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E-Learning Advice

Bob Wendover

A large client of ours wants to place a self-directed educational program we offer on their network so it can be viewed by 2000 of their managers. We’ve not done this before. I’m seeking insight on 1) the overall mechanical challenges of making this happen, 2) protecting our intellectual property, 3) suggestions for vendors who can work with us from a technical standpoint to facilitate this, and 4) would it be better for us to maintain the offering on our servers and allow the managers to access it through our system. It contains a number of video clips.

— Alex S. Brown

I spent about two years as the main technology project manager for Merrill Lynch’s eLearning platform for its retail stock brokers (well over 10,000 users), so I understand your problems well. I am not quite sure where to begin. I have a ton of questions for you. I will give you some advice based on what I read below, but with more background I could be much more focused and much more specific.

Regarding your IP rights, you should be in good shape with a good lawyer and a signed contract. I do some types of work without a signed contract, but for something like this, I would want everything signed and executed on both sides before releasing the online learning materials to the client on their site. You need to grant them the right to use, house on their site, and view the materials, but you need to keep every other right. Be sure to think about who is allowed to view the material (just employees, or also consultants? All branches, or just one office? If they acquire another company or grow beyond a certain number of employees, does the contract apply to everyone? Are the number of users limited in some way, like number of registered users?). There are a ton of possible questions here, but a good contract can iron it all out. Also, because you are giving them the physical material to host on their site, be sure that there is some way you can audit the proper use of your material. Including some right to inspect counters or the server might be critical, to enforce the contract terms.

Also think about their rights to adapt your materials, methods, and technologies to other course materials (“derivative works”). You might want to allow or forbid that.

The mechanical challenges might be small or great, depending on your technology match. If they run the same basic server/PC setup that you normally use to deliver to other customers, it should be easy. If you host on Linux, and they are a Windows shop, you may have complications. I have seen many solutions to these problems. Depending on the materials you provide, their size, and their format, different solutions might work best. Often a CD or DVD gets burned with the materials along with some installation instructions. Some vendors supply a PC with their whole system pre-configured. Just plug it into the network, give it an IP address, and it is working. Other vendors visit on-site to do the installation themselves. Some require a dedicated server, while others will live happily with other applications on the same server. There are so many ways to go here. Figure out something you can support.

You may want to just keep everything on your servers, and give them a special, protected access to their content. That can be simpler, but it might not be feasible. Sometimes the network load is too great, and sometimes there are security issues, especially if the training material is sensitive. My first choice would be to host the material yourself, especially if that is what you are already doing for other courses.

Regarding vendors who can help with the technical aspects, once I find out more about your technology, I could offer the names of people who specialize in Windows of Unix systems, who could handle the end-to-end technical issues. You also want a good lawyer, preferably one who knows IP and software licensing, to write up your contract.


  • What type of platform is the system running on? Unix? Windows? A single PC? A networked server?
  • What type of server and PC hardware requirements exist? Where does the learning material get installed? Just on the server or also on all clients?
  • What is your subscription model? Per-user license? Whole-organization license fee? Are the users registered in the system in any way? Are there counters that you collect and that you want to limit?
  • How tech-savvy are you and your staff? Have you ever packaged software for distribution before? This can be more difficult than you think. It may take several weeks or months for you to create an installation package, test it, and deploy it successfully to your first client.
  • How tech-savvy is the client? Do they have the support of the IT department, and do they have dedicated people and hardware ready to run your program right now?
  • Does your client already run the same basic operating system and other support software that your educational program uses? In other words, if you run on a Unix server, do they have Unix servers already or would this be their first?
  • Is the client physically nearby, so you can easily visit and help support the installation?
  • Is the educational material sensitive or confidential, so that it absolutely cannot be seen by anyone outside the company?
  • Do you have enough bandwidth today to support having their 2000 managers view the video clips? I am not sure how many might view them at the same time, but I have seen some huge network surges when several classrooms of 20 or more log onto the same system at the same time, as directed by their instructor. Does your client have the bandwidth to support this?
  • Is the client super security-conscious? Will you be allowed on-site to help with the installation? Working with a local retail company is completely different than working with a top-secret government lab, for instance.

Those are enough questions to get started. I hope I have not overwhelmed you, but I have been through what you are going to do, and I can imagine many possible outcomes.

— Elizabeth Power

Much of my career has been spent developing training — instructor led and e-learning — and I helped with the ground-up design, development, and implementation of the e-learning system for auto retailer training at J.D. Power and Associates. All that to let you know I know, though there are many others who may know more, a few things about this. Right now my “steady gig” involves identifying how to help a not-for-profit put proprietary material into an e-learning format, so the research is fresh.

1) the overall mechanical challenges of making this happen

  • Complexity: requires authoring systems, knowledge of use, knowing the ins and outs of the differences between e-learning instructional design and instructor-led instructional design, also requires LMS/CMS (learning and content management systems; “L” does course catalogue, enrollment, tracking, reports; “C” is the functional database holding all the learning objects, such as a videos, required by the course that the “compiler” assembles to create your course), then there’s the shopping cart for online use... yadayada.
  • Cost: software, hardware if you develop, host, maintain can range from $10K-250K.
  • Constraints: the technical side is mountainous.
  • RECOMMENDATION: use Web-hosted site, with a built in authoring tool that is easy to use, who will customize the “front door” and handle the shopping cart end of things. Trust me. Tell them you’d be glad to link from their site to your course, which allows you to capture who is using it and keeps them honest(er).

2) protecting our intellectual property,

  • If it’s on their server, you can’t prevent them from showing to many more people — this is a loss of control and may represent an unacceptable risk.
  • Your contract should specify that you are granting them a limited license to use this on a per use basis for up to 200 uses for X dollars. In no case should you grant them an unlimited worldwide license.
  • Hosted applications do not assume ownership of your content.

3) suggestions for vendors who can work with us from a technical standpoint to facilitate this, and

  • My current favorite, for a Web-hosted application with an easy to use authoring tool, and flexible pricing, who has been in the business for a LONG time and has a great reputation, is www.trainingdepartment.com. Don is a great guy with lots of skill. Desire2learn is also good, though not as easy to use. ANGEL Learning may also be good. For soft skills where a one-on-one coaching model of learning is best, and where audio and video that needs to be bookmarked for learning is helpful, I’m working on a relationship with a vendor from the UK. Will let you know more when I get back from a site visit in January.

4) would it be better for us to maintain the offering on our servers and allow the managers to access it through our system. It contains a number of video clips.

  • It would be, IMHO, better for you to maintain your offering on someone else’s servers, where your video clips will probably be able to cached on the host’s server and viewed more quickly at better speed. If you host them, you have to have enough bandwidth on YOUR server to make sure the maximum number of users signed on at one time viewing the video simultaneously does not degrade their viewing experience.

— Tom Terrific

I use e-learning all the time. Look at Lynda.com. I subscribe to this service and it’s well worthwhile. If people want to steal your program, there’s nothing you can do to stop it. You can discourage it, but you can’t stop it. If you keep the material on your servers, you can downgrade the signal a bit, so your original high-quality is not available, but your general content is easily borrowed. You can convert your materials to Flash which is a well-used format these days. This could be highly lucrative. Lynda.com charges $25/month X 2000 = $600,000/year.

— Melanie Benson Strick

Great resource with tons of experience working with e-learning programs: Karen Boyle, karenb@learninggurus.com

— Tim Wackel

I know MLink in Dallas who I think could do a bang up job for you. Clare Davis, VP of Client Services, cdavis@mlinktech.com

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