E-ureka! Online learning comes of age

E-learning has attracted plenty of criticism over the past decade, but better products and increasing understanding of how best to use this tool could see it take off at last.

Few people who work in the e-learning sector would be surprised to hear that it has been cited as one of the least effective ways of learning (second-last to self-study) in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) Learning and Development Annual Survey and Report 2007.

“But this perception isn’t so much the fault of e-learning as of those commissioning it,” says Vaughan Waller, director of learning consul­tancy Waller Hart Learning Architects. “E‑learning is still used more inappropriately than appropriately,” he adds.

Not effective

E-learning has been around for about 10 years and has earned more brickbats than bouquets. The CIPD’s survey, in which only 2% viewed it as the most effective way to learn (on-the-job training came top with 41% and formal training courses second with 21%), is not the first to question its effectiveness.

Research carried out by Personnel Today’s sister title Training & Coaching Today this year found that 30% believe it is ‘not very effective’ and only 11% that it is ‘very effective’.

The CIPD research also revealed that the reported use of e‑learning has fallen from 54% in 2005 to 48% this year. So why is such a potentially powerful medium still failing to live up to expectations?

It is important to see the research in context: Personnel Today has reported many successful applications of e‑learning over the years, and the recent shift by some firms to using online resources as performance support at the time of need (just-in-time learning) has seen it come into its own.

The findings are also at odds with the experience of some supplier companies. Global e‑learning provider Tata Interactive Systems, for instance, has grown 33% in the past year and has already won five multi-million dollar deals in 2007.

“I don’t believe clients would be spending the money if e‑­learning wasn’t effective,” says Tata chief executive Sanjaya Sharma. “Our experience is opposite to the research.”

Interpret with caution

Phil Green, chairman of professional association the eLearning Network, says he urges caution when interpreting figures. “Maybe the reported decrease in the use of e‑learning signals that indiscriminate use is in decline. That would be good news,” he says.

“Or maybe it means those who responded had a narrower definition of e‑­learning than you and I. Were they at last discovering that there is no such thing as an effective single-medium programme to bring about any form of behavioural or organisational change?”

Most of those working in the sector would no doubt agree with Green, since online learning has proven most effective when mixed with traditional methods. Martyn Slo­man, adviser, training, learning and development at the CIPD, says some of the negative reaction is down to the legacy of bad experiences.

“We’ve come to terms with its strength and limitations,” he says. “Where e‑learning is appropriately embedded in the learning experience it is fine.” Appropriateness is a word that comes up time and again and is the key to its successful use. E‑learning has never been the medium for intensive, in-depth courses.

“It works best when it’s kept short and is designed so the learner is made to think, analyse and dig deeper, not just read-and-do multiple choice questions,” says Waller.

All too often e‑learning has become a default option when businesses hit a problem and feel the answer is to throw training at it, especially in this era of dispersed workforces, he says. “We apply an architect’s analogy: when you are constructing a building you bring in an architect who responds to all the needs of the client. They then hand the design and ideas over to the engineers who build it – everything is thought through and considered from first principles.”

Keep it interesting

Some e-learning fails because it is simply too dull. With the interactive features available there is no excuse for this. The new generation set to flood the jobs market is likely to have high-tech expectations. “Anyone would be disappointed knowing they could be watching a 3D movie when instead they are given a copied manuscript,” says Maarten Staps, partner responsible for HR practice at London-based consultancy People Know How.

Staps, who was one of the people behind the online Hilton University, adds: “By expanding interactivity, going beyond the usual standard linear navigation and not forgetting the fun bit, the learner’s experience is significantly enhanced.”

The CIPD’s research showed that 67% of respondents plan to increase the use of e‑learning, with only coaching by line managers scoring a higher projected increase, at 73%, so there are clearly plenty of clients out there who still feel online learning has potential.

Questions to ask when deciding to use e-learning

  • Why am I using e-learning – is the subject matter appropriate for an online medium?
  • Should the learning programme be used as part of a blended approach combining online learning with traditional methods like classroom or on-the-job training?
  • Will it engage the learner? Don’t assume devices like multiple choice questions or drag-and-drop graphics will hold their attention. The learning must make them think.

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