to do this right away, while things are still fresh in everyone’s minds.
When you document exactly what you will deliver and have a common definition of success, you’ve created a great basis for getting feedback. Consider forwarding your project plan to the client to remind them that you fulfilled the agreement successfully.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, managing a successful e-learning project requires more than just your e-learning expertise. You also need some essential project management skills to set the right goals, plan a course of action, and move the plan toward the finish line efficiently. Following these practical guidelines will help you deliver your e-learning projects on time to satisfied, happy customers.
Want to take your project management skills to the next level? These project management resources will help you achieve pro status:
- Five Project Management Tips for Creating Online Courses
- 4 E-Learning Project Management Mistakes and How to Fix Them
- How to Manage E-Learning Project Scope Creep
- 9 E-Learning Project Management Resources to Add to Your Toolkit
- Basic Project Management Plan in Word
- Basic Project Management Timeline in Excel
- E-Learning Project Estimates Worksheet
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