The second coming

E-learning could finally come of age, as new research reveals that the desire to persevere with the medium is still growing

In computing, a ‘killer app’ (application) is jargon for a piece of software that is so good at what it does it influences users to buy the computer system that it runs on. One of the best examples of this remains the spreadsheet package Lotus 1-2-3, which became a must-have for office workers everywhere in the 1980s and is often credited with introducing the department-level personal computer at many organisations. More recently, the web browser was the killer app that brought the internet into everyone’s work and home lives.

Learning is not an easily-automated office task such as creating a spreadsheet, but this didn’t stop some of us treating e-learning like a killer app when it appeared, as we eagerly kitted out learning centres with PCs, established virtual universities with libraries of online courses, and invested hundreds of thousands in learning management systems.


When e-learning failed to deliver in many cases, it was routinely condemned and tarred with the same brush as the fly-by-night dotcoms. It didn’t occur to us that we had perhaps been overly willing to believe the supplier’s hype and see it as a cure-all for training needs and, more worryingly, believe that technology could drive learning rather than the other way round.

E-learning’s shaky start or false dawn is now legendary, but sadly, several years on, we are still struggling to get the best out of this potentially powerful training medium. The poor student take-up of the Government’s UKeU online degree initiative again puts e-learning’s credibility and viability under question – a great shame because, if anything, its time could be about to come.

For starters, the online environment has had time to bed into our culture (at home and at work) so implementation of any web-based strategies have more chance of working now than five years ago. Added to this, with the majority of organisations having had some experience of online learning, we have an abundance of meaningful research and user feedback that arms us with information on which we can base future plans and strategies.


One of the most recent bodies of work comes from business school Ashridge, itself an e-learning provider since 1996 and the first European business school to launch a Virtual Learning Resource Centre (VLRC). E-Learning: the findings and the future revealed that while 85 per cent of those surveyed believe e-learning has a place, 82 per cent say they still find it hard to implement. This demonstrates that the intention and desire to persevere with the medium is still there, even if organisations sometimes lack the know-how or wherewithal to make a success of it.

“The initial wild enthusiasm for e-learning has given way to a much more cautious approach,” says Ashridge’s director of learning resources, Andrew Ettinger, who co-authored the report with senior researcher Viki Holton. “There is demand, but we’ve not had the huge growth that some of the IT companies predicted in their surveys.”

A number of major organisations were studied, including the BBC, Lloyds TSB, the Ministry of Defence (MoD), Norwich Union, Volvo and Xerox, whose user experience illustrates the raft of barriers that training professionals come up against when implementing an e-learning initiative. These range from lack of time set aside for training and technology problems to the underestimation of resources and negative perceptions of e-learning (so much so that the BBC now refers to it as ‘i-learning’). The loneliness of sitting a course online and lack of personalisation of the learning were also cited as stumbling blocks.

But none of these are insurmountable, nor reason to condemn an entire medium, and those companies studied have worked through many of the problems they’ve encountered. Under the right conditions, many prove that e-learning has every chance of succeeding and it works best, says Ettinger, when it is blended with other types of training, and when closely aligned to the business needs. It should also, he says, be tied into other training initiatives such as personal development plans and motivation and incentive schemes, and marketed properly to employees.

“E-learning can be highly effective, but only when implemented properly as part of an overall learning process,” says Ettinger.

“A slower pace of development for e-learning should be welcomed as it should give organisations the time to focus on what really matters: the creation of an organisational environment that truly values learning.”

Nearly all the companies studied use some form of blended learning. While blended threatened to become a bandwagon all of its own, it has undoubtedly helped to grow the acceptance of e-learning by giving it a context, typified when online learning is used to prepare learners for classroom training.

Chris Horseman, managing director of blended learning specialist Balance Learning explains: “Bringing everyone to the same, consistent level through online study and validating this through testing means all participants are ready to get maximum benefit from the classroom activities,” he says. “This gives organisations the opportunity to focus on practice and skills development in the classroom as well as building on each user’s role and workplace.”


If blended marks one watershed of e-learning’s acceptance then the increasing need for mandatory training to ensure companies are compliant with regulations across a number of areas, such as health and safety and financial regulations, is likely to be the next big one. Research by the Health & Safety Executive found that workplace-related injury is costing UK business £2.5bn a year and the training demands placed on financial companies by the Financial Services Authority’s regulations can be onerous for employers.

It probably isn’t too strong a claim to say that the issue of compliance could be the making of e-learning’s reputation in the training sector, throwing up a need that only online training can viably answer. As well as all of its original advantages – its ability to train large numbers of staff for less money, in a shorter period of time wherever they are based – e-learning has one other big plus point when it comes to compliance, explains Clare Spratt, international alliance manager at learning provider Thomson NETg.

“If employees have done an e-learning course you have indelible data that they have sat a two-hour course,” she says. “So if the Financial Service Authority (FSA) turns up, you can demonstrate that you’ve fulfilled your training requirements.”

Compliance could offer e-learning the opportunity to be the killer app for real this time and, at the very least it looks like ensuring its future in most training departments.

Learning from experience
Top tips for success in implementation

BBC E-learning was suffering from a negative image so the broadcasting company adopted a new name, I Learn – the I symbolising the individual. Future development includes linking e-learning to its competency frameworks and the BBC aims to blend all learning, including e-learning, into all training programmes and to use it as part of knowledge management.

Key advice: E-learning won’t engage learners unless the content is relevant to the business.

Xerox Europe created a learning management system that ensured staff couldn’t book a place on a training programme until the necessary online work had been completed first. Making the online aspect of a blended approach compulsory like this is a device that is also used by Norwich Union and the HR consultancy Mercer in the US.

Key advice: Communication is paramount in selling e-learning across an organisation.

Lloyds TSB The attitude of some managers hindered the progress of e-learning so Lloyds TSB worked hard to convince them of its plus points. This included emphasising how effective e-learning can be in a high-pressure work environment where it is difficult to lose staff to classroom training for more than half a day.

Key advice: Get senior managers and directors to champion e-learning in their organisation areas.

Source: Based on information from Ashridge’s report, E-Learning: the Findings and the Future, in which you can read case studies on these and other organisations. The report is available from or for £40

Blended learning
Slow progress

Does the current debate on blended learning represent an advance? The answer is yes, says the CIPD’s Martyn Sloman, but only just

  • As it stands, most of the discussion (all of the discussion) is about blended training, not blended learning. It is about how we can use technology to improve the offering to the learner by mixing the blend and varying the channels. Nothing wrong with that – undertaken thoughtfully it must be correct. But we have heard little so far about the learner and their needs. Brutally, blended learning remains a top-down model.

Further, the little that has appeared so far seems designed to address and overcome the major issues and problems in moving from training to learning. Time is a constraint and blended learning (done properly) may well require more time and commitment from the learner and his or her manager. Don’t get me wrong, we must have this commitment if we are to be effective and must be prepared to argue our case.

Blended learning, however defined, is neither a quick fix nor an easy option. We have a long way to go in exploring this and developing the concept if it is to be of long-term value to the profession. Only then will the term be a feature of our vocabulary in five years’ time.

* Martyn Sloman is adviser in learning, training and development, at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

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