E-learning is still way off the pace

Recently I’ve seen lots of material promoting conferences and seminars on e-learning.I’ve no objections: let the exposure of new ideas and accompanying debate flourish.But, and this has been reflected in some recent articles in Training & Coaching Today, an uncritical and over-optimistic tone seems to be emerging. We are becoming seduced by technology or, rather, its potential.

Much of this impetus for technology-led or technology-aided learning has followed the popularity of the iPod as a consumer item and as a potential training medium delivering, for example, mobile learning. It’s an attractive idea. But it has yet to happen and it’s unhelpful to pretend that it has -learning is not a branch of applied technology.

Only learners can learn: they learn in a context and learning requires engagement and commitment on their part.All, except the very confident and highly motivated, need support. For most of us, learning is a mediated process and the assistance comes from trainers, line managers or our colleagues.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) recently completed a major piece of international research on training and learning in organisations and concluded that the best definition of the trainer’s role is: supporting, accelerating and directing learning interventions that meet organisational needs and are appropriate to the learner and the context.

E-learning’s more extreme advocates should find the results of the CIPD’s 2007 Learning and Development Survey interesting. It asked 660 respondents the question: “In your opinion, which of the following is the most effective way that people learn in your organisation?” There were seven options, including classroom-based training and e-learning.

On-the-job training was, by far, the top choice, with 41% saying it was the most effective way to learn. E-learning was backed by just 2%.

I accept that such a forced-choice approach does not allow for nuances, qualifications or combinations such as blended learning. Butase-learning has been with us for six yearsand its use has grown steadily, we need to ask why there is such a negative response.It should cause us to pause and reflect on what we should have learned from past experience.

Anyone who has watched the progress of e-learning must be depressed about the past but optimistic about the future. There is much more that can be achievedthan has been evident to date. I believe five principles should underline any strategy for e-learning:

  • Start with the learner and recognise the limitations of the population you are trying to reach.
  • Relevance drives out resistance: if the e-learning material is seen as relating to something that matters in an organisation, people are more likely to try it.
  • Take account of intermediaries: most learning requires an intermediary to advise and direct the learner. This is just as true of e-learning it will not be successful if taken in isolation from other learning.
  • Embed activity in the organisation: this is a subtler point, but follows from the previous one. E-learning modules should be seen as one element in an organisational learning strategy where possible, their use should be linked with instructor-led courses and other HR management systems.
  • Support and automate: this final catch-all point reinforces and underlines the others. E-learning does not offer us the opportunity to automate all our learning processes. Instead, it is a powerful new element in a wider strategy thatrequires support for learners in the context in which they learn.

In short, recognising the limits of e-learning is an essential part of any strategy for its application.

However, when these fundamental principles are applied, e-learning can be very successful and if successful, it can produce significant pay-offs.

We may not have seen the best of e-learning yet, but it is here to stay.So we should have an honest debate on what is happening, and could happen, and what we have to do to make it happen.

Case study examples can be fournd on the CIPD website

Martyn Sloman is an adviser, learning, training and development at the Chartered Institute of Training and Development.

The Sloman File

What are your training/L&D credentials?

I did the IPM qualification at the College of Distributive Trades in 1983-85 while I was teaching at the National Coal Board’s staff college. Since then I’ve held many training manager roles and I’m now L&D adviser at the CIPD and a visiting professor at Kingston and Glasgow Caledonian universities.

What training would you benefit from?

I can’t make the bed. It’s a skills issue.

What professional books have made the biggest impact on you?

Virtually anything by David Ulrich, and Joyce and Nohria’s What Really Works.

If you were minister for training and L&D, what one initiative would you implement?

A unified framework for learning for 14- to 19-year-olds.

What’s the biggest challenge training and L&D professionals face?

Realising we are no longer the sun around which learner planets revolve.

What drives you nuts?

First Great Western’s train service from Cardiff when there is a big game at the Millennium Stadium.

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