E-learning stuck in the slow

Despite e-learning having been with us for more than a decade, it seems that many learning and development professionals are still struggling to embed it effectively in their organisations.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s (CIPD’s) 2008 learning and development survey revealed that when asked to list the top three most effective training practices, only 7% of 729 learning and development (L&D) managers included e-learning. Similarly, it seems learners are still not making maximum use of the medium. At those organisations that use e-learning, while it is, on average, available to 60% of employees, it is only taken up by only half of them.

CIPD learning and development adviser Martyn Sloman is in no doubt that e-learning is here to stay, but he acknowledges that the findings show it still isn’t fully appreciated by learners or training managers.

“These figures show the stark reality – e-learning is advancing, but growth is gradual and organic, not explosive.”

Recent years has seen e-learning find more favour as part of a blended learning solution so it will come as no surprise to many people that the survey also found that 95% of organisations agree that e-learning is more effective when combined with other forms of learning.

“Simply making it available will have no effect,” he says. “It needs to be embedded in wider learning strategies.”

A raft of reasons such as poor instructional design, boring content as well as an inappropriate use of the medium can be blamed for e-learning’s lack of effectiveness.

No-one would dispute that content must be compelling and work hard to engage the learner, but there is a lot of support for Sloman’s view that e-learning is still not being properly implemented, and some of the responsibility for that must lie at the door of the training manager.

The survey found that 92% of respondents said that e-learning demands a new attitude on the part of the learner and without doubt allowing for this mindset change is central to ensuring e-learning’s effectiveness.

David Hill, managing director of London-based learning consultancy Echelon, believes many training professionals haven’t adjusted their role to reflect the demands of the online medium.

“The job has now become one of marketing the learning (the carrot) to ensure everyone knows what is expected of them and why, implementing some form of assessment mechanism so that learners realise there is a good reason for completing (the stick), and providing a feedback mechanism so the learner does not feel on their own. Too few companies/trainers have actually followed this mantra,” Hill says.

Julie Norquist Roy, vice-president, marketing, at the Santa Monica, US, HQ of Cornerstone OnDemand, a global provider of on-demand learning says that if the e-learning is linked to a performance and assessment system, it will inevitably be more powerful.

“In other words, if you assess your workers and then follow-up with targeted, personalised e-learning (and blended learning) activities, you will not only close the loop on employee development, you will also have more engaged workers as a result,” she says. “This is because they are measured, but they are also supported in their career development.”

Given that many training managers have to address the needs of different generations within a workforce, Roy also believes that e-learning has to come as part of a tailored blended approach to be effective.

For instance, she suggests interactive Web 2.0 style e-learning could be combined with more hands-on coaching and mentoring for younger workers, while a traditional classroom component may be more appropriate alongside online learning for more mature workers.

“Web-based surveys can help you poll your workforce to find out what is working for them,” Norquist Roy adds.

David Marshall, chief executive of London-based learning consultancy Marshall ACM doesn’t believe e-learning has to come as part of a blended solution. He says there are plenty of examples of it being highly effective – as long as it is properly implemented and explained well to employees. But he’d like to see more proper piloting and research of programmes with end-users and to see internal staff taking more responsibility for the implementation process rather than simply farming it out.

Case study: effective e-learning in action

When Britannia Building Society took over the Bristol and West branch network, Bournemouth-based learning and development firm Marton House [www.martonhouse.co.uk] created a blended learning programme to train and accredit 750 users on 60 core processes in just five weeks. The learning supported the overall integration programme taking place at the company, which saw one million accounts and 750,000 customers switch to Britannia.

The e-learning programme helped to provide crucial management information to go live and the operation was heralded as one of the most successful transitions in the financial sector.

The programme comprised a series of five-day workshops at 13 venues across the UK, where users could practice, be tested and become accredited on the system. This live element was supported by a screen-based practice simulation system that enabled employees to build confidence in what they had learned.

Julian Stodd, head of e-learning at Marton House, says that to ensure e-learning is effective, organisations must know the key messages that they want to put across via the learning, and they should map out how they are going to evaluate it.

“Are you going to test straight knowledge retention or are you looking to see that users can synthesise the new knowledge into their existing framework,” he says. “If you really want a piece of learning to be effective, it should challenge users to make connections themselves.”

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