Back to basics - e-learning in 2003
by Clive Shepherd
Observers may be forgiven for thinking that the
e-learning industry is in turmoil, with too many of its leading firms failing to
make a profit, while their smaller colleagues struggle to stay alive at all.
There have even been some cheeky comments about the quality of the e-learning
that has been delivered to date. Should we be surprised? Clive Shepherd says no,
given the economic climate, ridiculously over-hyped expectations and a general
lack of skills in the design and delivery of e-learning. In this article, Clive
argues that we have only just started to see the true potential for information
and communication technology in education and training but that, by getting back
to basics and doing the simple things well, we can still expect to see powerful
results in the short term.
First the bad news
Apples and apples
First the bad news
Readers in the UK will be aware that there are
dangers in flying the ‘back to basics’ banner, as a certain ex-Prime Minister
found to his cost when he realised that how hard it is to get rid of the taste
of Currie. Nevertheless, working on the basis that lightening never strikes
twice, the banner is about to be raised once again, this time as a rallying call
to the increasingly depressed workers of the so-called e-learning industry and
as an encouragement to those trainers for whom the term e-learning has become
synonymous will the word ‘headache’.
In this review of the-learning market as it stands at the end of 2002, it’s
probably a good idea to get the bad news out of the way first. Let’s start with
those market projections. Finally, IDC and others have had to admit that their
forecasts for the e-learning market were unrealistic – the growth of the use of
information and communication technology in education and training will come but
nowhere near as fast as they thought. Now there’s a surprise. Did anyone – even
those companies that floated in the dotcom boom on the back of these figures –
ever really believe them? Did they conveniently forget that learning – e or
otherwise – is not about systems but about people, and that people only change
their behaviour when it suits them?
We have also seen some rather surprising declines in the fortunes of some of the
‘big names’ in the industry: take SmartForce,
who posted such poor results earlier in the year, not to mention
Click2Learn, who are struggling to
maintain their full Nasdaq listings. At the lower end of the market, listings
are the least of the problem as many firms go out of business altogether. So why
is this happening when e-learning is supposed to be on the up and up? Well, on
the one hand, you have got tough economic conditions, where cash is tight and
sales cycles lengthen. On the other, you have a natural shake-out as many new
entrants to the market fail to find their place, whether that’s because they are
not strong enough to be competitive or because their offerings simply fail to
meet a real market need. We should remember that shake-outs are not uncommon,
even in the most promising new industries. In the early 1900s there were
hundreds of automobile manufacturers in the USA alone and now there is barely a
handful. Clearly this is not a sign of a declining market, just a general
sorting out. Consumers, of cars or learning management systems do need choice,
but not from hundreds of alternatives. Before we leave the car analogy,
e-learning enthusiasts should be encouraged to recall how commentators of the
time warned us that ‘the motor car is a good idea, but it will never replace the
Further bad news has come in the shape of some rather unflattering comments
about the quality of e-learning from the training profession, as reported in the
survey conducted this summer by the
European Training Village. Some 61% of respondents rated e-learning as only
fair or poor on their not-so-happy sheet. Yes, a disappointing result and one
that shows how lacking we still are in e-learning design and delivery skills. On
the other hand, the training profession is not as well-positioned to judge as
you might think – my own survey of 200 trainers this year shows that only a
quarter have ever taken an e-learning course and most of those were on CD-ROM.
Apples and apples
One of the problems with any discussion of
e-learning is that it’s very rare for the participants to be talking about the
same thing. For a start, there are at least three completely different
e-learning paradigms. First there’s the idea that e-learning is simply CBT
delivered on the web – the same interactive, self-study materials we once had on
CD-ROM but now delivered through a browser. What’s changed is that going online
provides improved accessibility to materials and easier record-keeping, at the
expense, at least for now, of reduced bandwidth.
Then, there’s the model that predominates in higher education: that e-learning
provides, through the Internet, a new channel for communication between distance
learners and their tutors, and a new, more economical way of getting materials
to people. There’s rarely much in the way of interacting with the computer, but
when it’s done well, there’s an awful lot of interacting with other people.
Finally, we have the model that e-learning is a way of delivering classroom
instruction online. Instead of bricks and mortar classrooms we have virtual
ones. No-one’s saying a virtual classroom is better than a real one (except
perhaps in that the sessions can be recorded and archived), but they’re
certainly much easier to access at a distance, particularly when what’s required
is just a short session.
So, here are three completely different ways of looking at e-learning. One is
asynchronous (CBT on the web), one synchronous (virtual classrooms) and the
other a mix (distance learning on the Internet). They have almost nothing in
common except for the fact that they employ computers and networks to aid the
process of learning, which is all that e-learning really is – a channel, a way
of reaching learners; not face-to-face, not through books or video, but online.
The progress of e-learning depends on educators and trainers appreciating just
what a broad discipline it is, with so many possibilities, but at heart really
Improving the quality of e-learning depends to
an extent on your favoured paradigm. It also depends on the extent to which
you are prepared to dispense with the past and mix and match freely, not just
between the various computer-assisted methods, but with traditional methods as
well. But before we worry about the blends, let’s look at the ingredients in
turn, starting with interactive self-study, what we used to call CBT.
Interactive self-study has taken some knocks, primarily when it is derided as
merely ‘page-turning’. Now there’s nothing wrong with page-turning as such;
after all we don’t complain about having to turn the pages of a favourite
novel. No the problem is not with the turning, but with the pages. So much
web-based training is based on tired old behaviourist models of tell and test,
and simply doesn’t take advantage of what computers do well. Learning requires
interactivity, and if you can’t interact directly with the subject of your
learning, then you sure need to interact with the computer, something that
computers do rather well, as any gamer will attest. The best web-based
training has yet to come. It will engage you in a stimulating dialogue, it
will bring the subject to life using rich media, it will challenge you with
games and simulations, and it will respond to you as an individual. What’s
stopping this happening now? Easy-to-use authoring tools, perhaps, but
principally design skills, or rather the lack of.
The distance learning model of e-learning depends upon regular, meaningful
online communication between learners and their colleagues and between
learners and tutors. With email, instant messaging, discussion forums and chat
rooms, we have most of the tools we need to accomplish this now. Where there’s
room for improvement is in the way in which these tools are used by e-tutors
to bring online communities to life, and to stimulate and support learners.
Where this is being done well already, the results are outstanding and the
happy sheets back this up.
Perhaps the greatest wasted potential is in the use of virtual classrooms.
Believe it or not, death by PowerPoint is as painful online as it is in the
classroom (except you can read your emails or play Solitaire while you’re
listening) and there’s really no excuse. All virtual classroom packages
provide enough facilities (text-chat, audio conferencing, shared whiteboards,
quizzes and polls) to satisfy any learner’s lust for interaction – all we need
is for e-trainers to use them. As those delegates who have tuned in to one of
the better monthly seminars run by Learning Technologies will tell you, a
well-run virtual classroom can be a lot of fun and doesn’t require a train
ride to London and back.
If there’s one area where trainers most need to develop their skills, it is in
bringing all these ideas together, combining them with all those well-trusted
methods we know and love, and doing this at the right time, for the right
audience. Some cynics will tell you that ‘blended learning’ was just a sop
thrown to training traditionalists and there may be some truth in this. A
typical blend is no more than a standard classroom course, topped and tailed
with online pre- and post-work, where, with a little imagination and some
careful analysis, it is possible to win on all counts – more learning, better
learning, faster learning and cheaper learning. Just see.
According to the
CIPD’s Martyn Sloman, ‘We are no more than a few years in to what is
effectively a 25 year process of change in our thinking of how we can use
technology for learning.’ True, but many trainers are far too impatient to wait
that long – they want to see some quick wins. Contrary to popular belief, some
things in e-learning can be accomplished quickly and cheaply as well.
Quick wins are important to trainers because an increasing amount of the
training that’s needed in organisations is for relatively small, specialised
audiences, has a short shelf-life and is required next week. Trainers are
accustomed to working with longer timeframes and the economies of scale derived
from larger, homogeneous audiences and unchanging needs. In these circumstances,
they know they’ve got the time and the money to design and run a first-rate
face-to-face event or to bring in a highly-professional team of e-learning
developers. But what about all those other needs? Surely they cannot simply be
Here’s just some of the things you could do by harnessing the power of the
information and communications technology. Firstly, please give everybody
Internet access. The web is the world’s greatest learning resource and it’s
free. Web surfers are not time wasters, they are web learners. In the words of
Epic CEO, Donald Clark, ‘most trainers would
rather spend £1000 going to a 2-day conference on e-learning than type the word
‘e-learning’ into Google’ – it’s a mindset that simply has to be overcome.
Then, using the most basic virtual classroom technology, you can deliver short,
interactive, online presentations, with audio narration, to just about every
employee in the organisation, wherever they are in the world. This is the most
popular form of e-learning in Cisco and you can see why – the preparation takes
no more than a few hours, the cost is minimal and the reach global. And if
you’ve got a little spare bandwidth in your organisation, use video streaming to
enrich the content further. Where rich media aren’t required, but interactivity
is, why not produce simple tutorials using the new generation of enterprise-wide
Still too difficult or too demanding to set up? OK, here are some more ideas.
Install discussion forums and chat rooms to bring together learners with common
interests. Get subject experts to share all those Word documents and PowerPoint
presentations through a simple portal. Make yourself available to help using
instant messaging. Enough?
The good news is that you don’t need to take giant steps to make effective use
of e-learning. You don’t have to have the technical skills; you just need to
know what computers can do. You don’t need to be a highly-talented graphic
designer, although you do need to understand adult learning. You don’t need to
have installed a giant learning management system, just make a start by getting
everyone connected. The use of computers to help people learn is not such a big
deal, yet at the same time could be the biggest deal you ever make as a trainer.
As US e-learning commentator Clark Aldrich points out ‘e-learning has been
over-hyped in the short term and under-hyped in the long term’. Only time will
can look forward to in 2003
An acknowledgement that e-learning is not so
different to other training methods. It just provides additional ways to bring
learners into contact with useful materials and people.
A realisation that all trainers can harness the power of e-learning; not just
the techies and the under-30s.
An acknowledgement that to use e-learning well, trainers need to add some new
skills and refine some existing ones.
An acknowledgement that e-learning can help you to implement quick and dirty
solutions to training problems and that quick and dirty solutions are often
An acknowledgement that computers are powerful interactive devices, so why not
use them to deliver powerful, interactive learning experiences?
An acknowledgement that, amid the general market gloom, many e-learning vendors
are still doing really well and that many e-learning projects are hitting the
An acknowledgement that there is a natural resistance to change which extends to
the adoption of e-learning. For perhaps the first time ever, trainers are having
to manage significant change in the way they deliver their service.
E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from
Above and Beyond