Imagine buying a car, turning up to collect it, to discover it had no wheels? Who would think to ask if the car came with wheels or not? Wheels are certainly a possibility according to the salesperson, but that will be another thousand dollars. You are of course very unhappy about this, but having already spent a small fortune on the car, it makes sense to spend this little bit more so that it is at least functional.

So, on go the wheels, you get in the drivers seat, turn the key - and nothing happens.

“Oh, did you want an engine,” says the mechanic, “they work best with an engine.”
“Of course I want an engine. Say... will that cost me extra?”

You write a cheque for another five thousand dollars and in goes the engine – but still the car does not move.“Fuel? You’ve not put any fuel in it? How do I drive it off the lot without fuel?”

Far fetched? Perhaps for the car sales industry but this is exactly what it is like for an SME trying to create a commercial e-learning product. How do I know? Because we’ve been stuck in this quagmire for 18 months. Don’t get me wrong, we are working with terrific people and organisations, who between them have an impressive amount of knowledge in this area. It’s just that if you don’t know it is your responsibility to check if wheels are included, then the ‘people in the know’, assume you understand this.

We are educational content producers, with filmmaking credentials. Traditionally we have written and produced award winning drama based films and accompanying coursework. 18 months ago we embarked on the project of turning these films and coursework into online, interactive learning. We had a benchmark in our sights, which included a level of functionality and interactivity, which we had not yet seen in anyone else’s work. Essentially we put our successful international business back in to ‘start-up’ mode.

What we have discovered is that the technology side of building online learning is like sailing your ship in unchartered waters.

‘How can this be?’ I hear you ask – it is not as if we are the first company to make e-learning? Well of course we’re not, but every build is unique in its own way and requires original solutions and not just duplications of other people's solutions. In addition, the technology simply changes so fast that you need to be prepared to rebuild your product every 12-18 months to keep up with market requirements.

Starting from a position of knowing nothing, we embarked on our Everest like learning curve. At base camp we learn about the LMS, or Learning Management System. Our options are endless. We could spend a couple of hundred thousand dollars, or we could use a free one, or any of the possibilities in between. But what is the difference between all of them? Getting someone without an agenda to answer this is difficult, if not impossible, as everyone naturally espouses the credentials of their favoured system? Eventually, we wade through all of the information at our disposal and choose one. We’re now on our way.

Next stop, let’s start building the content. Well, for the uninitiated, the LMS is not a content builder, and certainly not for the type of content functionality that we wanted to build. In fact as it turns out, the type of content and functionality we want to build requires a little bit of new technology. Didn’t see that one coming. We spend our dollars to create a new platform and interface that will talk nicely to our LMS. Great, let’s build this thing. We now have an LMS programmer, a Flash and Flex programmer, an editor and a graphic designer working together to create our first online short course. Everybody has done a terrific job and it looks beautiful, the functionality is terrific and the feedback from those we have shown it to is fabulous. So let’s sell it.

The plan is that people/organisations will buy a license for however many participants they want to put through the course. Well, that was the plan.

Unfortunately, the wheels required to execute
the plan were not part of the vehicle we were driving. Worse than that, these special wheels hadn’t even been invented yet.

So let’s invent these wheels, I can always sell a cornea if need be. We write another cheque for a custom made licensing engine.

Meanwhile, we have been busily building our second online short course and it is finished. We are now ready to start show casing these two courses to distributors and big organisations around the world.

What do you mean the same person cannot enrol in both courses? Our licensing engine turns out to be a two wheel drive instead of a four wheel drive. That can be fixed – so back to the factory for a little more customisation and voilà, our licensing engine is now capable of enrolling you in as many courses as you want to do.

Our first customer buys a license for 36 users. They of course need to know when their staff have completed the course and what their results are. Simple, our LMS has a reporting function. Well as it turns out, it’s not so simple. Our LMS, which stores usernames, is separate from our licensing engine, which houses the details of the license key (details such as how many users and other purchasing information). To fix this and make it functional we now need to create yet another piece of new technology to handle the reporting functions.

We are almost at the stage of being able to sell and report the online courses we have created, from our own website. Now that we have this model under control, we can roll it out to our network of distributors all around the world. Most of these major distributors will want to host the courses themselves within their own LMSs so we will be required to make sure the material is SCORM compliant so it can be dropped into another LMS and work with their system.

This is where the wheels start to fall off a little. There are two version of SCORM. Version 1.2 and version 2004. Most LMS’ do not currently support 2004, so version 1.2 is the way to go. Oh dear, but 1.2 does not support much of the functionality that has made our e-learning such a talking point around the world. Nobody wants to lose our functionality as it is what makes this e-learning so popular. Now we’re stuck – again.

We will spend the next few weeks sorting through these issues until we can find a solution that will a) work and b) not require me to sell a kidney.

We will then enjoy a few moments of joy in the delusion that all of our technology difficulties have now been solved, before returning to earth with a thud as we are faced with the next challenge.

We do appreciate all the hard work everyone has contributed to our new product development. However, without being a large company with deep pockets, you can now see why start up technology companies can find themselves drowning in development costs before they ever get anywhere near the market.

Anyway - that’s what we discovered.