How to Choose Between an eLearning Agency, Freelancer or Full-time Employee

Starting an eLearning project is an intimidating task. Choosing who will do the work is a key consideration. In this article we'll compare and recommend the best options.

As the saying goes: There is more than one way to skin a cat.

The same can be said for resourcing an eLearning project - who is going to undertake the work?

If you're reading this, it may be that you're about to start or have recently started a new project and are pondering the idea of outsourcing externally or bringing in some internal support.

In this article, I'll look at the different options, explain the key considerations and provide advice on which you should choose and why.

You're actually about to start two projects!

First things first, let's remember that an eLearning project usually consists of two projects rather than one - the content and the platform.

Note: It may be that you already have one of these - and assuming you've done the necessary ground work, that's great. Regardless of this, understanding that these must be viewed as separate projects is essential.

But for those of you who have neither yet, let me explain...

I'm going to use YouTube as an example. YouTube comprises two key components:

  1. Content - videos uploaded by the YouTube community.
  2. Platform - the YouTube website and mobile apps etc.

It's obvious that no one would use YouTube if there wasn't any content to see once we logged in, right?

And it's even more obvious that without the platform itself, there wouldn't be 5 billion videos viewed online every day. (I know... right?!)

The same is true with online learning.

We need both the eLearning content and the platform in order to deliver online learning.

(The name given to a platform that delivers eLearning is LMS or Learning Management System).

Disclaimer: There are several LMS on the market that have the ability to act as a platform and also create content, but these systems can be limited.

How you organise your project affects resourcing

Whether you see the value in thinking about this as one project or two is irrelevant - overall, the same amount of work is required.

Each project has a fundamentally different scope and requirements, therefore it would be naive not to consider these individually.

Having said that, they need to integrate seamlessly to provide an outstanding user experience

So understanding that we're looking at two very different types of project is important when we start thinking about who will do the work.

First of all, the skills required to undertake each varies considerably - for example, the person creating the content will have an instructional design background, whereas the platform administrator will have a more technical background.

Can the same person do both?

Of course. But finding someone with both these skills becomes a challenge.

This is a concern for the person overseeing a project like this - but recognising this at the beginning is beneficial, because you can start to decide which tasks are less of a priority, which can be outsourced and which can be scheduled for later in the project.

Whether you think of your eLearning project as one project or two is irrelevant - overall, the same amount of work is required.

Different options for resourcing your project

So let's look at different ways of resourcing your project. In the article title, I have listed agency, freelancer and employee. But I'm also going to throw 'contractors' into the mix too.

We probably understand these terms in our own way, so let me provide a quick breakdown of how I would describe each before we drill down into the meat of the article:

Agency: A company with several employees, who creates custom eLearning solutions for clients. Agencies are usually bricks and mortar businesses i.e. they will have a team of staff working at their office. They will often rely on freelancers to deal with busy periods and larger projects. 

Freelancer: An individual, sole trader or one man business who works with many clients. They will usually work remotely, juggle several clients at the same time and charge a fixed fee per project.

Contractor: An individual, sole trader or one man business who will devote themselves to a single client for a pre-determined length of time, usually 3/6 months or longer and will charge a day rate for their services.

Employee: Someone recruited directly to work full-time within your organisation. Usually based onsite, fixed cost... you're probably familiar with this concept so I won't go on... :)

So which to choose?

So how do these different options weigh up? Let's take a look at each in a little more detail:

Option 1: Agency

Agencies are primarily focused on creating bespoke eLearning content, however many will also offer a platform/LMS as an additional option too.

Therefore agencies provide a 'one-stop shop' for everything you need to start an eLearning project.

Whilst in theory this sounds like the perfect option, there are several reasons this may not be the best solution for you.

Advantages:

  • Infrastructure - Due to their size, an agency will have a more robust infrastructure than an individual person. Benefit? They're not going to disappear overnight. Probably the main reason businesses defer to working with agencies.
  • Processes - Depending on the maturity of the agency, they will have established processes which will lead to a higher quality end product.
  • Experience - Most agencies will have a portfolio of past and current clients, giving you reassurance that they've solved the same problems before.
  • Redundancy - If the designer working on your course decides they want to go on a 6-month yoga retreat to India, another person will step in to finish the work. 

Disadvantages: 

  • Business model - Agencies have high fixed costs and are under immense pressure to keep new business coming in. It could be argued that their priority is sales rather than finding the best solution for their clients.
  • Price - Because of their infrastructure, including offices, permanent staff etc., their prices are also high. This can be prohibitive if you're just starting a new project and don't have a huge budget.
  • Technology Bias - Most agencies will have a preferred process for creating content and an arrangement with certain software and LMS  vendors to sell their products, which isn't necessarily the best option for the client. This essentially creates a conflict of interest.
  • Response - Depending on their size, response times can be slow. You may deal with different people for project, billing and technical queries and the resolution of queries often depends on the (lack of) communication between each.
  • Resource - Agencies often use freelancers when they're busy, so you're essentially paying a higher rate for a freelancer.
Agencies have arrangements with software and LMS vendors to sell their products, which isn’t always the ideal option for the client.

Option 2: Freelancer

You can hire a freelancer to undertake your eLearning project. In fact, even better, you can hire several freelancers depending on the tasks that you have in your project plan. However, hiring a freelancer also carries risks.

Advantages:

  • Value - You can find freelancers who will work at almost any price. You only pay for the work that is delivered.
  • Experience - Many freelancers will have experience with a range of diverse projects, often coming from a corporate background where they did the exact same work.
  • Flexibility - Freelancers usually work alone and have developed their own processes which they can adjust accordingly. If you decide halfway through the project that you need to change direction, this can usually be negotiated with minimal fuss. 
  • Response - Need a quick answer to a question? You won't need to schedule a meeting or wait for an automated customer support service.
  • Choice - Just take a look at any freelancer marketplace website, and you'll see an infinite list of people vying for your business. 

Disadvantages:

  • Focus - The nature of freelancing means that most will have several clients at any one time and despite what they say, won't be able to focus all their energy on your project.
  • Specialisation - Freelancers are often skilled in one area. Whilst this could be viewed as positive, you may need several to undertake all tasks on your project plan.
  • Redundancy - If you're halfway through your project and the freelancer goes under a bus, you're stuck with a half finished product.
freelancer logos.png

Option 3: Contractor

Bringing in a contractor is another way to get your eLearning project off the ground. As with the other options, this strategy does have it's advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages:

  • Dedicated - A contractor will only work on one project at a time and therefore you have 100% of their focus. 
  • Flexibility - You are not tied into an ongoing agreement with a contractor, as you would be with a full-time employee.
  • Management - Usually contractors will work onsite, so you will be able to manage them more closely.

Disadvantages:

  • Specialisation - The same as freelancers, contractors will generally be skilled in one area, so you may need more than one.
  • Cost - Contractors usually command a higher fee than freelancers because they are tied to working only with you. 

Option 4: Employee

Recruiting an internal employee to run your eLearning project is another option that companies opt for - often because they have done this before, it feels comfortable and seems the easiest to manage.

Advantages:

  • Management - A full time employee will be in the office 5 days a week and can be closely monitored. There are unlikely to be any nasty surprises.
  • Training - Employees have the time to learn new skills. If you employ an Instructional Designer to build your course content, you could potentially also train them to manage the LMS.
  • Dedicated - Need a new course building? They'll do it. Need some learners adding to the LMS. They'll do that too. How about a skinny, frothy frappuccino with whipped cream and cinnamon dusting? You got it.

Disadvantages:

  • Fixed cost - Recruiting a full time employee is an expensive fixed cost. You will need to factor this into your budget for the forseeable future and it might take more energy to convince management that this is the right path to take.
  • Commitment - If your eLearning project doesn't take off, you're stuck with a full-time employee.   
  • Specialisation - It is unlikely that you will find someone with all the skills you need and therefore you will probably still have to outsource some of the tasks.

Isn't there a better way?

Another option is to hire an independent eLearning consultant to guide you through your project.

Why would you do this? Well there are many reasons.

A top eLearning consultant will:

  • Provide unbiased, independent advice because they aren't tied to any technology, process or strategy.
  • Be a specialist in the field, having worked with a variety of clients with similar challenges. 
  • Have direct access to a network of experts who specialise in the various elements that go into delivering a successful project.
  • Offer a combination of project work (similar to agencies) and ongoing support (similar to an employee).
  • Become a trusted resource with whom you can develop a strong relationship over time.

Some consultants offer a roadmapping service to help you get started on a project, including helping you figure out who should do the work (my roadmapping service is called eLearning Blueprint).

These services can be incredibly useful in helping you make fundamental decisions about which direction you should take your project, especially at the beginning when there are so many variables.

Some eLearning consultants offer a roadmapping service to help get you moving in the right direction.

Conclusion

As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, there is more than one way to skin a cat.

But there is no right or wrong answer and the decision is entirely dependent upon your situation.

But understanding the options available is the first step in coming up with a clear plan for moving forwards.

If you enjoyed this article you're going to love my free, 5-day email crash course - 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Starting an eLearning Project.

If you would like some help with your project, then my eLearning Blueprint service might be exactly what you're looking for.

Ant Pugh

108A Tooting Bec Road, 108A Tooting Bec Road