Your guide to e-learning: Setting the scene

E-learning
is a confusing concept to grasp. Multiple definitions, hundreds of suppliers,
thousands of products, a great deal of jargon. Executives, practitioners and
users alike are looking for straightforward answers.

As
with all new technologies, it will take time for the dust to settle, allowing a
clearer view of exactly what e-learning is, what it involves and how it can
directly benefit your business or organisation. In this guide we aim to provide
you with the knowledge and insight you will need to begin to make e-learning
work for you.

A
defining moment…

E-learning
provides new and exciting opportunities to deliver high-quality, targeted knowledge
and training direct to individual desktops through a standard Internet or
Intranet connection.

E-learning
is not about taking classroom-based training and pushing it down a wire.
Rather, e-learning presents a new perspective on how technology can be applied
to enhance what we do well now, and to introduce new innovative ways to
maximise the accessibility, enjoyment and the effectiveness of learning for the
individual and the organisation.

What
has the “e-” got to do with learning?

It’s
all about connectivity. CD-Roms and the satellite broadcast of training have
been around for some time but the two-way connectivity of the Internet is where
it all changes. The Internet is as much about communication as it is about
information access and this creates a powerful combination in the context of
learning.

Michael
Moe of Merrill Lynch spoke of a “democratisation” of knowledge, in that the
Internet enables greater access to quality knowledge at a lower cost.

The
ability for Internet-based technologies to track and monitor online activity is
another aspect of connectivity that drives e-learning. Using a centralised
system, we can now track who has completed the training, when and how they have
performed. This is a major benefit for organisations that have struggled to
keep track of fragmented training activities.

Finally,
connectivity allows us to achieve truly distributed learning that can be
dynamically updated at any time. We can make edits to content and have it
immediately updated for everyone no matter where they are in the world. Imagine
the cost of doing that with a book or a CD-Rom.

Why
has e-learning become such big news?

Human
resources have never been as important as they are today. People are the
lifeblood of business, and the term “intellectual assets” is frequently used to
emphasise the financial impact skilled workers can have.

E-Learning
drivers


Knowledge-based economy


People as the main source of competitive advantage


A shift to a highly skilled workforce


Resultant skill shortage


Highly competitive global marketplace


Speed of technological change

The
bottom line is that business performance is based on people performance, and
under such testing conditions the role of training is being put under the
microscope. Organisations have ongoing needs to train employees, partners and
customers but the logistical challenges and cost of delivering all of this
through classrooms can be prohibitive.

Move
knowledge faster

With
Internet technologies, knowledge can be moved faster and more cheaply than
people. Speed to competency or the length of time it takes for a person to
become productive with a new role or skill can affect the competitive position
of the whole company. If issues relating to cost, geography and time become
barriers, alternative approaches must be considered.

E-learning
is by no means a panacea. Talking about the wholesale replacement of existing
classroom-based training is misguided. What’s needed is a common sense approach
that balances current approaches that work well with new technology-led
approaches.

Benefits
of e-learning


Improved performance: productivity improvements through learning on demand


Flexibility and convenience: e-learning can fit in with busy lifestyles


Potential cost-savings: e-learning analyst Brandon Hall believes that companies
experience 40-60 per cent cost savings when comparing instructor-led training
with    e-learning delivery


Global reach: the geographic distribution of 
learning is limited only by Internet access


Immediacy: timely and relevant delivery of 
knowledge leading to the term “just in time” learning contrasting with
classroom learning which is characterised as “just in case”


Measurable: centralised tracking and monitoring of activity


Personalised: delivery of targeted learning to meet individual needs

In
time, e-learning will realise the “just in time”, “just enough” and “just for
me” mantras, that will provide all of us with immediate access to targeted
personalised knowledge and training that fit with our immediate need. The
advent of workable handheld devices will lead to the blurring of lines between
learning and working.

Big
numbers…

When
the man whose company provides much of the infrastructure for the Internet
makes such statements, it’s worth paying attention.

The
Corporate University Exchange in the USA has estimated that while only 20 per
cent of corporate learning took place electronically in 1999 this is expected
to double to 40 per cent by 2003.

Spending
on e-learning worldwide is expected to double each year, exceeding 23 billion
US dollars by 2004. While much of this is in the USA, Western Europe will be
among the leading adopters of e-learning.

Now
that we have provided a quick outline of the e-learning landscape, we need to
look more closely at the various components that make up an e-learning
solution, namely content and delivery technology. Services are another key
consideration which will be looked at later in this guide.

King
content: transferring knowledge

The
focus of e-learning is no different to any other method of training and
education transferring knowledge from one person to another. Books, videos, and
CDs all package knowledge for it to be shared with a broader audience.
E-learning simply provides a new high-powered distribution channel.

“Content
is king” so the saying goes, and this is very true. E-learning aims to get
learning to the individual to improve performance and if it does not achieve
that goal then the delivery method is meaningless.

E-Learning
content ranges from basic web pages and documents to fully interactive courses,
events, assessments and simulations. It can include both bespoke content
development and off-the-shelf courseware

There
are now a multitude of content providers which create and publish thousands of
interactive course titles across the entire spectrum of IT and soft skills. The
International Data Corporation reported that the majority of e-learning courses
are IT-focused but this will change. The IDC projects that by 2003 over half of
the total e-learning spend will be for non-IT focused learning. There has also
been a major drive within organisations to web-enable existing content from
various formats such as instructor-led classes, paper-based materials, CD-Roms,
and other existing intellectual assets.

To
help learners find just what they need and nothing more, many online courses
are being downsized into learning objects, where knowledge is packaged into
granular self-contained sections that address specific learning objectives.

If
we think about how we learn on a day-to-day basis, it becomes clear that
structured courses and instruction account for a tiny proportion. We learn
constantly on a more informal basis, through communication and collaboration
with others. E-learning is quickly adopting tools and technologies to support
this type of learning, from e-mail and bulletin boards to chat and virtual
events.

Capturing
know-how and best practices from leading performers and re-using it across an
organisation will be a major development in e-learning content. The value of
this specific knowledge is likely to be very high because of the immediate
impact on performance.

Distribution
technologies: getting knowledge from A to B

Moving
knowledge from A to B is where e-learning comes into its own. The expansive
architecture of the Internet provides a huge scale for knowledge distribution,
but there is still a need for specific technology applications to make it all
work in a learning context. Many e-learning technologies have emerged to enable
the creation, distribution, tracking and administration of e-learning content.
Here is a guide to key terms.

Learning
Management Systems

The
core piece of e-learning infrastructure is known as the Learning Management
Systems (LMS). The main function of the LMS is to manage and deliver learning
content to specific users in a systematic way.

Core
LMS functions


Identifies individual and group skill gaps and learning requirements


Catalogues the available online learning resources (and offline)


Assigns appropriate courses and content to individuals and groups to address
these gaps


Delivers online assessments


Tracks and measures usage and performance improvement


Generates reports to assess performance results

The
range of functionality varies between systems with some including features such
as competency frameworks and collaboration tools, while other “lighter” systems
integrate these tools from specialist providers.

To
reflect real requirements, LMS providers are expanding their scope to manage
both online learning and offline learning activity in a single system. Further
integration is possible with other enterprise systems such as ERP and HR
applications to allow an increased ability to measure the impact of learning
against business objectives.

There
is a need for the content to “talk to” the LMS so it can track and measure
activity accurately. This aspect is still improving but standards like AICC are
helping to establish a common framework for content and LMS to converse.

Learning
Portals

The
term portal refers to a “gateway” and a learning portal provides a gateway to a
consolidated and searchable catalogue of learning resources. These resources
can be accessible over the Internet from a public portal or through a private
portal on a company intranet. Users can search the catalogue and select
learning content in a way not dissimilar to making an online purchase.

Portals
are usually hosted, so the user and the organisation do not require any
hardware or software to be running internally other than a standard Internet
connection and browser. A Learning Management System will usually run invisibly
behind the scenes of the portal. Most learning portals can be customised to
adopt the company’s branding and specific selections of learning resources.

Collaboration

The
Internet allows many exciting forms of communication, and e-learning
facilitates multiple forms of collaboration between peers, instructors, mentors
and experts. The powerful collaborative ability of e-learning provides a major
departure from traditional distance learning such as books and CD-Roms.

Collaboration
can be self-paced (or asynchronous) using threaded discussion capabilities and
e-mail, or it can be real-time (or synchronous) using chat and virtual
classroom technologies that are effective in bringing the classroom online.
Learners “attend” a classroom that involves a trainer or presenter whose screen
is viewable by all. The trainer can show a presentation, walk through an
application or take people around the Internet while communicating using voice
over IP (Internet Protocol). Learners can ask questions, complete surveys and
even write on a virtual whiteboard.

Authoring
tools

Authoring
tools allow courseware designers or subject matter experts to design and create
learning materials using templates, tools and wizards. This content can then be
uploaded into a LMS for distribution.

Your
guide to e-learning was published with Personnel Today on 3 April 2001. Written
by Paul English of Futuremedia Plc. Contibutors: Laurence Scotford, Chris
Robinson, Kay Philips

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