Choosing an Online Learning Product

Posted:22 March 2017

Author: Terri Peters, Community Learning Network

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We live in the age of digital technology, which is fantastic for CALPs who want to provide more learning opportunities for their communities. Sometimes an instructor isn’t always available to meet learners’ needs, or learners are requesting extra practice in using their skills online.

But how do you know which is a good online learning product and which isn’t? CLN is sometimes asked to vet online learning products, but we feel that the best judge of what’s right for your learners is you. You will have the best knowledge of what content and online interface works for your learners. Below are a list of questions you may want to ask yourself and a potential online learning provider to help you with the decision-making process.

One key word of advice – ask for a demonstration of the product before you buy. If possible, ask a learner in your program to attend the demonstration to give feedback on the usefulness of the product.

Ask the provider to demonstrate:

  • How the learning management software works – how the built-in database (if there is one) tracks learners
  • Actual lessons learners will engage in
  • Any assessment tools built into the software
  • All digital aspects of the software – tabs/buttons to navigate through the software, videos, interactive activities, etc.

Research the provider before you contact them for a demonstration

  • Is this an established company/organization or is it a recent start-up? 
  • Does the company/organization have a website? 
  • Are there testimonials from other software users/customers on the website?
  • How many staff do they have - does it look like there’s an organizational structure to support ongoing development of and assistance with using this software?

Reflect on your CALP staff

  • Who would be the best lead contact with the software provider?
  • Do we have an instructor or tutor who can assist learners in using the software?
  • If learners use the software on their own digital devices, is there someone on our staff who can troubleshoot problems learners may have with the software?
  • Do you have a tech person who could help with software installation and/or updating the browsers used to access online learning? 

Assess your CALP’s technology capacity

  • Do we have high speed internet? (Most online software products require this)
  • Do we have a computer lab or access to laptops/tablets to download the software onto?
  • Will learners be using this on their own computer devices? If so, do they have access to high speed internet themselves?

Questions below are both for your CALP and for the learners who may be accessing the learning software independently:

  • Do you have Macs or PCs to run the software properly? (Some software only runs on one platform)
  • What version of Windows is needed to run the software? Do you have that version on your computers or electronic devices?
  • Is it a web-based system, or is there software to install locally? Do you have a person who can help the CALP staff and learners install software?
  • If it is web-based, what browsers are supported? (CALPs and learners may have to update their browsers or have a tech person install updates for them)

Questions to ask yourself about the software demo

  • Is the content appropriate for adult learners or does it seem more focused on K-12?
  • Does the software contain foundational learning activities, or does the level seem too high for the learners we currently have?
  • What kind of management tracking software is included so that instructors/tutors can access learners’ accounts for assessment or training purposes?
  • Are there assessment tools embedded in the learning software? 
  • What do we find out about learners using the assessment? Is this the kind of information that will help instructors/tutors and learners plan further learning OR provide feedback on learners’ skill levels?
  • How is the assessment explained? Is the explanation clear enough for learners themselves to understand? Or for their instructors/tutors to be able to explain things to them?
  • Is the software content customizable? If so, what training does the company/organization provide on customizing content? Is that support free or for a fee?

Questions to ask the software provider

Cost:

  • Is the fee an annual or monthly fee, or per learner? 
  • Would they be willing to negotiate a fee based on CALPs’ non-profit or charity status?
  • Is there a free app that goes with the software

Technology required:

  • Does the software work on both PC and Mac?
  • What version of Windows is needed to run the software?
  • Is it a web-based system, or is there software to install locally? 
  • If it is web-based, what browsers are supported? (CALPs may have to update their browsers or, in some cases, have their tech people approve and/or install updates for them)

Support:

  • What training would we receive if we were to purchase this product? Would we have to pay for that training? If so, how much? By hour or by training event? 
  • What kind of tech support is there for the software once it’s purchased/downloaded? 
  •  How accessible is that tech support? 24-hour service or only certain business hours? (Really good question to ask since many software companies are outside Alberta)
  • Is there a fee for that tech support? If so, is it annual/monthly or by incident?
  • How often does the organization update its software? Is support for loading new upgrades to the software onto CALP computers free?

Security:

  • If learners’ personal information is needed to access the software is it stored on the provider’s server? How secure is that server? 
  • Who has access to learners’ personal information at the provider’s company/organization if it is stored on a company’s server?

Hopefully this gives you some ideas of where to start when considering a new online learning product.

What other advice would you have for CALPs when researching new software? What have been some key questions or considerations for you?

Thanks for sharing!

Terri Peters
Training Manager
Community Learning Network

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