L&D professionals should embrace the potential of e-learning

Too many learning and development professionals are scared of e-learning. Lisa Minogue-White of WillowDNA believes that learning and development needs to wake up to the huge potential e-learning presents and attempt more than simple “tick-box” training.

Online learning is not the trend du jour or cheap training option to turn to when budgets are slashed. It’s not a buzz word, the latest initiative, or a flash in the pan that will pass before we all troop back into the classroom.

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Sadly though, the learning and development community can end up treating online learning as such, as I know from experience. For many years, I worked in organisations getting online learning established and, more recently, I have managed learning design from the vendor perspective.

Many organisations get it wrong at the outset by focusing on cutting costs. Thirty minutes of generic e-learning using cheesy business simulations and dull visuals can be the most isolating of learning experiences. Bad experiences like this only prove the point of those trainers and learners who feel that there is no substitute for face-to-face time.

Despite popular technology specifically designed for sharing and conversation, the interpretation of online learning has remained largely limited to e-learning. There is still considerable focus on “managing” learning, via a learning management system, but that’s not necessarily what learners want. One alternative is a “free for all”, with a confusing mass of materials posted onto some shared space. HR can have the expectation that people will know exactly what they need, that those needs will meet the business requirement, and that self-directed learning will somehow come to fruition.

Of course, that’s not what happens. New generations, familiar with collaborating, learning and socialising online, are entering the workforce. The rest of us are becoming more web-savvy and demanding more of our online experiences, with the likes of Amazon, internet banking and comparison sites becoming everyday tools. It is easy for us to start asking: “Why don’t we make something that looks like Facebook?”, “Why isn’t HR tweeting?”, and “How about using gaming?”

Whatever is to be delivered needs to be credible and effective. Whatever HR does in this arena, it needs to be done in the appropriate way for the business environment. However, with this level of expectation, rather than risk professional reputations, what we see all too often is HR taking the safest and dullest route.

Learning and development professionals are often enticed by the more exciting e-learning concepts out there, but usually they’re looking for a bit of health-and-safety or compliance-based learning, just to see how it goes. This is unlikely to set learners’ pulses racing. In fact, rather than mitigate risk, it might well switch people off altogether.

In this case, it is a one-off piece of e-learning on a subject that might be important but is hardly the catalyst of collaboration, knowledge creation and a vibrant learning culture. That’s why my heart sinks when we are asked to provide this kind of tick-box learning.

So how do we move on from this position of fear? We’ve got to demand more from e-learning providers and more from learning designers. Simply taking the raw materials and wrapping the message up in a flash file is not nearly good enough and makes for only a small part of the learning experience. A piece of e-learning in isolation is just another resource, like a book, lecture or video.

Equally, though, learning and development needs to rouse itself. As providers, we will not be able to offer a better service untill we move from viewing e-learning as a cheap alternative to seeing it as a core enabler in skills development for the corporate world.

Clare Morley

Lisa Minogue-White, director, WillowDNA.

To support this journey, online learning needs:

  • great learning design – mapping out the topic as a learning journey and providing a range of resources and activities that support the journey;
  • good quality facilitation, from someone who cares about the learning;
  • to be a scene setter and the springboard to other learning;
  • well-designed assessment that is part of the learning experience itself;
  • collaboration led and supported by people genuinely interested in the subject; and
  • stories, videos and case studies from the field – authentic voices.

Further, an online learning provider should be passionate about helping organisations and learners to attain the skills they need to create their own journeys.

Effective online learning not only helps put the learner in control of their learning but, because material is no longer locked in a single flash file, it puts learning and development back in control too. Using your own case studies, videos from your people, webinars run by experts in your subject matter, and linking to your own processes and guidelines are what make the learning authentic and credible. This could be an exciting period in the history of organisational learning, and it’s up to learning and development to make it happen.

Lisa Minogue-White is a director at online learning agency WillowDNA.

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