Desktop Decisions

is being heralded as the new method for training staff in virtual classrooms
utilising the capabilities of the Internet or intranet, thus cutting the costs
of training expenditure. John Robinson looks at the pros and cons of using this
latest technological innovation

with everything related to the Internet, it seems, e-learning has been hyped as
revolutionary. It will supposedly change the way organisations deliver
training, improve the learning experience of millions of employees in thousands
of organisations around the world and make us wonder how companies ever managed
when all they had were books, classrooms, flip charts and trainers.

glance at some of the e-learning courses available can be enough to convince
even the most ardent sceptic of their value. A mixture of flashy graphics,
vibrant colour, video and audio and barely a boring text page to be seen comes
complete with sophisticated testing and monitoring software. Bulletin boards,
chat rooms and virtual classrooms complete an impressive looking array of
features for students and training managers. And the best thing is, so the sell
goes, that because e-learning is Internet-based you should also be able to
slash training costs.

should you believe the hype? Or will e-learning drift into obscurity as
numerous other much-acclaimed technology-based training methods have in the

a clue, a similar level of brouhaha was attached to online recruitment when it
emerged six years ago or so. But while it has certainly had an impact, newspapers
and trade magazines still have healthy-sized job sections and recruitment
agencies are doing better than ever. Online recruitment will never be the
complete solution for most organisations and the same principle applies to

this is not necessarily the message HR and training managers will hear from
e-learning vendors. “Eighty per cent of e-learning providers are simply jumping
on the bandwagon,” says Jan Hagen, head of the solutions group at e-learning
course producer “There are a lot of very clever people in the
world of technology who have come up with some very clever solutions to things
which are not yet problems.”

major problem with the market at the moment, contends Hagen, is that some
providers offering e-learning solutions are managed by technology experts
rather than trainers. One outcome is that many courses have hundreds of back-up
features, monitoring systems and other flashy management features but poor
content. Training management is all very well but it is a distant second in
importance behind the quality of the courses.

has many advantages over classroom-based training methods, including the
ability for the user to learn in short bursts, at their own pace, in their own
time and be able to put that learning into practice immediately they finish the

Johansson, CEO of e-learning provider Futuremedia says that online learning has
the additional benefit of allowing firms to train suppliers and customers as
well as in-house staff. “I would call it the best opportunity for training and
HR to get more involved in other aspects of the business,” says Johansson.
“When I look at where e-learning is happening, HR and training managers are
only getting into 50 per cent of the action. Delivering e-learning courses to
the supply chain and customers will be bigger than in-house training and yet HR
is never involved in those discussions.”

primary weakness though, is that because learning is a solitary experience in
front of a computer screen, people will switch off if they are not stimulated
with something new throughout the course. “Factually correct content does not
mean a good course. It is the instruction, design and other methods that keep
the learner interested,” says Hagen.

you teach via a screen you do not have that human interaction, so you have to
assume the user is getting bored all the time. Companies go out of their way to
choose a trainer who can present in an engaging and valuable way, then they are
evaluated at the end of the course. With e-learning it is often the other way

of e-learning even doubt whether the technique offers anything in the way of a
learning experience for users. They argue that technology is dictating the way
individuals learn rather than supporting the educational process.

Paul Taylor, lecturer in sociology of technology at the University of Salford,
states that levels of cognition are lower with e-learning than traditional
methods of teaching. “It is the ‘Macdonald’s-isation’ of the education
process,” he says. “It is cheap and a quick fix but of no value.” This line is
overly harsh but there is no doubt that there are courses out there which would
struggle to hold even the most dedicated learner’s attention.

downside of the dominance of technology in e-learning is that employers are
encouraged to buy a whole suite of training packages – as if they were buying
Microsoft Office, say – rather than picking the few which are most suitable for
their needs. “Companies move away from what is the logical way forward, which
is to look at which courses they need to achieve their objectives. Suddenly
they buy everything the vendor has because they are looking for total coverage
rather than single, quality courses,” says Hagen. “It’s an insane way of buying
training but this is the way e-learning is sold by the vendors.”

process of buying and implementing e-learning courses should be no different
from any other training courses. There has to be a business need for delivering
the course and a desired outcome for all those who attend. No training manager
in his or her right mind would buy every classroom course on offer, tell
everyone in the company the courses exist and leave it up to staff whether they
want to attend. The same applies to e-learning, yet as is so often the case
with Internet-related activities, logic can be lost amid the desire to

e-learning courses are introduced en masse, the benefits will probably be lost
because the culture of most organisations cannot support such a huge change. A
lot of money will be wasted in the process.

from the desktop rather than the classroom requires discipline from staff to
log on to the courses regularly and not be distracted by their other duties. It
also takes trust on the part of managers that employees are not wasting time on
irrelevant courses and are getting real value out of the learning. Most
importantly, staff need to know what modules are there, how to get to them,
what they are for and which ones are for them.

cannot just put all the training onto the Net and then expect everyone to use
it. Organisations need to realise what training culture they have and
e-learning should be delivered in the same way,” says Hagen. “If you don’t have
a self-study culture in the company, e-learning is not going to create it.”

employees are used to being told they are going on a two-day course, then in
the same way they should be told they are going on an e-learning course. Or,
more likely, that they are going on a one-day instructor-led course which will
require some preparatory work via an e-learning module over the next month and
further e-learning module(s) and a test after the classroom day. The time to
undertake this can then be arranged with line managers.

avoid a costly culture clash and dozens of expensive unused courses, e-learning
needs to be implemented on a small scale first with individual high-quality
courses which meet a specific business need. If the first one works then
further modules, if they are of the required standard, can be introduced later.
This builds up a culture of self-learning in the organisation and prevents
staff becoming cynical about the technology.

golden rule is to pilot, test and acknowledge what you can and cannot do. Don’t
jump in and put 46 courses on a server before you know how, who and where they
are going to be used,” says sales and marketing director of knowledge=power
Nicholas Thurlow.

you do this, the whole area will be rubbished in the same way CBT was 10 years
ago. The end-user will rebel and you will spend two years navel-gazing about
why it doesn’t work.”

staff feel their only learning option is to plough through a host of boring
courses which have poor content and little user interaction they will also lose
respect for the organisation. Employees feel valued when they are sent on
training courses because they can see the investment being put into their
development. By the same token, they will know they are being short-changed if
they are force-fed inadequate e-learning courses.

really enjoy classroom training – it is a big perk. Staff can get their hands
dirty, work through scenarios and speak to a knowledgeable consultant,” says
Hagen. “The way e-learning is being delivered at the moment in some organisations
is like a punishment to the end-user. What too many employers are saying is
‘You do your 40- or 50-hour week and find half-an-hour in your own time to work
through this course’”.

e-learning vendors should insist you start slowly in introducing e-learning,
provide one or two quality courses and work with you to build up a bigger
library of modules over time. Those who place coverage of as many topics as
possible before quality are to be ignored.

one or two courses will also give the organisation time to put in place the
required IT infrastructure. The demand online learning places on company
networks is a prime reason why most are not ready to implement the technology
yet. For a start, an employer needs an intranet or access to the Internet on
the desktop before it can even entertain the idea of e-learning. E-learning is
not CD-Rom-based training. Equally, it is not a learning centre stuffed full of
PCs with courses loaded on the hard drive.

or intranet delivery of courses is the differentiating factor with previous
technology-based training and, as a result, implementing e-learning requires a
robust IT infrastructure. For companies which do not have an intranet, the
e-learning vendor can usually host the courses on its own Website. Employees
then access these via their PC using a password and do the relevant modules,
which are still tailored to the company as if it were running them on its own

so, most networks do not have the capacity, or bandwidth, to deal with some of
the technology e-learning providers can supply, irrespective of who hosts the
courses. Video, for instance, is a non-starter unless the organisation has
massive network bandwidth and high specification PCs. If it has not got these,
the end-user will have a highly frustrating experience.

most impressive e-learning content in the world is useless if people cannot get
at it easily or if the bandwidths it requires to run cause the organisation to
grind to a halt,” says Kevin Young, managing director of e-learning firm
SkillSoft. “Organisations have to ensure training can be made available through
the existing network and can be deployed with minimum effect on network

need to get the technology right before you take on e-learning is one reason
why the prime misconception about e-learning – that it is a way to slash
training budgets – is false. For most employers a sizeable investment in
network infrastructure, PCs and software will be needed to implement
e-learning. In the long term it might reduce training expenditure but the
start-up costs are high. IT and high-tech firms are the main adopters at the
moment precisely because they already have the technology in place.

Hunt, head of capability development at insurance company Pearl says it is
developing an e-learning strategy but with a high degree of caution. “The
start-up costs are astronomical and we will not get the return until later. It
becomes a very ineffective tool with users who don’t use it,” he says.

caution is well placed. E-learning can be an invaluable asset to training if it
is implemented methodically, with a sharp focus on what learning goals it is to
meet and with no pretensions that it will replace all other methods.

history of training delivery in most firms will be stained by a botched attempt
to use new technology to improve training delivery. Learning centres with rows
of CD-Roms neatly lined up and sparkling PCs virtually untouched by human hand
stand as testimony to how an apparently failsafe training idea can turn into a
massive white elephant. And an intranet stuffed full of e-learning courses
no-one uses is a less visible, but just as costly, virtual white elephant.

pace of change is placing fresh demands on training in the telecoms industry.
To learn how one firm is reacting, see John Robinson’s article Siemens and its
lifelong e-learning relationship at
For a list of e-learning solution providers go to

study: Philips adopts e-training to speedily update staff

firm Philips Business Communications adopted an e-learning strategy because it
wanted to expand its capabilities as an organisation from being simply a
supplier of communications systems to a provider of additional system
integration and value-added services.

company had previously relied on predominantly classroom-based training but
this approach alone was deemed too slow to quickly upskill its 1,500 staff in
new products and services.

the first phase of the process, Philips identified the competencies its
employees would need to develop, market, install and maintain a bigger and more
sophisticated range of products and services.

then assessed the existing skills of each individual to build a profile of the
human capabilities of the organisation. After comparing the findings of the two
phases, Philips’ HR team identified the weaknesses and hired e-learning
provider SmartForce to come up with a training solution.

manager Christoph Bonert says the organisation chose e-learning as a method of
delivery because training could begin as soon as competency gaps were
identified. “It is becoming more important for companies to create the tools
and methodologies for employees to take greater responsibility for their own

this to happen, learning tools must be flexible and promote more efficient and
productive use of time.”

e-learning programme initially focused on employees involved in sales and
service functions at the company’s National Service Offices and will ultimately
be deployed as a tool for company-wide competence management.


Technology-based training is a broad term which encompasses any learning
techniques which involve computers and electronic tools. Most TBT applications
are distributed via CD-Roms and the Internet. Using a multitude of media such
as text, animation, audio and video, TBT seeks to deliver information with a
high degree of user involvement and interaction.

popularity of TBT has historically been driven by a need for quick, reliable
access to learning in a low-cost manner. Many organisations use designated
learning centres containing all the required technology to deliver this form of

For as long as there have been computers, there has been computer-based
training and the term is now seen by many as rather tired.

is any training that uses a computer as the focal point for instructional

are provided through the use of a computer and software, which guides a learner
through an instructional program. Typically these are stored on a CD-Rom which
the student loads to begin the course.

is especially effective for training people to use software applications
because the CBT program can be integrated with the applications so that
students can practice with it as they learn.

The distinctive feature of electronic leaning is that courses are delivered
over the Internet or an in-house intranet. Students can choose e-learning
packages, which typically involve a fast-changing mix of audio, graphics, text
and occasionally video, from their desktop computer. They can be any length of
time from five minutes to hours, enabling the user to dip in and out as they
need. Courses usually include tests and software to enable managers to monitor
who is using the system and the progress of students. Courses can either be
hosted on the company intranet or by the course provider on a designated
Internet site. The user then logs into the courses via a password.

Flexible learning is a catch-all term for training in which the student has
greater choice over what to learn, how it is learned and assessed, and when and
where the learning happens. It is virtually interchangeable with the term open
learning. Any media can be used in flexible learning depending on the learning
outcome desired. Students tend to study primarily in their own time and place
with infrequent or no face-to-face contact with one another or with trainers. A
high degree of self-assessment may also be involved. Flexible learning is
strongly linked with distance learning.


The central tenet of distance learning is that the learner can access training
materials away from the workplace. To do this they will use telecoms
technologies and more commonly e-mail, electronic forums, videoconferencing and
other forms of computer-based communication. Most distance learning programs
include a CBT system and communications tools to produce a virtual classroom to
provide some interaction with other students and trainers. The Internet is now
serving as the foundation for many distance learning systems because it can be
accessed from all computer platforms.

guide to e-learning

this feature shows, e-learning is a confusing concept to grasp. Multiple
definitions, hundreds of suppliers, thousands of products, a great deal of
jargon. As with all 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.

Today has got together with easycando to produce a comprehensive guide to
e-learning which explains how to deliver high-quality targeted knowledge and
training direct to individual desktops using Internet or intranet connections.
Free with next week’s issue.

Comments are closed.