Faith-fuelled learning

Author Martyn Sloman says it is far too early to judge the impact of
e-learning.  With training set to be
transformed, the best is yet to come

Over the past 18 months, scepticism has grown about the impact of e-learning
– defined by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development as
"learning that is delivered, enabled or mediated by electronic technology
for the explicit purpose of training in organisations".

So far, e-learning has been inextricably linked with dotcom mania. Investors
will not need to be reminded that just over two years ago, in April 2000, the
US Nasdaq index began a fall that cut its value by two-thirds and had a
calamitous short-term effect on every other market. Inevitably, a more measured
view of the growth and profitability of e-learning has followed as more mature
judgments are being made on investments in new technology.

Investor reaction is short term and notoriously fickle. What is more
important is the progress of e-learning in corporate organisations. What is the
message from those who are implementing e-learning? Here the news is not good
and adds fuel to the growing doubts. However, to inject a positive note, most
thoughtful commentators agree that the long-term rise of e-learning is
inevitable. Over time it will transform training in organisations.

Let’s start with this bad news. Every year the American Society of Training
and Development (ASTD) publishes a survey based on comments made at its
benchmark forum. The latest survey shows that little movement has occurred in
the amount of training delivered through learning technology (or e-learning).
It has remained steady at less than 10 per cent. Our recent CIPD annual
training survey of training managers showed no evidence of an e-learning
explosion in the UK. Less than one-third of UK training managers had introduced
e-learning and of those almost three-quarters described their use as ‘a little’.

Dig a little deeper and there is evidence of considerable progress. What has
happened is that many early adopters have had unfortunate experiences. For them
the learning curve has been sharp. However, the potential contribution from
e-learning to business performance remains immense. The same sample in the ASTD
survey who reported a plateau in their use of e-learning are confidently
predicting future growth. Their best estimate is that more than 20 per cent of
training time will be delivered by e-learning in 2003.

But a clear idea of what can be achieved through e-learning is essential.
Under the right circumstances it is possible to save costs: this particularly
applies where there is a geographically spread workplace, high motivation (or
compulsion!) for the learner to participate, and a heavy information or
knowledge content to the learning. Obvious examples are modules concerned with
information technology and all the evidence suggests that this is where
e-learning has had its early impact.

When we move beyond this advance, e-learning is more difficult to chart.
Much progress is taking place in global organisations that need to distribute
information to a large workforce.

Ernst & Young is introducing a system it has developed in-house: the EY Learning
Connection. Over time this will give 80,000 staff worldwide the opportunity to
access current information on changes in the tax system and developments in
audit methodology. The ability to deliver a similar service anywhere in the
world to its global clients could give the firm a significant business
advantage.

Other large organisations are beginning to integrate e-learning with their
critical business activities and think beyond organisational boundaries in
delivering training. They are working across their supply chain.

Cisco is generally accepted as one of the more advanced in its commitment to
e-learning. It aims to make 80 per cent of its training available through
e-learning and 20 per cent through instruction, as part of a general strategy
where managers and staff can obtain all human services through similar screens
or portals. Most interestingly, in 1997, Cisco established a ‘Networking
Academy’. This makes instructor-led, web-based training available through
institutions to individuals and will address the shortage of network
engineering specialists.

Ingenious minds will find ingenious solutions and, in time, e-learning will
overcome barriers that have become evident. One further caveat is necessary,
however, before concluding that all will be well. It is simply this: e-learning
is about learning, not technology. We must never forget that it is the
learners’ acceptance of new methods of gaining knowledge and skill in the
workplace that will determine progress.

This is the real learning curve that all organisations must negotiate.
However, all the underlying indications are that e-learning will pass through a
turbulent adolescence and enter a new age of maturity. It is hard to say who
and what will succeed.

Martyn Sloman is an adviser on learning, training and development to the
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and is author of The
E-Learning Revolution )CIPD 201).  He will
speak at the ASTD conference, New Orleans, 3-6 June.  www.astd.org

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