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Content as a Service: a New Model for E-learning Content Delivery
Content as a Service
is also known as : E-learning Content Delivery
, Learning Management System
, LMS Solutions
, External Content Hosting
, Online Content
, Content Storage
, Content Delivery Strategy
, Content Server
Online Content Effectiveness, Icontent Solution, Online Content Management, Faster Content Delivery, Content Delivery Network, Content Storage Solution, CDN, LMS Content Data, Content Management and Configuration, Content Tracking, Effective Online Content, Content Vendors, Content Providers, Content as a Service White Papers, Icontent White Papers by Plateau, CMS, Enterprise Content Management, CMS System, CMS PHP, Content Storage Models.
Content is the often-neglected piece of an organization's learning strategy and learning administration, with the focus on the application functionality rather than the content it delivers. Organizations purchase a Learning Management System (LMS), work through the implementation, and then right before go-live, realize the need to do something with online content. Typically, organizations also understand that they may or may not know where all of their content resides. Each department may have content in their own location, possibly on departmental servers, and there is no centrally managed catalog of all the organization's courseware. Coupled with this decentralized storage approach, there is little control over the types or quality of content available for an organization's end users.
External content hosting has long been a solution offered by many LMS platforms to support the delivery of online content. Content hosting or content storage is a simple low-cost option for storing an organization's course catalog. A recent growth in content storage mirrors the growth in hosted applications or Software as a Service (SaaS) models, with more organizations moving away from behind the firewall solutions. Organizations now need the same SaaS benefits (ease of use, availability, easy deployment, and lower costs) for online content. A 2008 survey by McKinsey and the Sand Hill Group of 857 executives shows that respondents cite SaaS and SaaS platforms as the most important trends impacting their businesses. In Fact, 62% responded that "software industry innovations over the past two years are nothing compared to the innovations we are about to see," and that they expect to increase the proportion of their IT budget spent on software from 31% in 2007 to 35% in 2010. SaaS growth has led to organizations now focusing how to gain the same benefits of SaaS around online content. This new model, Content as a Service (CaaS), allows organizations to deliver effective and accurate online training with an improved user experience.
How can a company ensure that users are taking the "right" course if they do not identify and understand their strategy for content delivery? Can the organization's content be hastily rounded up and thrown onto a content server, then integrated with the organization's LMS? On the surface, this appears to handle the situation, as content is now centrally stored. Organizations may feel the problem is solved, but this is far from the case.
Renting or buying content storage space is analogous to purchasing a DVD rack to store DVDs. The rack houses all of the DVD's but does nothing to help with the end user viewing or consuming the movie. To fully enjoy the movie experience, you need, at a minimum, a DVD player. Your viewing experience can be enhanced if you also have HD TV, or surround sound stereo, which are all part of the movie delivery (far beyond just storage). When this analogy is applied to content, a new model evolves, Content as a Service. CaaS represents the entire entertainment center and handles the storage, management, and delivery while improving the user experience, security, and effectiveness of online content. The experience of a movie - or eLearning courseware - is more about delivery than storage. This is why Content as a Service is a superior solution for companies trying to use online training effectively.
In collaboration with Learning customers that span a decade, Plateau envisioned and developed a new way to address the new learning model and Plateau's iContent® solution is a real world example of Content as a Service (CaaS). The iContent solution removes the burden of online content management, reduces costs, increases training efficiency, and greatly improves the user experience. By reducing content overhead and infrastructure administration, organizations realize substantial cost savings and ensure faster content delivery. iContent provides the hosting infrastructure, bandwidth & delivery, management, security and updates that are missing from a content storage solution. This Content as a Service offering solves issues surrounding the maintenance and delivery of effective online training that have been hampering organizations since the inception of eLearning. Organizations can now focus on the information and accuracy of the online training instead of hosting and infrastructure. With dramatically improved delivery via a Content Delivery Network (CDN), organizations ensure that accurate content is delivered to employees globally.
Content Hosting – The Old Paradigm
The old model to manage online content was simply to rent or purchase content storage, fondly referred to as "a spot on a box." Content storage was typically sold by the gigabyte (GB) and was often given away by companies selling their learning management applications. Large amounts of storage space - in the range of 50-100 GBs - may seem like a good thing, but in reality, the average course size for most content is only 20 megabytes (MBs). At space increments of 100 GBs, that is room for over 5100 online courses - which greatly exceeds most organization's content libraries. This "free space" may have been an effective sales tool, as it appears to remove an obstacle for success. But in fact, it perpetuates problems by not addressing content management and delivery. This solution is inadequate for today's online training needs and may trigger several critical problems in lack of support for launch and delivery, security, inventory, or updates.
Launch, Track & Delivery
A company that purchased content storage to support eLearning with their LMS starts to encounter issues as users start to launch and consume content. The first problem that surfaces: content will not launch. This is typically caused by a configuration issue with how the content is referenced. All online content resides on a content server somewhere and is launched via a web server. Incorrect file paths are the most common error preventing the launch of online content. A Content storage-only solution does not resolve this issue for several reasons. Having content reside on a centrally-hosted server is a good first step, but now every LMS content data record must point to it. This requires detailed validation, content management and configuration. Simply pushing all the content to a central server does not ensure that it will launch.
A similar issue to content launching is content tracking. A successful launch does not ensure that content behaves in the manner intended. Does the content record user stats such as time in course, scores, and completions? Is the content written to the latest AICC or SCORM standards? All of these questions require in-depth content expertise to resolve. Again, just because content is centrally stored does not mean courseware is recording the user interactions. Without content tracking the online content is ineffective as no history of users taking a course is maintained.
The next and more serious problem is that content is slow. A user launches a course and it takes minutes for the content to launch and start to play. This performance level is unacceptable as attention span is measured in seconds not minutes. User frustration over how long it takes to launch and consume a title could render even the best content useless. Again, adequate disk space with a content storage solution does not ensure that content is delivered across the network within an acceptable timeframe.
In addition, bandwidth constraints can be magnified by spikes in user consumption. If an organization releases a course to meet a business requirement that is deadline driven (i.e., compliance issue, end-of- year training), this dramatically increases the load on the organization's system and network. An entire user community assaulting a required course will cause a network to slow dramatically; it may even cause a network to crash. The slow response again hurts user acceptance and compliance with the online training, reducing the effectiveness of the intended training
Security & Inventory
A content storage solution can provide a base level of security around who may and may not access course files stored on the server. This is a good start for internal security management. Lack of restrictions on access to content files can lead to deletions or additions that are not approved. However, a large security hole still exists. Once online content is exposed to the Internet via a web server, then users accessing the content through their browser can copy the launch URL of the content. If a user is able to copy the URL, then they may send this URL to other users, all of whom would have unlimited access to the content. This is of concern for organizations that purchase and grant a limited number of user licenses. This is also a concern in terms of the cost of content delivery, as unintended usage will drive up bandwidth charges. In addition, this model raises numerous security problems. Users outside the organization could burn through purchased licenses of third party courses. Unintended access of content can expose an organization to risk, as confidential materials are now exposed to the world. Without a security check on the content at launch, there is no way to ensure that only users who should have access to the content are the users that launch the content.
Maintaining the security around purchased third party titles is coupled with keeping an accurate inventory. Preventing unauthorized access ensures that a company does not waste purchased licenses.
The last issue which a content storage solution does not address is managing updates to existing content. The active management of content is vital to ensure content is up-to-date and accurate. Delivering stale or inaccurate content is counterproductive. The initial move to content hosting creates a snapshot in time of accurate content. However, without updates and management of the titles, courses become obsolete. Every LMS has a workflow for loading and updating courses, but this is time consuming and requires some technical and administrative training. Often organizations are required to allocate permanent staff to upload, integrate and "version control" their content.
Content Storage is Not the Answer
For most organizations, content storage is not the answer. Content storage is a start to ensuring effective delivery of eLearning, but only a start. Without attention to delivery, management, security, and updates, online content ceases to be an effective training tool. Organizations that spend money to have customized business-essential content created, but do not spend the money for the necessary delivery and management, are wasting money and their user's time.
The New Model – Content as a Service
According to Bersin & Associates, organizations will spend $1,202 per user on training and self-study accounts for 20% of student training hours1. To meet this demand for self-study, organizations must invest in and provide effective online content. A new solution to the content storage problem is analogous to the Software as a Service (SaaS) model in providing Content as a Service (CaaS). This new model seeks to go beyond content storage and includes assured delivery and management. The CaaS model does not rely on the size of a course or how many GBs of storage space are required, but instead focuses on the end user experience and delivery. To return to the DVD analogy, CaaS provides the DVD rack, and the DVD player, HD TV, surround sound stereo, and ensures that everything is connected properly and works when you need it.
In the simplest form, CaaS is "give us your content and we make it work." Content as a Service allows companies to focus on developing or purchasing content that best fits their training requirements. The hosting, management, security, tracking, and delivery are abstracted and improved as improved infrastructure and content experts take over all aspects of managing online training. Experts validate content launches and track increasing user acceptance and effectiveness.
Most organizations have users that are geographically dispersed but still require global online training. Using a Content Delivery Network (CDN) to ensure fast and efficient content delivery is essential. The end-user experience improves by more than 60% by hosting content in a network supported by a CDN, as the CDN will deliver courses globally, caching the content on the geographically closest server to the end-user.
A CaaS solution also provides an additional layer of entitlement security to prevent unauthorized users from accessing content. The security layer allows a business to accurately manage licenses on purchased content, to better provision based on actual usage. The ability to keep an inventory across multiple business units easily prevents the purchasing of unnecessary licenses and allows managers the ability to manage training budgets proactively.
The CaaS solution also provides flexible options in procuring new content. Now that the delivery and testing infrastructure are in place additional titles should be readily available for purchase and deployment. A CaaS offering provides a mechanism to purchase multiple titles from multiple vendors in varying payment methods. This allows organizations to expand training offerings as the business changes.
Lastly, a Content as a Service offering should actively manage updates to third-party and custom titles. This is essential to ensure that users have the latest version of content and that all online courseware functions properly. The expertise and infrastructure required to actively manage dynamic courseware is a vital benefit of the CaaS model.
Plateau's Solution – iContent
The iContent Service offering is, at its core, a Content as a Service offering. The iContent Service allows organizations to hand-over content management and delivery to Plateau and then focus on training employees. The iContent Service provides the content storage of the old model while ensuring all content works, is secure, and delivered to the end-user effectively. Replaying the earlier analogy, Plateau's iContent solution is a CaaS offering as it provides not only the DVD rack but also the player, the HD TV, the surround sound stereo, with the choice of multiple titles from multiple vendors. The complete system provided easily with no investment in infrastructure or additional resources is the real value to organizations. iContent incorporates storage, management, security, and delivery, removing the problems encountered with a storage only solution. By addressing the real issue of content delivery and the end-user experience, iContent allows organizations to focus on the quality and effectiveness of the courseware. In addition, by reducing content overhead and infrastructure administration, organizations realize substantial cost savings while providing faster content delivery. iContent Services extend across large, medium and small business to address various dynamic content and employee-training needs at any size.
As a CaaS offering, iContent is flexible in delivery with multiple options allowing organizations to tailor their solution. An organization may choose to make use of any or all of the related services to meet their specific business needs. These include:
- iContent Managed Services – content management, testing, validation, and delivery
- iContent Portal – shopping cart to purchase additional titles
- iContent Storefront – allows organizations to sell content to external users
- iContent Learning – LMS platform used to launch, track, and report on eLearning
iContent supports the integration and management of both vendor (SkillSoft, ElementK, among others) and custom content titles. It is vital that a content solution handle both vendor and custom titles. Additionally, through the iContent storefront, organizations can turn content delivery into a revenue-generating operation by selling its own content to external users. The iContent Storefront enables organizations to sell their titles and provides end-users with a delivery platform to launch and play the content, all in one package. The iContent Portal provides organizations a way to purchase multiple titles from multiple vendors with flexible payment options. This alleviates the need for organizations to maintain multiple vendor relationships and search for best of breed content.
The iContent Learning solution provides a fast, easy, low-cost way to deliver training to both internal and external users without an LMS implementation. This "light-weight" LMS can be an entry-point for organizations to online training or allow existing LMS customers to service the extended enterprise. The iContent solution works seamlessly with both hosted and behind-the-firewall organization learning management systems (LMS) and provides solution services to a customer running any standards-compliant LMS.
iContent far exceeds the spot-on-a-box solutions of the old content storage models. By allowing flexible, consistent, and secure delivery of online training to a dispersed workforce, iContent solves the dynamic learning needs of today's organizations.
A company is looking for a way to deliver online training quickly to satisfy compliance demands and does not own an LMS. This training is for internal and external users. The company does not own online courseware and needs to purchase titles.
The iContent Service and iContent Learning offerings allow the company to deploy online training quickly to both the internal and external users. Two different branded sites are set up for each group and the online training is assigned as needed. Additionally, the company purchases the necessary titles from the iContent Portal for each group.
Company owns the Plateau LMS and has third-party titles (SkillSoft, Element K, Brightline, etc). The company also has self-created custom content that is vital to business operations. The users are geographically dispersed around the world and require access to all of the content.
Plateau assumes the management, testing, validation, and delivery of all third-party and custom titles via iContent. All courses are loaded into the LMS and assigned to the desired catalogs. The Akamai CDN ensures that the geographically dispersed users all have the same experience with fast delivery. The Entitlement layer of iContent ensures that only the authorized users have access to the right content and allows company to manage third-party licenses.
A company wants to deliver training to external users and may or may not have an existing LMS. It does not know how many users it needs to train, where they are, or when they will access the system. However the company does realize it needs to provide this training and have the ability to record and report on the results.
The iContent offering via iContent Learning provides an easy, fast, low-cost way to deliver eLearning to external users. iContent Learning allows for custom branded sites to reflect a company's logo and color scheme for all or groups of users. iContent Learning allows user self-registration to remove the burden of loading users. iContent Learning includes the management, hosting, and delivery of the content all backed by the Akamai CDN.
A company has developed custom content that it would like to sell to external users.
iContent provides a custom-branded eCommerce storefront, enabling the company to sell its own titles. The iContent Storefront provides full online commerce capabilities to transact the buying and track the selling of online content. The iContent Service and iContent Learning offerings provide the management and delivery of the purchased content. This end-to-end solution positions companies to sell, deliver, and track online content easily.
Appendix – iContent Solution Details
iContent Managed Service
This is the core iContent Service offering, which covers the management, validation, deployment and security for all online content. This service is supported by content experts who work with an organization to ensure that content launches, tracks bookmarks and completions, and remains current. The content experts remove the need for organizations to train and staff content experts. Instead organizations may now focus on the accuracy and relevance of the materials in the courseware.
Manage – iContent consolidates an organization's content titles in one location and manages ongoing updates to the organization's content repository. This guarantees that a customer's content is current and accurate. The management of titles extends to all vendor and custom content.
Validate – All content is tested and validated for "launch, play, and track" to ensure effective operation with the customer learning application.
Deploy – The iContent service automatically deploys content metadata required by the learning application to the customer learning management system (LMS) database, via Plateau's unique Asset Synchronization service. This ensures all content is in the correct catalog for users to easily find and consume.
Entitlement – The entitlement layer provides the content security necessary in a CaaS model. Content is launched seamlessly by the end user through the iContent Entitlement service, ensuring the organization's content is only accessible to their "entitled" end-users. Additionally, the entitlement service allows administrators to manage the number of licenses available to the organization. Administrators now have a view into how many titles were taken and how many licenses remain.
Hosting & Delivery
The iContent Service hosts all customer eLearning content, including vendor- and custom titles. The content is hosted within the iContent infrastructure, which is backed by Akamai's Global Content Distribution Network (CDN). Again a CaaS model is focused on accurate and effective delivery and a CDN is essential in this offering. Content delivery is managed via the Akamai CDN to ensure fast, reliable worldwide distribution. Akamai is a global network of caching servers that improve the content load time by serving the static course material from the caching (edge) servers.
When a course is launched for the first time that course is cached on the geographically closest server to the end user. The next time this user or another authorized user launches the course it is consumed from the cache avoiding the network traffic back to the content server. This caching can improve user response times by 60%. The CDN also aids in supporting large spike training events which can slow or shutdown standard content servers.
The iContent eCommerce portal offers a single location where customers can preview and purchase over 20,000 content titles from numerous content vendors. The portal provides a shopping-cart experience with flexible payment options (Credit Card, PO, Flex card, etc). Once registered, users may view prices, previews, and search for available titles. Titles are grouped by vendor or subject area and may be purchased individually or in bundles. Users may register for free for a trial of the iContent portal and iContent Learning at http://www.plateau.com/icontent.
Available 3rd Party Content
The following table lists the current Content partner vendors available in the portal and the iContent service. Titles are displayed and priced within the portal. Titles may also be purchased directly from Plateau Sales. The links below provide more direct information on each vendor (or click here to view a brief description http://www.plateau.com/icontent/spotlight.asp ).
Plateau can also assume the management of existing vendor content. If an organization has already purchased vendor titles Plateau can manage these titles and licenses. This allows the organization to capture the value of an existing content vendor relationship and utilize iContent.
Plateau is continually adding new partners to expand the titles available within iContent. If a particular partner is needed that is not already a partner, Plateau would work to partner with this vendor and provide the necessary titles.
The iContent Storefront allows organizations to setup their own eCommerce Portals to sell their content to internal or external users. Organization-specific Portals can be branded with the organization logo, colors and font, to represent their look and feel. iContent offers the learning platform that end-users access to launch and complete the online learning purchased. The Storefront monetizes internal knowledge assets and allows organizations a quick and easy way to train communities with a revenue generating solution.
Provides a basic learning platform, enabling organizations without an LMS to provide a browser-based platform where individual learners may launch and track content. This service fills a need for organizations that do not have their own LMS or that want to use a separate low-cost solution for an identified group of end users (i.e., learners external to the organization). iContent Learning also provides reporting for users and administrators to report on learning history. If there are multiple distinct groups different sites can be deployed with separate branding styles (colors, logos, etc.). iContent Learning is built on the same platform as the enterprise version of the LMS providing a robust and scalable architecture. Using the same platform also allows for an easy migration path to Plateau's OnDemand or Enterprise Talent Management systems when the organizations functional needs expand.
About Plateau Systems
Plateau is a leading provider of talent management software, content and services designed to increase workforce productivity and drive business success. Plateau's award-winning software is powering talent management initiatives across some of the world's most successful organizations, including the American Red Cross, General Electric, the Internal Revenue Service, Capital One Services and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Industry analysts at Bersin & Associates, Forrester Research and other leading information and technology research and advisory firms continue to recognize Plateau's leadership in delivering best-in-class functionality, technology and customer satisfaction. Plateau is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia and has offices across the United States, Europe and Asia Pacific. For more information, please visit www.plateau.com.