What you need to know about eLearning content libraries

Susan Hurrell
Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
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Imagine being a great chef with access to a near-unlimited pantry of ingredients – everything you need to produce whatever dish you wanted to make. Sometimes you and your team labor over your original recipes, your in-house specialties, and signature creations, where you make your scratch from – well, scratch. You have a garden that provides you with all the organic, hand-picked goodness your patrons desire. 

But, you also allow your clientele to request any dish (within reason, of course – no one gets to order dinosaur steak tartar), and you deliver it up to them, literally on a platter. Sometimes, you might be asked to recommend the right dish to a patron because they may not know what they want to consume. Some days, you put out a fixed menu, determining what your patrons would have to eat – or a buffet – giving them a limited number of choices but the ability to self-select what appeals to them. 

Sometimes, you call in a professional caterer to help you provide what is needed to ensure your audience is properly fed – because they can make ready-to-eat meals for the masses far faster than you can – and it frees up your resources to do the things that only you can do.

Yes, Chef!

Left side: a character wearing a restaurant uniform holding a silver platter, delivering it to a character who is seated at a table. Right side: two chefs in a kitchen. Both are dressed in a chef's coat and hat, with one holding a roast chicken on a plate, and one holding a bowl of soup.

Think of your eLearning team as a restaurant

Now apply the same metaphor to your online training. Who’s who in our little eLearning team analogy?

You, the Chef de Cuisine

The Training Manager, the Director of Learning and Development, the Chief Learning Officer (CLO)– whatever your leadership title is – are the Chef de Cuisine running the restaurant’s kitchen.

Your eLearning designers, the sous-chefs and prep cooks

Acting as your in-house L&D sous-chefs who create the courses you need from the ingredients (information) you have in-house – your internal manuals, SOPS docs, and subject matter experts (that’s the garden of fresh, organic, in-house ingredients, ripe for the picking).

Your hired custom course design partners, the temporary hired help

No matter the reason for hired assistance when it comes to L&D or in the kitchen – companies like our Custom Learning team – work with you to create customized eLearning content, interviewing, storyboarding, and building your unique courses, to your precise recipes or specifications. We’re an extension of your in-house team or your permanent partner in training if you don’t have in-house expertise.

Your eLearning content library providers, the caterers

Your caterers, providing you with a menu of pre-built, ready-to-deliver eLearning courses on in-demand general topics (which isn’t to say that the courses themselves aren’t very detailed and specific). This is like an additional pantry of ingredients for you to blend into your training mix, with courses that cover almost every topic imaginable that your employees might need training on. Everything from hard skills like how to use various online platforms or tools (like how to master Microsoft Word) to soft skills that prepare employees for promotion and additional responsibilities – like management skills. It’s an ever-expanding buffet of training topics, ready to go.

You have just entered the world of eLearning content libraries.

What is an eLearning content library?

eLearning content libraries are usually subscription-driven platforms of pre-built online courses created by subject matter experts and made available through a central directory-type service. You subscribe to the platform and decide what courses you would like to make available to your employees. Kind of like a Netflix or Spotify-style service – more goodness than you can consume in one sitting and content that you could not hope to credibly create in-house for the price.

A character is holding up a smartphone. Coming off of the smartphone is a bubble, which contains a background fulll of books on shelves. Overlaid on the bubble of books is a smartphone with a list of video and image tiles, and on top of that is a large button which says "Subscribe."

You may be able to purchase your subscription and select your courses without assistance, but for power users, it's best to connect with a dedicated representative either from the content provider or your LMS who works with that content provider to ensure that you get the best price and that the courses will upload properly in your LMS. 

They are like your personal sommelier, your trusted advisor selecting the right courses to accompany and enhance your ongoing training feast. You’ll want to get updates on new course offerings, any maintenance announcements about downtime or other issues, and to have someone who knows you and your needs to answer your questions. 

Some course libraries are resold by other course libraries, which incorporate Company A’s course list into their own courses. So no, you’re not mistaken if you see the same course or instructor on more than one platform. Lots of places have the same items on the menu, right?

How do eLearning content libraries set their prices? 

When it comes to pricing, it can be “a la carte” or “Table d'hôte” (fixed prices). Let me explain. 

  • Some eLearning content libraries charge you based on how many courses you “borrow” from their catalog and/or how many learners you put through the courses. 
  • Some charge on a per-course basis, which may reflect how they compensate their subject matter experts. A course hosted by a known celebrity-type specialist (think Seth G or Gary V on marketing, Bill Gates on corporate governance) may cost more than courses by lesser-known SMEs. 
  • Some platforms offer their courses at a flat rate, and some have their own formula of tiered pricing – “X number of learners” multiplied by “Y number of courses” over “Z timespan.”
Three blocks in a row that depict three things that may affect pricing for a content library. The first block shows a series of user icons, some of which have checksmarks, others are faded, and is titled "number of learners." The second, middle block shows three rows of play icons, with the top two rows also having a $ icon with each play icon and the bottom row having two $ icon per, and it is titled with "courses and specialty content," The final block has a calendar with 6 spaces, and 4 of these spaces have green checkmarks, with the title "length of subscription."

What kind of courses are in these pre-made eLearning libraries?

Generally speaking, these pre-made courses are more affordable than creating your own custom eLearning courses for more common topics or courses where specialized subject matter experts are required, such as soft-skills training, management training, health and safety state standards, etc. There are specialists in many areas making requirement-compliant courses – why reinvent the wheel in-house? Using a content library will allow your internal L&D team to focus on building courses specific to your business – how your factory runs, what your franchise operations manual teaches, or what your specific requirements are for onboarding, upskilling, reskilling, and everboarding.

How many courses are there in the standard eLearning content library? 

Every course provider has a library of content, ranging from a few dozen courses to tens of thousands. The smaller course providers are usually highly specialized in their topics and appeal to limited audiences. They may be geographically limited if they include information about regional (think state/province/country) compliance regulations in a specific industry or practice. 

Text on the image reads, "# of courses" with a chart showing two horizontal, stacked bars. The bottom one is labelled "1,000" and is significantly smaller than (approximately one-tenth of) the top bar, which is labelled "10,000+."

Most course providers have an almost daunting number of courses in their library – another good reason to develop a relationship with a dedicated representative – so they can help you select the courses that best meet your needs. 

Depending on the subject, these off-the-shelf courses will likely range in difficulty from novice-level to expert. They may be industry specific – for example – a hand-washing course would be slightly different if it was targeted to food-handling front-line workers as opposed to workers in a chemical or manufacturing plant. In the first, you need to ensure you are not passing germs along to your customers. In the second, you need to make sure you are not contaminated with dangerous chemicals. Different focuses, indeed!

Training is rarely “one-course-fits-all-forever” in scope. Every company will have learners of all ranges of ability and skill levels. Even curricula like onboarding might be customized to a department, a region, or a specific job role or skillset. A good eLearning content library will have courses ranging from beginner to expert on many subjects where it makes sense. This allows you to easily progress students down a learning path, building their skills, without having to wait for the next course to be developed. That’s the eLearning content library’s job – to ensure they have the breadth of course depth and overall topic selection that meets your needs.

What format are off-the-shelf eLearning courses – audio? video? animation? 

If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know how much I love it when the answer to the question is, “It depends!” Most courses on the platforms I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a fair few) resemble video lectures with a background, maybe a whiteboard used by the teacher. Some may more closely resemble a slide deck with narration. Some may include animations or simulations. There may be panel discussions or round tables.

Text on image reads, "course format" and is in the center of 4 icons that surround it. Starting at the top, going clockwise: A play button , a bouncing circle, a page with lines and a folded corner, and a speaker/volume button.

The important thing to consider is this – is this the best way to present the information for that specific subject? It wouldn’t make sense to have a course on how to plate a beautiful meal without images or video, right? 

What are the advantages of using an eLearning content library? 

There are many advantages to subscribing to an off-the-shelf course library. Which ones are most helpful for you? And does the eLearning content library you’re considering offer these features or services?

There are two columns, each of which have 5 check boxes and blank lines to represent list text. On the left, the list is Nice-to-haves which contains 3 checkmarked boxes and 2 with X's. On the right is the Must-haves list, with 4 checkmarked boxes and one with an X.

LMS integrations

Most of the major, highly rated eLearning libraries have easy integration with your LMS – either through SCORM or through a robust API. This puts all your training and reporting in one place. You can then see a learner’s entire performance, from your bespoke onboarding program, through third-party upskilling and reskilling, including any instructor-led training you may offer (especially in hands-on work, where hands-on training is required.) 

A quick starting point

Once you’ve selected your courses and uploaded them to your LMS, your learners should be able to get started learning right away.

Create a learning plan

Being able to build a progressive learning plan that takes your learners from beginner to advanced skills development, where one course builds on the previous one, to reduce unnecessary repetition of foundational knowledge and keep learners engaged.

Solve knowledge gaps

The ability to see and set prerequisites, either based on learner knowledge checks or other assessment tools, to ensure that learners progress successfully through their materials, guiding them through a learning plan that fits their own level of knowledge.

Save money

Not having to invest your L&D resources in building “common knowledge” courses – like how to use Google tools or the various components of Microsoft Office – let the experts create the courses, so you can focus on your own unique needs as defined by your business operations.

Save time

Courses can be purchased, uploaded, and assigned sometimes within one or two business days. You may want to have courses integrated into your learning management system through a SCORM integration, or you may want to buy courses that live on their own delivery platform. Having courses integrated into your own in-house training plan through your LMS means your reporting can be done with the data all in one place – and integrated with your HRIS or other software.

Stay compliant

Your team won’t have to worry about updating courses where compliance is a regulatory requirement; that’s the job of the course content provider. Rest easy knowing your team is being trained to the most current standards.

Support your ambitious employees

You may find that you have employees who want to learn as much as they can – it may surprise you how hungry your team is to learn more. This is especially true if you can offer them access to courses outside their assigned learning track – side dishes to their usual meal plan. Give them a menu with a wealth of course choices – you’ll learn a lot about your team by seeing what courses they select. Someone may be interested in an entirely different area of the company or want to move up to management – and are willing to invest their time in any courses that will help them achieve their personal goals. That’s a good thing! And it improves employee retention – most employees leave their jobs because they feel at a dead end and aren’t offered training in order to grow their primary or secondary skills.

Things to consider before using an eLearning content library 

Judging by the long list of advantages above, using an eLearning content library to deliver training at your organization can help achieve your goals in the short- and long-term. However, no technology is perfect. As you begin evaluating eLearning libraries, it’s important to understand some of their limitations or potential roadblocks you may encounter while using them.

To characters stand with their backs to the viewer, looking up at the words "PROS?" and CONS?" while deep in thought. Surrounding them are various icons of things that loosely represent items someone may be considering when purchasing a content library.

Understand the eLearning content library pricing model

Make sure you know what you are getting for the money you are paying. How many courses – a selection of unlimited? How many learners – are they counted by seats or by monthly logins? What discounts do they offer for bulk purchases or for certain numbers of end users? Will it scale as your needs change? 

Quizzes and tests

Quiz pass/fail rates will be hard-coded into the course. You may only need a 60% grade to give your learner credit, but the course may be pre-set for an 80% grade to get successful completion credits. Make sure you are in alignment to avoid learner shock or lack of accreditation if your standards are lower. Similarly, if your standards are higher – you may need to supplement the pre-built testing with an additional “final exam” of your own to ensure your standards are met. It’s a little more work for your instructional designers but a fraction of the time and cost of building out an entire course. 

No customizations allowed

You can’t put your brand on the courses, edit the content, or revise the tests. You get what you get – so make sure you spend time reviewing the course content. This also means that some courses may not be industry-specific “enough” to help you attain your training objectives. Again, here’s where your eLearning library rep will help.

Instructor qualifications

What are the credentials and professional experience of the people teaching their courses? There should be some indication of the professional biography of the people instructing your team. You need to be comfortable with the level of expertise of the instructors you choose. 

eLearning content updates

Is there a regular schedule for each course to be reviewed and updated as needed? This is especially important for any content that touches on government or regulatory compliance standards, technologies, tools, or platforms, and health and safety practices. The world is changing quickly, and there’s no point in getting social media certification if the course material is five years old – the world of social has changed so much since then!

eLearning content versioning

This is tied to the point about updates. When a course is updated, is it replaced, or is a new version offered? What happens to learners who are midway through the original course if an update is launched? Make sure no one loses credit for time invested.

The content library’s interface or user platform

Do you like using it? Is it easy to find, review, select the courses you want, and assign them to your learners? Do you need to go through your rep, or can you do that yourself? You want as much autonomy as you are comfortable with.

Your resources are limited, so call in reinforcements

Let’s face it. Your learning and development team are under tremendous pressure to provide and deliver dynamic eLearning to your company’s learners – and you are likely limited by time and resources. There’s the wish list, the want list, the let’s do it next list, and then the work in progress, plus updates, content reviews, and training audits. Your team is closest to your industry-specific and corporate vision when it comes to what you need your content to deliver and how to administer it effectively to your learners. 

Whether in-house or outsourced, custom course development comes with a price tag – you pay for having ultimate control over every aspect of your course build. And that’s often the right solution for the majority of your courses. I have no doubt that your team can build whatever you need – if only they had time to get it all done as quickly as you need courses. 

And why would you take someone away from building a course on <insert your company proprietary industry-specific course description here> to build a course on how to manage social media better? There are already dozens of courses on those kinds of topics. 

However, there are challenges of having a full production schedule for your in-house team – or not having a large enough team to achieve your goals at the speed you need. No shame! Our training eyes are often bigger than what our training belly can hold – and your team is doing their best every day, I promise. 

If you’re on the journey of creating or updating your eLearning content, there are three primary methods in which your organization can use to provide the training your learners need.

Three blocks in a row, showing the three primary methods of providing training. The first block is "DIY" with a screen of fabricated course building UI. The second block is "Outsource" with two characters shaking hands — one is holding a briefcase, with an arrow pointing to the second individual, who is holding a laptop. The final block is "plug n' play" with a large block of courses that has a traditonal 2-pronged plug coming off of it, and inserting into a smartphone.

Solution one – DIY with eLearning authoring tools

If your organization has instructional designers, they can build your proprietary and industry-specific training. It’ll require them to buckle down and dig deep to create training that makes your learners want to engage based on what makes them tick. They’ll need to put forth a non-trivial amount of effort to plan, map, design, and build the courses. But the payoff is you’ll have eLearning tailored to your learners, and your organization will own the intellectual property they create. Most instructional designers are well-versed in modern eLearning authoring tools, which will surely help expedite the course-building process, should you choose this route.

Solution two – outsource help for eLearning content

Hire a great partner in training, like the Custom Learning team – to either build out courses from scratch or assist your team to git-r-done. You’ve got more control, the ability to add your own branding and to manage overflow work as needed. If you don’t have resources, we can help do it all. But we don’t have to – we can just do part of the build, and your team can do the rest.

Solution three – plug n’ play eLearning content libraries

Why reinvent the training wheel for course topics in the common domain? Explore the power of high-quality, reputable eLearning content libraries to provide training to your team. I’d say that this could be your secret weapon. Okay, maybe not so secret, because I’m willing to bet your competition is doing it. Seriously.

Depending on your learner’s needs, your eLearning team’s capacity to produce training content, and the uniqueness of the training content you require will ultimately dictate the decision. Along with that, perhaps, more than one of the options will be the right decision for your company. Potentially, all three solutions for generating eLearning content will be required to satisfy the hunger for knowledge at your organization. 

No matter which solutions you need, invest in the power of online training to nourish your team and grow your business. Time to call in the caterers to put a few more tasty meals on the table. Bon Appetit!

Woman smiling slightly with brown, chin-length hair and glasses.
Susan Hurrell

With 15+ years of online marketing and online learning experience, Susan loves to share insights about where these two ROI-building practices can intersect and complement each other for your business or organization.

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