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Seeing it through

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by Clive Shepherd
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You may think you've done enough by the time you've installed the latest learning management system and populated it with shiny new content. You've even launched the system in a blaze of marketing, with the vocal support of your chief exec. Unfortunately you must think again, because seeing it through means much, much more. The dream that organizational learning could be left entirely to the employees, under the control of technology and with never a manager or trainer to be seen, was nice while it lasted, but it's time to wake up. High drop-out rates tell us that learners need more and that e-learning needs careful managing. In this article Clive Shepherd looks at the causes for e-learning drop-outs and takes some advice on how to get completion rates going through the roof.

Contents
Chinks in the e-learning armour
Where there's a will
Something in it for me
Smoothing the path
Making e-learning work
The McGraw-Hill Companies' E-learning Charter
Motivation questionnaire

Chinks in the e-learning armour

The word is out that there may be some chinks in the armour of the e-learning battlewagon, as it continues its rampaging path over the sensibilities of traditional trainers. All may not be as well as it seems. Is this vicious rumour-mongering on behalf of the chalk and talk brigade or is there cause to rethink our e-learning strategy? The answer is a little bit of both. Yes the problem is over-stated and yes, it's still a very real problem. What it is, is e-learning drop-outs - the high percentage (sometimes as high as 80%) of e-learners who never complete the courses they start.

Before looking at the causes for this problem and reviewing the possible remedies, it's worth getting the whole thing in perspective. Firstly, before the whole medium is tarred with the same brush, it must be made clear that many e-learning courses have very low levels of drop-out, for reasons that we will examine later. Secondly, it is clear that e-learning is not peculiar in having a drop-out problem. All forms of distance learning have suffered similarly, from the days of the first correspondence course. How many of you, if you were to look in your loft, would find an unopened Teach-Yourself-French course, or something similar. It's a wonder they bother developing anything beyond lesson one, because no-one ever gets that far! The situation is not that much different with adult education of the face-to-face variety. A survey of 3000 evening course students in 1987, found a 21% drop-out by the end of the first term, followed by a massive 58% failing to re-enrol subsequently. You also have to wonder how great the drop-out would be from classroom training, if it became socially acceptable to get up and walk out when the subject matter was no longer holding your attention. The fact is, however good our intentions, many of us lack the motivation to see a course through to the end.

You might ask whether it matters whether we do or not? Surely the whole idea of the course as the unit of education or training is becoming old-fashioned, now learners can create their own tailor-made learning experiences from libraries of learning objects and a myriad of other development opportunities. When you've got what you want, you stop. This argument does carry some weight, but can also be used as a rather unconvincing excuse. The likelihood is that many e-learners are not dropping out because they've reached their goals but for a variety of other reasons that do need addressing.

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Where there's a will
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So why do e-learners drop-out, assuming that they haven't simply already achieved their learning goals? On longer courses, there's one straightforward reason and that is that the learner's circumstances have changed. Perhaps they have moved roles, left their job or left the country (although, with e-learning, that's no excuse). These situations are unavoidable as well as being understandable, given the fast pace of change in careers and job opportunities. On the e-learning course that I personally tutor, The Online Trainer, this has been the main reason for drop-outs so far. On the whole, though, the rate has been very low - some students may take a long time to finish the course, but they do get there eventually.

The main reason why learners drop-out is a simple one of motivation - there just isn't the will to complete the course. And motivation, in any circumstance, has two determining factors. Firstly, there must be a desirable outcome, whether this is the achievement of a personal goal, recognition from others or some form of tangible reward such as money or promotion. Of course, there is a flip side to this, in that you may be seeking to avoid some penalty, such as a reprimand, disapproval or some financial disincentive. The second factor in motivation is your perception of the likelihood, given that you put in sufficient effort, of you obtaining your reward or avoiding the penalty. If the means to the end is too tortuous, the motivation will drop regardless of how desirable the outcome may be.

With a little thought and planning, it should be possible to make it a more attractive proposition for learners to complete e-learning courses. It should also be possible to smooth the way, so that the rewards of completion seem more achievable. Let's see what the experts have to say.  

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Something in it for me
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Dr Tim Gibson is Founder and Technical Director of e-learning content provider Knowledge=Power: "The programme must have recognisable benefits for the end-users. They have to feel that the programme's subject matter and objectives are relevant to their needs and situation, especially when they have been mandated to go through the material. They also need to believe that they will be able to apply the learning to good personal as well as professional effect. Fundamentally, unless end-users feel that their investment is going to repay some dividend - either in the form of better developed personal skills, increased knowledge, enhanced employability, and so on - they won't always feel hugely motivated to continue."

Tim Drewitt, Worldwide Manager for Professional Learning Services at Xebec McGraw-Hill, believes that the organisation plays an important part in building the incentives for completion: "The ultimate motivation for taking an e-learning course is to better one's own performance. If the organisation fails to recognise achievements gained through e-learning, then learners will be less likely to take the time to complete the training. The recognition need not be monetary - just a positive acknowledgement from the line manager may be sufficient."

Of course, formal accreditation will be a big help. Karen Frankola is Learning Solutions Manager at NYUonline: "Professional certificates or credit are an important motivator. If the course itself doesn't offer a college credit, the company can provide their own certificate." And if a certificate isn't enough, there's always that good old motivational fallback - cash. Alex Raymond, UK General Manager of learning management system provider THINQ, believes that: "If senior management are really serious about e-learning they should consider tying course completion into formal rewards such as promotion and bonuses."

Incentives (and disincentives) can also work for the bosses. At Dell Computer, managers get a personal email from Michael Dell if they fail to achieve 100% online course completion in their divisions. As Frankola points out: "Senior management should also act as role models, taking and completing online courses themselves."

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Smoothing the path
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Even if the incentives are sufficient to get learners started, e-learning can place many obstacles in the way of successful completion. Removing, or reducing the effect of these obstacles is essential to curing the drop-out problem.

Content. The first obstacle to be overcome is inappropriate or inadequate content. Gibson: "The programme's translation into multimedia must be professionally carried out and fit for purpose. In other words, it has to be easy to use, engaging, beautifully structured, nicely signposted, and preferably fun. Contrast this with much of the e-learning materials available on the Internet at the moment where very often you have to wait ages for something which, when it does arrive, is badly structured or otherwise incoherent, hard to navigate or just plain dull. If it feels like treacle, you'd want to stop wading through it pretty quickly, wouldn't you?" Web usability guru, Jakob Nielsen, agrees: "What is good online is experience-based learning - simulations, problem-based learning, cases in which you can do calculations - because that's what online can give you that a book cannot."

According to THINQ's Alex Raymond, a course is more likely to be successful if it mixes different e-learning techniques - self-study, virtual classrooms, discussion forums, etc. - and blends with traditional learning methods. He recalls the initial launch on to the market of microwave ovens, which were sold as a direct replacement for conventional ovens. As we all know, that never happened, yet most homes were happy to buy a microwave anyway because of the unique benefits it brought to cooking. Some vendors have made the same mistake in selling e-learning - it's not a replacement technology, it's a new medium to add to the mix. The THINQ learning management system reinforces this point by accommodating all learning methods and encouraging the blended approach.

Time and space. In a research study conducted by Corporate University Xchange, corporate e-learners said that their top reason for dropping out was lack of time. They had difficulty working from their desktops because of frequent interruptions and couldn't always get access to the course materials over the Internet so they could work from home. According to research by ASTD and The MASIE Center, 76% of e-learners said they preferred to take courses during working hours. The report recommended strongly that companies provide employees with time and space to learn in company time.

Support. According to the ASTD/MASIE report, it is the level to which learners feel they are supported that most impacts on their willingness to participate in e-learning. Gibson agrees: "The programme must be integrated into some form of support system. Without that you're pretty much running a marathon on your own. Sharing knowledge, skills and learning experiences peer-to-peer and/or with training managers helps contextualise and integrate the learning experience. After all, you can learn the clarinet using a book but you only really learn how to play when you play with others. The support can take many different forms and needn't always necessitate human intervention on call 24x7. But learners need to feel that they can get help and encouragement from somewhere every now and again when their learning bio-rhythms are sagging." Providing support works. Sun Microsystems found that only 25% of employees finished courses that were pure self-study, whereas the figure rose to 75% when access was provided to tutors and to means for online discussion.

Infrastructure. If a support system is to work effectively, managers and online tutors need to know how e-learners are progressing, so some form of learning management system (LMS) will be an important component in your e-learning infrastructure. An LMS can provide managers and tutors with information about who has started the course, when they have logged on and for how long and how they have fared with any assessments. However, Stewart Pyke, Divisional Managing Director of Maritz Learning Systems, issues a caution: "Many learners will be reluctant to participate in e-learning if they know that their results are going to be stored and made available to management. As a result, several customers of our own LMS, Librix, have asked for this feature to be left out."

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Making e-learning work
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To summarise, e-learning needs to be managed. If you simply set up the system, purchase the content and leave it to work for itself, then not only will they not come, but when they do, they won't come back.

Although senior management support is vital, a dictate from the top will not bring about the necessary cultural change. Employees need to know that, if they embark on an e-learning course, that their participation will be noticed, even better rewarded; that they will be allowed adequate time and facilities to make a reality of the anytime, anywhere capabilities of the medium; that they will not be left alone to get on with it - they'll be supported by their manager, skilled tutors and, best of all, their fellow learners.

Most of all, take e-learning drop-outs seriously. Organisations that have taken the time to refine their e-learning offerings have realised the benefits. Penn State World Campus saw completions rise to 95% in 2000 from 80% in 1998. UCLA's completions have risen from 50% to 89% since 1996. Remember that course drop-outs will be reluctant to enrol on other courses in the future. You need to bring everyone with you if you're going to fully realise the benefits of e-learning in your organisation.
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The McGraw-Hill Companies' E-learning Charter
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The Manager's and Learner's Charters were developed by Tim Drewitt, Worldwide Manager, Professional Learning Services, at Xebec McGraw-Hill. Commitment to these principles will go a long way to improving the completion rate of e-learning courses:

As an e-learner, I will…

  1. Ensure I understand the objectives of the course and my reasons for taking it.
  2. Allocate sufficient time to complete the course within a manageable and realistic timeframe.
  3. Ensure I have everything I need to successfully complete the training before I start a course.
  4. Seek support and coaching from my line manager before, during and after the training.
  5. Prepare an action plan for applying my new skills and knowledge back in my role, as I work through each course.
  6. Respect the right of others to learn at their desktop (or a place of their choosing), free from all interruptions.
  7. Contribute appropriately to online discussion groups and actively share best practice and new ideas.
  8. Consider carefully the impact of my contributions to online discussion groups, in particular with respect to my choice of language and the feelings of others.
  9. Continuously review my own performance and development needs to identify opportunities for e-learning activity.
  10. Keep up to date with the range of courses on offer and how they can help me, both now and in the future.

As a manager of e-learners, I will…

  1. Facilitate the provision of a conducive learning environment for my staff.
  2. Respect and publicly endorse the right of my staff to learn at their desktop (or a place of their choosing), free from all interruptions.
  3. Grant my staff the time they require to complete a course, taking into account the advantages of spreading shorter periods of study over a realistic and manageable timeframe.
  4. Review the objectives of each course with my staff before they begin it, help them to determine their own personal objectives and gain commitment to undertake the training.
  5. Provide motivation and recognition to ensure the successful completion of each e-learning course.
  6. Support and coach my staff during and after each course.
  7. Provide opportunities, after they have completed the training, to facilitate the transfer of learning back to their role.
  8. Look for and record the improvement in performance after the training has been completed and there's been a period of consolidation.
  9. Familiarise myself on a regular basis with the range of courses on offer and consider how these may benefit me and each member of my staff.
  10. Proactively promote the use of e-learning amongst my staff as an effective self-development tool.

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Motivation questionnaire
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It helps to know what it is that motivates your e-learners. Dr Jim Moshinskie, professor of Performance Improvement Technologies at Baylor University, has developed a questionnaire that aims to measure (1) a learner's motivation to see the course through to a successful end, (2) the extent to which they have effective strategies to be successful and (3) what it is that is motivating the learner.

Why are you enrolled in this course?
What's in it for you if you are successful in this course?
How important is it to you to complete this course?
What does 'success' mean to you with respect to this course?
Have you set objectives for yourself with respect to this course? If so, what are they?
What are the probabilities of you seeing this course through to its very end?
Do you foresee any challenges or difficulties that would get in the way or make it more difficult for you to complete this course?
Is there anything you know about how to learn that you will take into account in how you approach this course?
To what degree do you hope that this course will contribute to your ability to influence others more successfully in work situations you face or are likely to face?
To what degree do you hope that this course will increase your ability to meet anticipated job challenges?
To what degree do you believe that working with others in the course is important to your learning?

From the paper: 'How to keep e-learners from e-scaping'.
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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