The irresistible rise of e-learning

World of Learning Conference and Exhibition takes place in Birmingham over the
next few days. Keynote speaker Mark Frank outlines how e-learning can be used
to harness the resources of the UK’s increasingly flexible workforce

The past 100 years has seen prodigious and accelerating development in the
technology available for learning, including teaching machines, programmed
instruction texts, the radio and TV. However, almost all of it has failed to
meet its initial expectations. In the 1950s and ’60s there was a widespread
belief that the television would revolutionise the way we learn. And while
there has certainly been a consistent supply of excellent educational
broadcasting over the last 40 years, it could hardly be said to have
revolutionised the way we learn.

But these relative disappointments do not seem to have deterred us from using
technology in education and in the past few years, businesses of all sizes,
higher education, public institutions and national governments have invested in
learning technology on an unprecedented scale.

E-learning is now developing into m-learning (the use of technology such as
mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs)) and even t-learning (the
use of interactive TV). So does this represent yet another triumph of hope over
experience or are we truly in the middle of sea change in the way we learn?

In one sense the answer is easy. From the manager’s and the accountant’s
point of view the case for e-learning is compelling: a moderate investment up
front, but a much smaller cost per student for delivery, means that, given
enough students, the business case has to work. A recent research report from
Nucleus Research identified e-learning as one of two IT applications to give
the best return on investment – sometimes as high as 2,000 per cent. Add to
that the advantage of the training being available more quickly and with
greater flexibility and the case looks irresistible.

However, it is not always so compelling from the student’s point of view and
it is common for less than 20 per cent of students to complete an e-learning
module. Conversely, there are many e-learning success stories. For instance,
IBM conducts 43 per cent of its own staff training via e-learning and the
proportion rises every year and other leading corporations can point to a
similar transformation. The savings are real and the education effective when
it is done well.

What is it that underlies these e-learning success stories and does it
represent a movement that will affect us all? To understand this we need to
focus less on the technology and more on the learning. Technology doesn’t
transform anything unless it meets a need. And there is an overwhelming need
for new ways to learn.

The knowledge economy means that are skills and knowledge virtually define
our value as individuals and human capital is said to be the most valuable
asset of the enterprise. Combine this with an accelerating rate of change in
what we need to know (the amount of material on the internet doubles every
year) and life-long learning is no longer something we aspire to – it is a
prerequisite for survival.

At times it is logistically impossible to meet the demand through
conventional teaching methods and a recent IBM learning programme required us
to train the entire 30,000 global sales force in three months.

But even with less extreme examples our working environment makes it
increasingly difficult to meet demand using traditional learning methods. We
have less time, we are more mobile, and we are spread out. This means it is
hard to get people into a classroom, but even more significantly it limits the
opportunities for people to learn from each other.

It has been estimated that in a traditional office environment more than 90
per cent of what we learn is picked up from colleagues. Much of this can be
lost if we are working at home, on the road, or are otherwise isolated.
Similarly, e-learning courses often fail because they do not address the issues
of isolation. It is a common experience that an e-learning programme which
includes an opportunity for the students to get together as a learning community
will succeed far more often than one that is simply self-study. Ideally, the
get together should be a face-to-face meeting, but it can be as simple as
conference call.

Used properly, e-learning technology can be used to overcome. This can be
via technologies such as virtual classroom or discussion forums, which are
clearly designed to improve communication, but also in less obvious ways. For
example, a system that records a conference call on an important topic and
makes the content available to learners is helping to overcome that isolation.

There will always be a need for content created by specialist educator, but
it cannot be the whole solution. And it is the potential for e-learning to
provide access to content created by the learners themselves is where the
biggest developments will take place in the coming years. Not only does this
address the isolation but it is going to be the only way we will be able to
keep up with the rate of change. The educator will move from being content
creator to content facilitator, while the learner will become both consumer and

E-learning, when used properly, can help to address fundamental issues in
the modern workplace and in society in general – the sheer quantity of what
needs to be learned as well as potential problems of isolation. To do this
requires a move to a truly learner-centric approach – where the learner not
only chooses when and where to learn, but also chooses what to learn and
creates their own content. The pressure of the work environment means this
change might happen anyway – but e-learning, when used well, can speed up and
facilitate that change immeasurably.

Learning opportunity

The World of Learning Conference and
Exhibition (Wolce) is at the Birmingham NEC on 2 and 3 October. The exhibition,
which is free, is open from 10am to 5pm on the Wednesday and 10am to 4pm on
Thursday. Although entry to the exhibition is free, conferences are paid-for
with the exception of the opening and keynote addresses and two free
masterclasses. Pre-register via
Visitor hotline 020 8394 5171

Mark Frank is principal of IBM Learning Services.  In his keynote address at Wolce, he will
assess the penetration of new training technologies and whether employers
welcome such technological change

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