E-learning: does it live up to the hype?

Martyn Sloman examines whether the use of ‘personalisation’ and ‘blended learning’
are harnessing new technology

It is a difficult time for e-learning advocates. Research suggests the
‘inevitable’ increase in the use of electronic learning technology may have

Large industry players have issued profit warnings, some e-learning product
vendors have closed their UK operations, and others have merged as the industry
has consolidated.

A number of training managers will admit to costly mistakes. One speaker at
the recent ASTD Conference claimed that in the US, it is now common practice to
change a learning management system within two years of initial purchase. And
UK trainers have reported difficulties in gaining cultural acceptance for some
web-based materials produced by US suppliers.

Of course, it’s not all bad news. As a result of thoughtful planning, many
training professionals are developing and implementing strategies that make
effective use of e-learning and its huge potential. The best way forward is to
build on their experience, be honest about ourmistakes, and share best

The alternative to this approach is to create a new vocabulary and pretend
we have moved forward. In HR development, we seem to demonstrate a readiness to
embrace and discard attractive labels. Remember the ‘learning organisation’?
This term seems to have disappeared without trace as attention has shifted

The ‘learning organisation’ was a lofty idea, but surely what matters is
that a set of practical guidelines which allow specialist trainers or managers
in organisations to deliver more effective training interventions has been

The considerable conceptual and practical difficulties presented by
e-learning have spawned two new terms: ‘blended learning’, and
‘personalisation’. They have emerged to offer different perspectives on the
problems of implementation.

Before we go overboard, it is worth asking how much substance lies behind
each concept. To quote a US hamburger advert: "where’s the beef?"

Let’s start with blended learning. This has merit of substance: it is more
than a concept in search of an application. Try this definition: "Blended
learning is a recognition that e-learning will be most effective when it is
part of a strategy that involves classroom and on-the-job learning." This
sounds reasonable, but the idea that blended learning is a conceptual
breakthrough is ludicrous. The above definition simply restates sound
instructional design principles.

However, given the number of conferences, articles and unsolicited e-mails
on the subject of blended learning, survival seems inevitable.

One of General de Gaulle’s management maxims was ‘exploit the inevitable’,
and this seems sound advice when dealing with blended learning. Another of his
maxims, incidentally, was ‘never get between the dog and the lamp post’, which
is also good advice for training managers responsible for e-learning projects.

We must always be wary of a concept in search of substance. And this must be
the considered verdict in the ‘personalisation’ of e-learning.

The idea here is that learning content is adjusted to the needs of the
individual, reflecting their learning preferences. It is a powerful idea, yet
it is not happening in practice in any meaningful way.

What is happening, is that learners are dipping in and out of learning
modules, any time, any place. Their names can be placed on the screen and the
content adjusted to their level – but isn’t this the same as giving them a
different level book and asking them to write their name on it?

Though theoretically possible, shaping learning around personal preferences
is not taking place. Hopefully, when it does, it will be driven by
considerations of learning theory, not technology.

I believe we should trust our instincts as trainers and ask hard questions –
we must not allow ourselves to be fooled by labels.

By Martyn Sloman, CIPD adviser on learning, training and development

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