Make E-Learning Globally Competent

With budgets tightening and workforces becoming more diverse and dispersed, here’s how to develop global e-learning programs efficiently and on budget.

As the world gets more interconnected, workforces are becoming increasingly more diverse and dispersed. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, U.S. multinational companies increased employment to 34.5 million workers in 2011, with the bulk of the growth taking place abroad.

Developing training programs to keep employees around the world engaged can be incredibly challenging, time-intensive and expensive. It doesn’t have to be. By preparing e-learning programs with global distribution in mind, learning program managers can reduce the cost and time, as well as improve retention and engagement.

Global e-learning initiatives, however, can present technical and content design challenges. A typical course will include one or more learning objects or modules made up of many digital elements called assets — text, graphics, simulations, audio and video. Each asset is usually constructed, captured or authored with different software tools, which can often complicate localization. Therefore, it is essential to identify important components of design and delivery in advance to help guide the content creation, cultural adaption and localization of the course.

Adapting the course for every country and cultural nuance is rarely feasible, but staying reasonably neutral with iconography and stories can improve training effectiveness for multicultural audiences. For example, a course developed around baseball or the term “Uncle Sam” may not resonate clearly in countries outside the United States.

Internationalizing Design and Delivery

Localizing e-learning courses after the fact often requires a complete or significant rework. This can be costly. When possible, it is best to include support for e-learning courses meant to serve multiple locations around the world.

For example, Intel’s Core Launch course was so successful in English the company recently asked VIA Technologies Inc., the course’s provider, to expand it into 10 other languages. The course included a text illustration made up of 150 individual images that had not been built.

But proper internationalization guidelines were not followed, such as allowing users to type in their native alphabet and numerical system and formatting. As a result, the cost to “localize” the output graphics ended up being roughly $15,000 more than it would have been. By identifying localization content in advance, the course can be designed to allow for easy deployment, modifications and updates to the actual e-learning application framework or source files.

Use Rich Media Strategically

Multimedia — or “rich” content — is more expensive to localize than plain text, but it is often vital to instructional strategy for engagement, interaction and learning retention. Paying attention to key audio-visual elements throughout the design of the course will also save time and money in localization.

For video, use images that depict a variety of cultural and ethnic actors from within the entire learner population. This type of video can be effective worldwide without changes for each market. When using audio, be careful not to employ only a tight frame of a talking head. Remember, text and audio play times usually expand by as much as 50 percent, in turn affecting dubbing and lip-synching times. As a result, voiceovers may not sync with moving mouths and the course may increase in duration.

Often frame focus and zoom can be adjusted from a head shot initially and then to another object within the frame — which does not require tight synchronization. It is also a good idea to try to minimize the number of characters in a script. For example, a course with five character voices going into eight languages may mean as many as 40 different recordings.

Improving consistency in messaging is essential to a quality product, and it also can reduce revisions and corrections. In fact, a style guide can eliminate an entire revision cycle by providing guidance on cultural nuances and corporate preferences at first review. Therefore, it’s essential to develop style guides for each language and culture.

The guide should define the goals for the copy and communicate preferences for literacy level, key phrases, tone and brand messaging. Each style guide should also explain how to handle formatting and syntax issues such as:

Which words to translate and which product names remain in English.

How to treat dates, time zones and currency conversion.

Guidelines for layout, fonts, headers and footers.

Instructions for capitalization, punctuation, acronyms and hyphenation.

When to follow the target language grammar rules.

Defining Terminology Upfront to Clarify Meaning

Because language is subjective, a terminology guide is one of the most valuable assets when translating corporate content. A good terminology guide can resolve and prevent many issues related to variations in words and phrases based on cultural or organizational nuances.

Terminology guides are not intended to be all-inclusive, but rather a collection of frequently standardized terms and definitions. While it’s usually only 100 words or less, this data needs to be captured as part of the original script translation to determine the appropriate expression of words and ideas for each specific audience.

Once the terminology guide is developed, try to coordinate for a round of in-country review and revision to ensure local preferences in the language are accounted for.

Another essential tool in the global learning arsenal is the Translation Memory (TM). The TM is a software program that pairs source (English) and translated segments of content. The library of “pairs” grows with each translation and can be “recycled,” or applied to future content to reduce the total volume of new translation needed. With effective TM management, costs are only incurred for translating updates to courses, rather than retranslating the whole course.

Based on data assembled from about 100 clients over five years, TM, when used on course updates, will reduce translation costs by an average of 70 percent and total localization project costs by about 25 percent. Quite often it is the translation vendor that will manage the TM, but it is a good idea to always have a copy of it delivered at the end of the localization process. Having the TM provides managers with the freedom to change vendors if service or quality becomes a problem.

Preparing e-learning with global distribution in mind can deliver benefits to an organization — not only in terms of speed to market and cost of development, but also in the retention and performance of global training initiatives. By assessing market and audience needs, culturally adapting scripts and content, and designing the program with internationalization in mind, learning managers can deploy engaging and successful training.

Nic McMahon is chief operating officer of VIA Learning, a multilingual learning services provider. He can be reached at