Budgeting a Digital Learning Object

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Contents

Module Summary

In higher education, many of the faculty / subject matter experts build their own digital learning objects (like videos, like screencasts, like slideshows, and so on). The authoring tools and built-in technologies in classrooms enable the creation of such digital learning objects (DLOs). However, in other cases, the DLOs are sufficiently complex to require professional support. In such contexts, it helps to be able to budget out what it may cost for such learning objects. This short module addresses some basics in building a budget for a DLO in a higher education context.

Takeaways

Learners will...

  • study what digital learning objects (DLOs) are and the most common types of DLOs created either by SMEs or by professional shops
  • review the general required phases for the design and development of digital learning objects
  • contemplate why it is important to budget a digital learning object in a higher education context
  • list some of the basic realities at an institution of higher education that affect the budgeting of a DLO and how these realities affect the budgeting
  • consider some cost-saving measures in the building of DLOs

Module Pretest

1. What is a “digital learning object” (DLO)? An online course? What are some types of digital learning objects? Which DLOs tend to be most expensive to create and build, and why? Which are the most common types of DLOs created in a higher education shop? Why? What are some common DLOs created by (1) the local subject matter experts (SMEs), and which are those created by a professional shop (on-campus, off-campus)? Why?

2. What are the general required phases in building a digital learning object? Why? What parts of the design and development phases are the most expensive? The least expensive? Why? Which parts of the development of a DLO are most prone to unpredictable cost shifts?

3. Why is it important to “budget” a digital learning object (DLO)? What are some purposes of creating a budget for a digital learning object (or an online course)?

4. What are some basic realities in an institution of higher education that affect the budgeting of a digital learning object? How do these realities affect how a budget is put together? When does it make sense to go off-campus for some design and development services?

5. What are some common approaches to saving on costs in the design and building of digital learning objects? (What are some methods for dealing with a tight budget?) Is it possible to capture additional funds once a design / development project has started?

Main Contents

1. What is a “digital learning object” (DLO)? An online course? What are some types of digital learning objects? Which DLOs tend to be most expensive to create and build, and why? Which are the most common types of DLOs created in a higher education shop? Why? What are some common DLOs created by (1) the local subject matter experts (SMEs), and which are those created by a professional shop (on-campus, off-campus)? Why?

A digital learning object (DLO) is a (stand-alone) unit of learning that may be reusable in various contexts and may also be sequenced and linked for various learning contexts. DLOs may be part of an online course. They may be a part of short courses as well.

Some common types of digital learning objects include videos, screencasts, audio podcasts, photo collections, image collections, games, simulations, and so on. They may be assignments, assessments, activities, and other elements that are often used with learning contents.

The DLOs that are most expensive to create and build are those that require any of the following:

  • complex design (games, simulations, tabletop exercises, and others),
  • complex development (AI objects in a virtual world, virtual worlds, and others),
  • travel,
  • access to valuable information (proprietary research)
  • access to rare talent (unusual talent),
  • access to complex technologies, and so on.

Run-of-the-mill instructional design itself is not inexpensive. A regular toolset for an instructional designer contains thousands of dollars worth of software and hardware, to start.

In a higher education shop, the most common types of DLOs created seem to be slideshows (yes, often PowerPoints) and screencast videos and videos.

The most common DLOS by local SMEs include slideshows and videos (including screencast videos). There are podcasts. There is a healthy usage of others’ DLOs, such as TED Talks videos and other contents, including many open source learning objects.

On-campus professional shops do a healthy business in videography in different contexts (such as high-end labs, stages, and so on). The instructional design shops are used for the creation of scripts, case studies, assessment instruments (built on electronic survey platforms), data analytics, and other applications.

Off-campus professional shops are often brought into play for videos. Sometimes, developers are brought in to create animations.

In terms of truly expensive design and development work, that is usually only possible with external grant funding. Otherwise, most design and development work stays on the lower-cost end of things.


2. What are the general required phases in building a digital learning object? Why? What parts of the design and development phases are the most expensive? The least expensive? Why? Which parts of the development of a DLO are most prone to unpredictable cost shifts?

The phases to building a digital learning object follow a typical trajectory. First, there is an individual or a team that has a project that has been funded (whether internally or externally). The authorizing documents require certain deliverables that meet certain learning objectives, legal requirements, accessibility standards, technological standards, and others. A team is brought together, and they go through an environmental scan to see what resources are available online and offline; what strategies are used to deliver the learning; what raw materials are available by open-source and generous licensure; and so on. There are other resources assessed, such as the availability of talent (to feature in videos, in podcasts…or to support the design of the learning objects, and so on). Then, a design plan is put together. A stylebook is created to guide the development of the learning objects. Prototypes are created, and templates are designed and revised and approved. Then, the development work begins. The work is assessed at every stage, and changes are made. The digital contents are alpha-tested, then beta-tested (with a learning public), if available. The learning object is launched, and professional assessors are brought in to ensure that the learning is occurring effectively. If not, then revisions should be made to ensure that the learning contents are as effective as possible.

As for which parts of the design and development phases are most expensive, usually, the highest costs are in the development phases because those require plenty of complex talent an high level skills, expensive technologies, and professional time. (The design phase is critical for setting projects on the proper path, though, and so is more important in some ways than the development phase.) What parts of design and development are the least expensive? The environmental scan is probably the least expensive phase because that only involves people reviewing what is available in the world.

In general, it is possible to price out the various elements required for the development of digital learning objects: people’s time, information, software and hardware, imagery, and so on. What is dynamic in this scenario in terms of surprises may be unexpected occurrences, such as non-functioning equipment or lost DV tapes or changes in featured talent, and so on. (Testing of equipment, bringing backup batteries and memory devices and equipment, and smart management of project resources can head off some of these potential surprises.) Improper planning can entail surprise costs. Serendipity in the world can affect the predictability of the project costs as well. Poor leadership, non-committal decision-making (changing directions on the fly) can also result in surprise costs. New opportunities for the development of learning modules or additional DLOs will involve additional costs (and such opportunities may be too good to let slip).

Finally, creative work can be challenging, with periods of non-inspiration. If there is a lot of required creativity for various aspects of the project, that may be a budgetary challenge.


3. Why is it important to “budget” a digital learning object (DLO)? What are some purposes of creating a budget for a digital learning object (or an online course)?

For regular work, without internal or external funding for the development of DLOs, the only budgeting that is engaged in usually relates to budgeting time and resources, in order to plan work…to meet deadlines. This sort of budgeting is informal and done as a mental back-of-the-napkin exercise.

For more formalized budgeting, there is usually an amount of money set aside for the instructional design. The budgeting here is to see what is possible for the amount of money available. (There is budgeting for grant applications as well, and this is partially limited by the size of the moneys available and the rules of the grant application.) The point is to be efficient with funding, resources, and time…and to turn in deliverables on budget and on time and at quality (for all stakeholders). If there are moneys left over, those can be put to building additional learning objects or doing more work on the existing ones. If a budget comes up short, local designers and developers generally just keep working and “eat” the time. Submitting something of quality is more important than stopping work the moment the funds have stopped. In a few rare cases, it is possible to acquire some extra funds (but usually only when the grant funder has some extra bit of money sloshing around in their budget).


4. What are some basic realities in an institution of higher education that affect the budgeting of a digital learning object? How do these realities affect how a budget is put together? When does it make sense to go off-campus for some design and development services?

In an institution of higher education, everyone tends to be working on tight budgets, and most deans will not spend money unless they absolutely have to. With the simplifying of screencasting technologies, faculty (the local subject matter experts or “SMEs”) are expected to make their own learning objects where possible…and capture pedagogical and andragogical data where they can. If professional instructional design is brought into play, it is as a temporary advisors…to the SMEs…

Learning objects are built for the university learning management system (LMS), the survey system, and other technologies (many of them hosted off-campus). In other words, the learning objects have to function technologically within complex systems.

A majority of DLOs are built and deployed…and seldom assessed for learning efficacy, except in the cases of faculty making observations of their students’ learning…and listening to student critiques and commentary.

In terms of schedules, objects need to be built within a semester or a quarter, usually, depending on how much lead-up time the SMEs have before the course is launched. The point is not perfectionism but what may achieve the learning objectives, given the resource / informational / talent / time / budgetary constraints.

Often, once an LO is designed and developed, it is left to run for a year or two… In some cases, such LOs are used for upwards of a decade or even longer.

Sometimes, accessibility requirements are not met. Sometimes, intellectual property standards are not met.

Often, raw files are not maintained. Design documents and thinking are not kept.

When does it make sense to go off-campus for development? Usually, this depends on the digital learning object desired…the skills desired…and available moneys. So it depends…

In terms of going off-campus, most of this involves the making of professional-looking videos with a certain sheen of professionalism. On-campus talent for video-making is often very high…but this talent may be limited to particular colleges or units…and the few open-access videographers on campus may be relatively expensive with filled schedules. (Such off-campus services do not often provide any accessibility accommodations for the videos. Auto-closed captioning has to be applied by the faculty and their staff, if available.)


5. What are some common approaches to saving on costs in the design and building of digital learning objects? (What are some methods for dealing with a tight budget?) Is it possible to capture additional funds once a design / development project has started?

Some common ways to save on costs are as follows:

  • Communicate clearly among the stakeholders, to ensure that there is clear understanding about expectations and outcomes. Use models. Use templates.
  • Use what is available on open-source…such as photos in collections by the U.S. government and out in the public domain (read the fine print!). Use the Creative Commons search (read the fine print!). Use reputable freeware where possible.
  • Build legally, and head off risks.
  • Build digital learning objects in a future proofed way, so that the lifespan of the DLOs may be expanded.
  • Build on human relationships and good will. On campuses are many transactional relationships and all sorts of loyalties. Building on those can be very positive in terms of returned favors.
  • Build partnerships, and share resources where possible.
  • Version the digital learning objects so that they may be used in a variety of technological contexts. Expand their value.
  • Protect the intellectual property and access. Do not give away competitive advantage.

Examples

How To

Possible Pitfalls

Module Post-Test

1. What is a “digital learning object” (DLO)? An online course? What are some types of digital learning objects? Which DLOs tend to be most expensive to create and build, and why? Which are the most common types of DLOs created in a higher education shop? Why? What are some common DLOs created by (1) the local subject matter experts (SMEs), and which are those created by a professional shop (on-campus, off-campus)? Why?

2. What are the general required phases in building a digital learning object? Why? What parts of the design and development phases are the most expensive? The least expensive? Why? Which parts of the development of a DLO are most prone to unpredictable cost shifts?

3. Why is it important to “budget” a digital learning object (DLO)? What are some purposes of creating a budget for a digital learning object (or an online course)?

4. What are some basic realities in an institution of higher education that affect the budgeting of a digital learning object? How do these realities affect how a budget is put together? When does it make sense to go off-campus for some design and development services?

5. What are some common approaches to saving on costs in the design and building of digital learning objects? (What are some methods for dealing with a tight budget?) Is it possible to capture additional funds once a design / development project has started?


References

Extra Resources