Friday, November 14, 2008

Rapid tools: more bubble machine than bubble

It’s not that the Rapid Tools market is a bubble, it’s a bubble machine, with thousands of little fragile bubbles all floating out and popping within seconds of their creation. Most of these tools and VLEs have the longevity of a fruit fly.

Tools buyers as false starters

I once worked with the CEO of Linguaphone, one of the biggest companies in the languages learning market. They sold CD-ROMS and online stuff to teach you how to learn French, Spanish, Italian, whatever. One day he confessed that that his real market wasn’t language learners at all. Their marketing term for their customers was ‘false starters’, people who wanted to learn a language, buy the product, get started, then crash and fail. He whispered that he had made millions from selling shelfware to people who didn’t learn a damn thing.

Is it the same in the rapid tools industry? Are the buyers, by and large, false starters? Are they being sold the illusion of quick and easy quality content, then get hit with the fact that it’s not so easy? On the whole, I think this is the dynamic in this market. Making these tools has become easy, selling them darn impossible. With sites and blogs galore publishing Top 100 Tools lists, is there any other market where there’s more tools, one for one, than clients? With the price point low and cost of sale high. It’s damn difficult to make money here.

Word doesn’t make you a novelist

A hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter, Excel doesn’t make you an Accountant, Powerpoint doesn’t make you a good speaker... I could go on, and often do, but you get the point. The question is, does this market, its buyers, and investors, really get this point? What percentage of the overall task becomes more productive with most rapid tools? Less than 5% I’d say. Most of the real effort is in design, graphics etc.

Quantity not quality

Templates for screens and questions are fine, but this leads to the Powerpoint problem. The end result is usually a series of mind dumbing, stab-point, text heavy, clip art rubbish. It traps you into a page-turning, manual on screen model, when many of the learning tasks demand more, much more. Just as the e-learning market was starting to produce a broad canvas from simple through scenario-based up to simulations and games, it plunges itself into a quantity not quality model.

Clip-art clowns

With rapid production, as soon as you need images, the clip-art clowns come out to play. Sure you can clip-art away, and infantilise both content and audience, but don’t pretend this is serious learning. I’ve seen medical e-learning programmes dealing with chronic diseases and terminal illnesses clip art the subject to death (sic). Health and safety, compliance – you name it, someone will clip it, trivialising the subject.

Lord Privy Seal

Or you can Google image search and come up with a series of disjointed photographs. The BBC used to have a Lord Privy Seal rule when teaching people about editing. When mentioning this person, you don’t simply show a picture of a Lord, followed by a picture of a WC then a seal. Image to noun stuff is hopeless. They had a point.

Graphics is a skill and most people don’t have this skill. A few cheap brushes and a paint-set doesn’t make you an artist. It doesn’t even make you a basic and competent graphic artist. So why should a basic authoring tool and a graphics package make you a competent content designer?

How do you monetise Rapid e-learning?

Model 1: Communities ain’t cash

OK, let’s create a community. Fine, if you want some dodgy stats to impress investors, but not if you need to generate income. Communities are largely free, fickle and feral. It’s damn difficult to get them to pay, they’ll jump ship at the drop of an ad and take more than they give. Communities are the domain of not-for-profit ideas, like Wikipedia. Crazy strategy. High risk, low reward.

Model 2: Tools as Trojans

Some use their tools as a Trojan horse, leading to real revenues with real margins. Typically, it will be a door opener, with all the baloney about how you’ll be able to make this stuff yourself with little or no previous experience or skills. Then, when you buy it, realise that’s not on, you come back and get them to do it for you. And by the way we’re a licensed reseller for this, that and the next thing. A ‘going nowhere quickly’ model. Low risk, low reward.

Model 3: Forget tools, go bespoke

Some realise that the best solution is to simply make stuff. Sell on the illusion that’s it’s a quick DIY solution, then do it for them. This is Kineo’s very successful model. They’re a bespoke e-learning company with a stripped down process. They never meant to be bespoke, but that was the only way they could make money. This, in my view, is a reasonably smart model. Low risk, medium reward.

Model 4: Sell out

Tools need a brand along with the money, geographic reach and marketing expertise to market and sell that brand. The only people who think this is easy, or cheap, are technical people, often the brains behind the tool, and people who have never run a business, which is almost everyone in education, training and development.

To cut to the quick, to be successful you need to sell your company to a bigger player and ride on the back of their ‘suite’ of tools approach and their clout on global branding and marketing. This is what happens to good tools. They get bought. Selling out is the way to success, usually to a global software company. This may be the best and only way to making lots of moola. High risk, high reward.

Model 5: Go it alone

Ok, you’ve developed your tool and want to make money but don’t want to do any of the above. You’re a pure tools player. Problem is, no one’s ever heard of you and getting them to listen costs cash. Disastrous model. High risk, certain failure.

Don’t get me wrong, good tools are good things, but how many tools does one need in this market? People have short memories. We had dozens of LMSs and LCMSs and VLEs emerging around 2000 and by 2003/4 the market had consolidated into a few winners Saba, Blackboard etc. This was consolidation by attrition, not acquisition. In my 25 years in this industry, I’ve seen hundreds of tools created with 99% of them ultimately dying a quick, sometimes painful and lingering death.


Clive Shepherd said...

Slight difference with you here. The most popular rapid tools are not web 2.0 products, just modern authoring tools with an emphasis on ease of use. The top desktop tools - Captivate, Articulate, Adobe Presenter and Camtasia - definitely make lots of money and are not going to go away. The top pnline tools - Atlantic Link, Mohive, etc. - are also doing very well.

So they are being bought, but probably being used more by e-learning professionals than subject experts. LLike you say, there are two obstacles - one, they don't often have the time and two, they don't have the design skills. These issues can be addressed, but this takes time and the will.

Rob Alton said...


Once again you make many good points, particularly on the monetization models. Ever was it thus. You got me rummaging through my record collection, where I keep press releases from old jobs I've had.

I found this:

"18 September 1986

Make Authoring Simple with Control Data's Micro Authoring System

...allows anyone without programming knowledge to develop and deliver computer based training or communication materials quickly and easily.."

It might as well have said 'rapidly.' Notice it doesn't mention learning design (or courseware design as it was called then) Why? Because you don't need it! It's something anyone can do! Balearics (don't want to swear) I say - it was necessary then as it is now.

We had the devil of a job selling any at all (and it only cost £995 + VAT!). Supporting people who had not a clue about how to design learning that sticks was a miserable experience. Poor learning material was blamed on the features of the system, not the author and it's possibly the same now.We made some money doing it for users.

Look at the big successes:

TenCore (PLATO after a spat)
Authorware (PLATO after another spat)
C (pluses)

Similarities? They were best left in the hands of people who had the subset of skills to take learning designs, graphics, AV media and make them into something more than just the sum of the parts: a piece of learning that promotes reflection, practice and remembering. There was some crepe (sic) as well of course. And there was stuff typed directly in to the screen as the deadline loomed. And, despite what we read in the almost bi-weekly press releases, most elearning isn't rapid even now.

You do need to be careful though - Captivate, Camtasia and Course Genie are popular with teachers (lectures particularly I've found) to provide short, explanatory objects that can often help students enormously, particularly with the threshold skills of numeracy and literacy . Note sure if these things call themselves rapid though.

I could go on, but in summary I'd rather download a .pdf if the rapid person wants me to read screens with pretty (or naff) graphics.

Please keep stirring Dr Clark.This should be a good one

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Donald.

I agree with Rob. 'Twas ever thus.

Looking at the big picture, this is a societal trait. In particular, the retailing of 'quality' tools (in the broadest sense) has gone over the top. There are many examples.

How many top quality musical instruments are sold to people who never actualise the potential of the instrument they purchase? For the last 35 years, only a few percent of Martin (or equivalent) guitars have been sold to people who have been able to (eventually if not before) play a tune on them worth listening to.

How many top quality cameras are sold to people who never actualise the potential of the instrument they purchase? For the last 35 years, only a few percent of Nikon (or equivalent) cameras have been sold to people who have been able to (eventually if not before) take a class photograph that matched the standard of the technology used to take it.

I won't repeat the pattern, but the same can be said for any number of high quality technologies that money can buy. It can also be said for high quality education, though I understand that I'm on shaky ground just broaching this subject, especially if it's paid for by the state.

It's the outcomes that you are talking about when you rant - as you did - about the hammers the Excel and the Powerpoint not producing quality practitioners.

How much of this is the egalitarian principle that swept western society that everyone should have the same chance and entitlement? In everything?

It was believed 40 years ago in Britain that every child should have the opportunity to go to university. Even then, I thought, "Get real!" The principle is the same.

As long as there is the affluent society (and it's still around) and 'egalitarian' opportunities, mediocrity is going to be fostered, at great expense to society. One of the greatest expenses is the cost of excellence, which in education is a great cost and one that is actually not fostering true egalitarianism, where every learner has the same chance to reach their true potential.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Donald Clark said...

Rob and Ken appeal to history, and I agree that a mountain of evidence has shown that only a fraction of the tools and within that a fraction of users who bought those tools, actually produce quality output.

Rob's point about the hyperbole surrounding the efficacy of these tools is correct. They are sold on a false promise - that all of this is easy - it's not.

I also think Clive is right about the real market for the tools he mentions as being e-learning professionals, and not SMEs, but that's not how they're sold.

jay said...

Donald, you need to put more time into writing your next novel. That said, I'd like your permission to incorporate lots of your words above into my un-book on Learnscaping. Why waste time rewording to avoid charges of plagiarism? And yes, I'll send you a copy.


Donald Clark said...

No problem Jay. Glad you liked it.