Back to the future

Many e-learning courses are designed in a style that was contemporary over a
decade ago, bemoans Steven price of Xebec McGraw-Hill.  Now it’s time to demand more, he says

When I first became involved in e-learning 12 years ago, it was called
computer-based training. For technical reasons, most CBT courses were text
only, contained minimal (monochrome or four-colour) graphics and generally ran
from a single floppy disk.

The companies that produced good CBT courseware were the ones that realised
that delivering training via a computer is only engaging and effective when the
unique opportunities of the medium are exploited. They understood that
interaction has to be integral to the process, not just a "Mary had a
little lamb, what did Mary have?" means of confirming that learning has
taken place.

Over the years, the acronyms have changed – from CBT, to TBT, CBL and WBT –
but essentially the same fundamental design principles have been recognised and

That’s until e-learning and the online bandwagon rolled into town.
E-learning, we’re told, is a revolution in the way we deliver learning because
it breaks down the old paradigms. Sorry, but could someone tell me how running
a training course across a wire from a CD-Rom is fundamentally different from
running it across a wire from a Web server? OK, the wire from the Web server
may be longer and narrower, but from a learner’s perspective, what’s different?

One thing is clearly different. Gone are the media-rich, interactive,
visually engaging multimedia CD-Roms and in are the "micromedia" text
courses I thought we’d waved goodbye to nearly 10 years ago. Is this progress?

At a recent e-learning exhibition and, with a few notable exceptions, much
of the "state-of-the-art" and "groundbreaking" courseware
being proffered was merely a sequence of basic text screens, punctuated with
tick box assessment questions (what did I say Mary had?). It’s no wonder the
drop-out rate from online courses is reported to be so high – learners must be
jumping out of windows!

Delivering learning to the desktop does have implications for how courses
are structured and it means rethinking aspects of delivery to take account of
the dreaded "b" word, bandwidth. But this isn’t an excuse for
bypassing all the hard-won design principles that have been developed over the
past decade.

Online delivery offers better accessibility, centralised administration,
synchronous and asynchronous learner support, all of which undoubtedly offer us
new and exciting ways of enhancing the learning experience.

But please, let’s wake up from the collective amnesia that seems to have
descended over the entire training industry and start building on what we
already know.

Steven Price is manager of Xebec McGraw-Hill’s bespoke and customisation

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