When you’re just starting out as an e-Learning Freelancer, it’s likely that your budget for your tools and equipment is going to be tight. Some expenses, like a computer and Internet access, are going to be essential to getting your business off the ground, while others can wait until you’ve completed your first few projects and you have money coming in. In this post, I’ll be sharing my recommendations about the software, hardware, and services you’ll likely need as you begin your freelance e-Learning career.
Before we jump in, a quick note about the links in this post: Where applicable, I’m including links to learn more about the items that I’m recommending. Some, but not all, are affiliate links, so if you purchase anything using them, I will receive a small fee. That said, my intentions are always to prioritize value for my readers—and in this case, that means that while I’m providing information about my own specific set-up, I’m not urging you to buy these specific products. Instead, I’m pointing out the kinds of things you’ll need; in the case of a smartphone, for example, the important part is that you have a mobile device for testing your work, and you’ll need to make the choice about which smartphone will best suit your needs.
Hardware and Office Equipment
One of the first major investments you make will be in your computer. Selecting the right machine is a big decision, because it’s going to be your primary work tool for at least a few years, and skimping on key features could end up costing you time and money in the long run.
So, how powerful does your computer need to be? Well, consider that as you’re building online courseware, you’ll need to create, modify, and publish large, high-quality files, and that can be processor- and memory-intensive. Most of the other tasks you’ll be doing—email, web meetings, and so on—won’t require a lot of heavy lifting. Here are the specs of my desktop machine:
- Windows 10 Pro (64-bit edition)
- Intel chip, i7 4790 CPU @ 3.60 GHz
- 16GB of RAM
- 120GB SSD hard drive (main OS drive)
- Western Digital 4TB external SATA hard drive (for local file storage)
- Western Digital 4TB MyBook USB hard drive (for system back-ups)
- NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750ti 2GB video card
- 27” monitor
I built this computer with my freelance e-Learning career in mind—it has a high-end processor, plenty of RAM, a solid state hard drive, and a more-than-capable video card. I invested in the hardware that would help me speed up production, and while a lower-powered computer could certainly be sufficient, I wanted to make sure that my investment would last me at least three years. (Also, I’m a Windows guy, but certainly buying a Mac is also a valid choice here, provided that it has similar specs.)
While a smartphone is clearly an essential tool for keeping your business going, it’s also important to remember that it will need to function not only as a phone, but also as a testing device for many of the materials you produce for your clients. In my case, I use a Samsung Galaxy S5, because I want a phone that helps me ensure I’m designing content for a typical Android phone. To test my content on Apple devices, I use a 4th-generation iPad.
It’s important to make sure you’ve got some of the basics for communicating! I recommend getting the following:
- Copier/Scanner/Fax/Printer. I often try to go paperless, but there are plenty of times when nothing will beat a physical copy of a document. Having a built-in scanner is great for when I need to translate hand-drawn ideas to my computer, or when I need to sign, scan, and return documents to clients.
- Landline Phone or Cell Phone. While most people prefer using only a cell phone, a landline is a totally acceptable option as well; the important thing is that you have a phone and phone number that are dedicated exclusively to your business. Not only will having a separate number make tracking your business phone expenses a lot easier, it will save you from having your clients call your personal phone at inopportune times!
- Wireless Headset. Remember that you’re going to want to have both hands free during many of your client calls—you’ll need to be taking notes and jotting down ideas, and lengthy calls can be difficult with handheld phones. While not everyone may consider this essential, it’s important to me to be able to move around untethered, so I use the OfficeRunner Wireless Headset Essential Bundle from Sennheiser.
One thing you’ll likely run into as you’re setting up your business: software costs add up! It’s important to include money in your budget for software expenses, particularly because of version upgrades—yearly improvements that are often worth paying for. While a lot of the software I’m recommending below must be purchased, you’ll find that there are also many great free applications that will be part of your toolkit. As a freelancer trying to keep costs down, I’m always on the lookout for free or open source software, and I also know that I’ll need to pay for many of my key software tools.
Software For Developing Learning Materials
- Microsoft Office 2013 (Outlook; Word; Powerpoint; Excel). While I know it’s hipper to use Google Docs these days, the reality is that many businesses—especially large corporate businesses, who can be very loyal, lucrative clients—are still using the Office suite of applications. Even if you’re more comfortable using another office suite like OpenOffice, it can be important in many client environments that you be able to work with the file formats they’re most comfortable with.
- Camtasia Studio 9. Camtasia is my go-to video editor, because I find that it captures the right blend of sophistication and usability. I don’t need a full-fledged video production tool like Adobe Premiere, but I do need a tool that can help me create quick, high-quality videos, and Camtasia Studio 9 helps me do that.
- Articulate Storyline 2/Articulate 360. This application is probably the most important software investment you’ll make in your eLearning business. You’ll need Articulate Storyline 2 for most of your eLearning production needs, and their weekly community challenges are a great opportunity to learn new techniques from your peers, and network with other eLearning Designers. That said, I’ve recently upgraded to Articulate 360, which includes Storyline 360, Studio 360, Replay 360, Peek, Preso, Content, Library, Articulate Review, Articulate Live, and Rise.
- SnagIt 13. You’re going to need a quick and easy screen capture and mark-up tool. I’ve been using SnagIt for years, and their user interface has really evolved well. That said, all major operating systems have built-in screen capture tools.
- Audacity. I use Audacity (a free, open-source program) to do all of my audio recording and editing. It helps me make sure all of my recordings are as crisp and clean as they need to be. (Also, it’s worth noting that you can also use Camtasia Studio for audio recordings as well.)
- Xmind 8. I find that a good mind-mapping tool helps me brainstorm and organize my thoughts on any given project.
- Adobe Kuler. Kuler is an application that helps you create color scheme combinations, which helps when designing the look and feel of learning materials.
- Adobe Photoshop Creative Cloud 2015 and Lightroom Creative Cloud 2015. Occasionally, I include custom photography in my content, and I use these applications to edit my images. Although Adobe subscriptions aren’t cheap, Photoshop and Lightroom are worth it (you can currently subscribe to Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom for around $9.99 per month, which is a great deal).
- Pixie. Color-matching can be important. Pixie lets you point to a color, and it tells you the RGB, HTML, CMYK, and HSV values for that color.
For interacting with clients:
- DropBox. I do all of my client file-sharing with DropBox, as most of my clients already have DropBox accounts.
- WebEx. WebEx is still the gold standard for web conferencing and desktop sharing, and with good reason. With a free account, you can hold conference calls with up to one host and two attendees. (For my clients who prefer Skype, I also use that application as well.)
- Articulate TempShare. Articulate’s TempShare software (free) allows me to temporarily publish Storyline content and generate a non-guessable URL for sharing my work with others. This is incredibly useful when reviewing drafts, and it works natively with Articulate Storyline 2.
- TweetDeck. Twitter is important both for networking with others in the eLearning industry, but also as a source for potential clients. TweetDeck helps me treat my Twitter account as one of my business’s storefronts.
For your website:
- My website is running WordPress, and I host everything on BlueHost.
- To help my site look polished, I use StudioPress for WordPress themes and plugins.
- I also use a WordPress plugin called “Embed Articulate to WordPress” from elearningfreak.com. It allows me to publish content from Articulate Storyline 2 directly to my site.
- My site’s contact form was built using Gravity Forms. This, along with questions I ask on my SurveyMonkey forms, helps me collect and track all of the questions I get from potential clients.
- I use MailChimp to manage my monthly Newsletter.
As you’re creating learning content, you’ll need an arsenal of assets—like buttons, or stock photography, or icons—and it’s easy to lose time if you don’t know where to look. Here are the places I most commonly get my digital assets from:
- Elearningart.com offers templates specifically for Articulate Storyline 2, and photos for e-Learning materials, and while their libraries aren’t as expansive as eLearning Brothers, they are more affordable.
- 123rf.com is another subscription service that offers millions of royalty-free stock photos. I often use this site when I can’t find the right photos from other sources, but sparingly, as they rely on credits system that makes it easy to spend a lot of money.
- The Articulate e-Learning Heroes Community, which I mentioned earlier, has its own library of buttons, graphics, icons, and photos.
- FreeSFX has an archive of high-quality audio clips for your learning materials. Everything they offer is free, although they do ask that you give them credit when you use something of theirs.
As you’re considering what purchases to make, it’s important to make the choices that fit your particular tastes and needs. The examples I provided are just what worked for me, and you may find other tools suit you better. But hopefully, as you’re going through the process, you can use this list to help remind you of all of the types of tools you may need to be successful.