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Just another critical year for online learning
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by Clive Shepherd
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Assuming the bug doesn't strike us all down, the year 2000 should be just another critical year in the short history of online learning. So far, an awful lot is being done by so many to so few, but more than one or two share prices depend on the market conforming to the expectations of the visionaries and the finance directors and coming to the learning table in the year 2000.

Things have moved so fast - even the companies who's names you recognised (Asymetrix, CBT Systems et al) have been magically rebranded in the past few months - that it might be a good time to reflect on the major trends and pause for breath before the onslaught. Here Clive Shepherd gets into the spirit of things and contributes his very own millennial musings.

Contents
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The law of ever diminishing objects
Pay for your own learning - whatever next?
Any portal in a storm
Bring back the humans - we're missing you
Need learning? Who you gonna call?

The law of ever diminishing objects
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Learning is coming in smaller and smaller bundles, perhaps to match the attention spans of the video generation but, more probably, as a tactic for more flexible deployment and more efficient absorption. Learning objects make sense, so much so that you have to wonder why it's taken so long for designers to discover them. If there is a reason, it's that all our learning experiences have been long ones - years and years at school, days and days in the training centre and hours and hours snoozing in the learning centre in front of a CD-ROM. Do people learn well this way? Of course not - but it was so very convenient to throw all we could at the buggers having got them to sit down and listen.

If learning is packaged in small objects, perhaps 5-20 minutes each, and made available online, you have yourself a truly learner-centred resource. And if the objects are small enough to dodge the interruptions, then learning at the desktop can be a reality.

So now the race is on for who can produce the smallest learning objects - what yours are still more than 10 seconds? - but common sense (as always, in short supply) means matching the size of the chunk to the needs of the content. Let's face it, some learning points simply can't be made in a few minutes, and who wants to keep selecting another object after every few screens? Nevertheless, this is one development we should welcome with open arms - only those content providers with hundreds of hours of material packaged in really whopping chunks (and they shall remain nameless) will wish the idea had remained a theoretical one. 
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Pay for your own learning - whatever next?
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Both the training and the educational industries have been preaching the gospel of individual responsibility for learning for decades. The reasons are simple - you can no longer rely on a single career for life and you can't expect your employer to pay for your career moves. On top of this, more and more professionals are self-employed or work on short contracts - they have no employer to pay for their training. Well the message has got home, at least with those wishing to supply the training over the Internet.

Until now, technology-based training has been sold (where it's been sold at all) to large corporates, typically on an annual license basis. The training has been delivered by CD-ROM or over relatively fast internal networks. Selling directly to the learner requires a completely different business model and a new delivery channel. Individual learners will want to pay by the course and they will be very conscious of price. They'll also want to access the training where they are - most probably at home - and that means over the Internet.

So what are the implications for content providers? The first is that prices will have to tumble if they are to tempt customers who're going to be far more cautious with their training dollar than any training department. And this will, of course, have a knock-on effect on the prices that corporates will pay. The second implication is that content will have to be media-poor - most learners will have dial-up connections and will not be interested in downloading audio and video files or any superfluous imagery. Expect to see libraries of CD-ROM training material appearing at car boot sales near you. 
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Any portal in a storm
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Pick a portal - any one will do. You can forgive the directors of technology-based training companies for looking at the absurd prices of Internet stocks and wanting a piece of the action. Looking a little further, they soon discover that one of the few things that stock analysts understand about technology is that portals are a good thing - whatever they are. So, the thinking goes, why not catch the wave and the analyst's eye? Give me a learning portal and make it fast.

The idea has caught on so fast that personalised home pages will be a thing of the past - soon every learner will be able to have their own portal! The word is that there's likely to be at least 150 portals vying for trade come the millennium. Of course that's far too many, but it's typical of the early stages of any new technology and most will not survive for long. Come 2002 we'll be down to the handful of players that really can deliver what the public wants at the right price, with room at the margins for niche offerings.

What business model is likely to win out? Well, looking from the learner's perspective, you'll want a wide assortment of offerings (from a range of vendors - a site dedicated to a single publisher is not a portal), sensible pricing, uniformly high quality (which excludes rubbish produced by the site's users) and all available in nice small chunks.
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Bring back the humans - we're missing you
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Although it may seem like it right now, not all online learning is served up as a sort of tapas - you know, where you try a different appetiser in every portal in town. If you've got any appetite left, you'll eventually want to get down to the main course - in this case literally a course, maybe tens of hours long (or 1000s of learning objects, whichever way you want to look at it). And if you make it through to hours two or three, you'll notice something different from any other learning experience you've ever encountered - there's absolutely no people to be seen. Now if you'd been on some of the courses I've been on - and I'm sure you know what I mean - then you'll be glad you don't have to suffer the bores, the chatter boxes, the group hugs and the Lego towers. But at least on those courses you could have a few drinks and a bit of a laugh.

Yes, there comes a point when your own company is not enough. When you're completely stuck for an idea, when you can't make head or tail of the material, when you completely disagree with what's on the screen and want to make it known and when you're finding it hard to gather up any energy at all to complete the assignment. It's at times like that when you'd give your right arm for a tutor to moan at or some colleagues with whom to share your frustrations.

Quite simply, any major online learning offering has to be supported in some way by a human being - someone who can respond flexibly to your emerging needs. This person might communicate online - through email, chats and discussion forums - or sneak in a little offline messaging by phone or in the staff restaurant. Whichever way, learners are telling us that self-study is not enough. How do we know? Because they drop out of the course.
I know, adding tutorial support to the mix muddies that nice clean ROI water. You've sold online learning on the basis that the delivery costs are practically non-existent. Well, life's never that simple - you'll have to chalk up some costs for online tutoring in order to preserve the quality of the end result. Your ROI may go down from 100% to 50%, but no-one on the board ever believed those ridiculous claims anyway.

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Need learning? Who you gonna call?
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Before we get carried away with the sheer excitement of it all, a word of warning may not go amiss. Just suppose the chief executive presses the button and releases the budget for 1000s of hours of company-specific online courses. Suppose the most senior of all committees at your institute or association decides to take the plunge and go 'e' - insisting that continuing professional development (in anything from architecture to zoo-keeping) is a finer and more noble thing when carried out in cyberspace. Don't worry, they say, we've already got the material (about 600 tons of the stuff) in the form of workbooks developed in the 1960s. To top it all, that government initiative that you'd given up on finally comes to fruition - the new university of the people is opening next year, offering hundreds of courses to millions of people.

Now one thing you won't be short of is management systems to administer all this learning. A learning management system can't be all that difficult to produce because, let's face it, practically everyone's produced one. And as we already know, there's any number of companies anxious to arrange access to all this new material through their definitive - only place you'll ever need to shop - learning portal. The problem lies elsewhere - with the content. Who on earth is going to make all these learner-centred, artificially intelligent, AICC-compliant and extremely compact learning objects? Don't ask me, because from where I'm looking the whole education and training technology industry has, for the last ten years, employed a few thousands of professionals at the most. And not all of them are quite as professional as we'd like.

When you did that risk analysis for the introduction of online learning, did you ever consider the possibility that production capacity was limited? Probably not, because there's always some production company or other hassling you for work. But when the online learning industry takes off - and despite the cynical tone of this article, I really do believe that it will - demand could exceed supply by 10 to 1. The design and development of online materials - particularly those that are genuinely interactive - is a hell of a job, requiring excellent writing skills (almost non-existent today), a sound grasp of instructional design as well as an in-depth understanding of the subject matter.

So, if online learning was ever needed it is now, to train the tens of thousands of skilled practitioners that will be needed to ensure that, when the army of new learners do go online, there'll be something engaging and genuinely useful for them to see when the portal is opened.
Happy new year!
 
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