Somewhere a place to learn
by Clive Shepherd
The promise of e-learning to provide anytime,
anyplace learning leaves us with an awful lot of options. But trainers and
learners alike have to make a choice – what is the ideal environment in which to
be an e-learner? In this article, Clive Shepherd explores the advantages and
disadvantages associated with learning at the desktop, at home or in the
learning centre, and comes to see how all options can work given the right
A time and place for us
On the home front
of the learning centre
A place for
Case study: factiva.com
Where to e-learn: the
pros and cons
A time and place for us
Way back in the mid 1990s, the Internet was
beginning to attract the attention of a wider public. Educationalists, who, in
universities and research establishments around the world, had actually been
using this technology for 20 years, were woken up suddenly to the potential of
computer networks as a channel of communication that had a purpose beyond
shopping and pornography. And so e-learning was born, and no sooner was the ‘e’
word uttered than the educationalists showed their age and trotted out that
Martini thing (you know – ‘anytime, anywhere, any place’, three sentiments, two
of which mean the same thing).
Now, the Martini claim is a grand one and, of course, overstated. If anything,
the claim applies more appropriately to books, which are more portable and
require less sophisticated connectivity than computers (although they can’t mark
your assessments in a nanosecond or allow you to engage in chat sessions across
continents). Yes, online learning does add something unique and valuable to the
educational toolkit but no, not really anyplace.
As we all know, the idea of independent, self-paced learning is hardly new.
People have sat quietly and reflected on experience for thousands of years, and
with the aid of books for hundreds. In 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman taught shorthand
by mail, heralding the arrival of correspondence schools. The idea that this
form of learning requires a special place, away from the madding crowd, came in
the early 80s, with the first open learning centres. Forgive me if I reminisce.
Was it really 20 years ago now when I opened the pretentiously-titled ‘computer
learning centre’ at American Express, complete with an on-screen catalogue of
resources, navigated with a light pen, and induction courses running on Apple II
computers connected to VHS players? With a blaze of launch publicity, the centre
was well used, particularly at lunch times and after work. Is it there now? No,
of course not. People don’t really use learning centres, do they?
Learners have choices
Although ‘anyplace’ learning seems a little
far-fetched, learners really do have choices about where they e-learn. They can
learn at their desktops, if they work at a desk, or, if they’re out and about,
practically anywhere they can take their laptop and get a connection. They can
learn at home, where a large proportion of the population now have access to the
Internet, or in a learning centre – at their workplace, a college or a library –
which is designed especially for the job.
That’s the theory. We’ve had a few years now to test this model out in practice
and see where it is that learners actually want to learn and, perhaps more
importantly, where they are actually able to learn. So, what do we now know?
We do know that learning at the desktop is easier said than done. In particular,
learners complain that continual interruptions are an annoying distraction. As
significantly, others feel embarrassed that learning at the desktop can appear
to their managers and colleagues as if they are playing rather than working.
But some organizations do make a success of learning at the desktop. Steve
Dineen is CEO of e-learning developer fuel:
“The culture of the company makes a big difference – how far on the road it is
to becoming a learning company and adopting e-learning fully. For example, 70%
of learning at Cisco is online and the CEO is a great advocate. As a result,
when people are learning at their PCs within Cisco it is seen as acceptable by
their peers and their management.” According to Ian Ruddy, Head of Human
Resources, Cisco Systems UK and Ireland: “We offer additional incentives and
rewards such as stock grants, promotions and bonuses to employees who pursue
specialisation, certification and qualifications earned with the help of
e-learning. We monitor Cisco executives on their deployment of e-learning as a
strategic top-down metric. Our aim is make e-learning a part of employees’ daily
life at Cisco, by making it easily accessible via the Web.” The result? Cisco
was ranked the number one Best Company to work for in the UK in February 2001
and e-learning was mentioned as one of the contributory reasons.
Dineen: “The style of office also has a big part to play. For example, a survey
that we conducted of 300 employees at Cable & Wireless in the West Indies, told
us that 85% liked to learn at their work PCs. Their environment was really
conducive to e-learning, with lots of space between desks, a friendly atmosphere
and a supportive management team. On the other hand, an environment such as a
trading floor will be far too loud and busy to allow learners to concentrate.”
On the home front
For many learners, the home is the natural place
to learn, away from the pressures of work, sat quietly in the study in front
of the PC with your favourite music playing and perhaps a glass of wine.
Unlike at work, you have a decent, modern PC with multimedia capability and no
firewall to content with. For others, home is screaming kids, endless chores
to perform and the continual quest for sleep. Work is where you go to relax.
Of course, much depends on the extent to which your target population is
wired. In the course of designing an e-learning component to its National
Nursing Leadership Project, a programme involving some 35,000 nurses, the
developers conducted a major research study. They found that 70 per cent of
registered nurses have Internet access, compared with 30 per cent of adults in
the general population and that, although 63 per cent of NHS clinicians had
access to a computer at work, 59 per cent preferred to learn at home.
Ali Handscomb and David Dawes conducted the study for the NHS Leadership
Centre. Explained Handscomb: “There’s not really a culture of learning at work
in the NHS – if you’re at work, then you’re with patients. In practice, nurses
found that they obtained more support in their learning from the people around
them at home, than they could expect from teachers and trainers. We improved
the design of the materials so that now less than 3% of learners need any
And how successful was e-learning as a medium? Handscomb: “The profile of our
audience is 87% women and an average age of 41, a profile that does not
obviously suggest e-learning. What has surprised us is the level of interest
in e-learning. Nurses are desperate for personal development and love the fact
that they can access the materials in small chunks and return as often as they
The lure of the learning centre
For many learners, neither the desktop nor the home
is a suitable base for e-learning. Perhaps you don’t work with a desktop PC or
find the office environment too intrusive. Perhaps you don’t have a PC at home
or struggle to compete for access with other family members. The answer is a
tailor-made self-study environment – the learning centre.
Internet Exchange is the UK’s
largest chain of Internet access centres, with outlets in both the high street
and in libraries. James Golfar is Training Director: “We started offering
training in our centres in 1994. We found that learners feel more comfortable
having someone in the room who can give support. Our courses are primarily
technology-orientated, so our on-site personnel are able to provide both
technical support with using the computers and answers to questions arising from
the courses themselves.”
What distinguishes the Internet Exchange customer? Golfer explains: “70 per cent
of our learners are aiming to upskill so they can move job, and are paying for
the courses themselves. These people simply can’t do this training with their
existing employers. Learners prefer working with the broadband access that the
centres provide, which they may not be able to obtain at home or at work. They
also enjoy the more social environment of a centre and the increase to
motivation that comes from booking a formal time to carry out their learning.”
Learndirect has long appreciated the
importance of learning centres, believing that human support is key to success.
For every 20,000 learners, there are 5000 learning centre staff providing
face-to-face support. As a result, course completions are encouragingly over 50%
It would be fair to say that learning centres have had a chequered history. For
every thriving environment, packed with eager learners sporting headphones,
there would appear to be many more cavernous empty spaces, filled only with
shiny new PCs. So what makes for a successful learning centre?
It seems clear that support provided by real human beings is critical.
Learning IT has training centres in
Stirling and Glasgow and is Scotland’s largest independent IT training company.
Duncan Macleod is Managing Director: “The whole point of e-learning is that it
doesn’t really matter where you do it – although the fewer distractions there
are the better. But learning at a desktop hasn’t always caught on in the way
people thought it would and we believe that being completely isolated when
e-learning is not necessarily a good thing. Training centres, where there are
other people to provide useful, relevant feedback and interaction can provide a
much more conducive environment. Even when the learner is provided with a range
of computer-based support tools such as online tutor support, peer-to-peer chat
rooms and discussion forums, face-to-face participation as part of the total
learning experience remains important.”
A place for e-learning
So what is the ideal environment for e-learning?
Julia Jones, of Drake Learning Systems believes that it all depends: “Given that
learners have decided to take an e-learning course, the best place for learning
is anywhere that the learner feels most comfortable. Individuals have their own
preferences for learning within diverse environmental conditions: silence or
background music, bright or low light, sitting up at a table or lounging in a
soft chair, extended work periods or frequent breaks, working in the morning or
Jones continues: “It is important for an employer to recognise that they will
need to provide adequate time for staff to spend learning during a working day.
By actively encouraging staff to learn, and giving the appropriate support, they
can dramatically improve the likelihood that learning will take place.”
We should not be surprised that there is no clear cut best place for e-learning
– life rarely affords us that luxury. It is quite clear that work environments
differ, learner preferences differ and so do the requirements of the subject
matter. Trainers would be well advised to find out what their audience prefers
and then shape their solution accordingly. In any circumstance, they need to
back up their decision with appropriate support – online, by telephone or
face-to-face – and the clear message to employees that learning is an important
part of being at work and that appropriate times and places should and must be
made available to make that a reality.
Case study: factiva.com
Founded in 2001,
Factiva was created through a joint venture between Reuters and Dow Jones.
With more than 800 employees located in 58 cities, in 34 countries, Factiva has
fast become one of the leading business information vendors. As Factiva began to
grow, it developed a new product, Factiva.com, a desktop news and information
tool, which was to be installed on every desktop throughout the company. The
company had to provide training on the new product to all employees in just five
weeks before its launch.
Anne Caputo, Director of Knowledge and Learning Programs for Factiva, developed
a solution that included web conferencing sessions, using
WebEx software, discussion forums,
downloadable resources and e-mentoring, and delivered this at 20% of the
equivalent cost of a traditional classroom approach.
Factiva has discovered just how flexible a resource e-learning can be, wherever
it is deployed. Says Caputo: “E-learning from home is perhaps the most
innovative use of the medium. Learners enjoyed the opportunity to incorporate
their learning into their lifestyle. However, learning at home is prone to
distraction and learners with children, in particular, often found it difficult
to focus for extended periods.”
“E-learning in a learning centre with the aid of qualified, local instructors
appeared to result in the most enjoyable learning experiences and Factiva
recognises that instructors remain an essential ingredient of the company's
learning programmes for years to come. But perhaps the most debated form of
e-learning is desktop e-learning. Technology such as Webex enabled instructors
to educate large numbers of learners at their desktops. Not only was this
cheaper and easier to implement than learning centres, it also enabled
participants to gain new skills within their working environment, reducing the
time and expense of travelling to a training session. We have concluded that
e-learners often gain more from sessions that take place within the working
environment, as this is the place where that learning will be applied.”
Where to e-learn: the pros and cons
||You can shape the environment
to meet your needs.
You have control over when you learn.
You have the support of your family.
|You need a PC and an Internet
connection, but the cost of providing this will be down to you.
Unless you have broadband, Internet access can be slow.
No face-to-face access to tutors and fellow learners.
|At the desktop
||You get learning when you
need it, without delay.
Your office network will probably be faster than a normal dial-up
You have the support of your manager and fellow workers.
|No good if you don’t work at
You may suffer from interruptions.
No face-to-face access to tutors and fellow learners.
|In a learning centre
||You are likely to have access
to a fast network.
You will not suffer from interruptions.
You are likely to have face-to-face support.
You may benefit from the discipline of a formal learning environment.
|In a learning centre There
needs to be a learning centre available to you.
You have to travel to wherever the centre is situated.
The centre is unlikely to be available all hours.
E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from
Above and Beyond