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One year older and deeper in debt

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by Clive Shepherd
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Sensible fortune-tellers don't indulge in retrospectives. Good ones might do, but have you ever met one of them? Hindsight offers 20:20 vision, whereas the future is dim and deceiving. Well, dim and deceiving I may be, but in looking ahead to the e-learning world of 2001, I thought it only fair to admit to one or two minor inaccuracies in last year's forecast.

Contents
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Portals in a panic
Someone to turn to
People who need people
Objects of interest
Reason for optimism
E-learning 2001 -  the ins and outs

Portals in a panic
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Last year I said that you could 'pick a portal - any one will do'. The growth in the number of Internet learning portals was so fast that soon every learner would be able to choose one of their very own. Yes, I was right about the number of portals, but the notion that we could soon have one per learner was only a joke - right? Sadly, the joke proved to be yet another true word spoken in jest. People aren't using learning portals. How do I know? Because if they were, we'd be hearing about it.

The world is a strange place. People pick up on new technologies really fast - VCRs, PCs, mobile phones and the Internet. But they change their behaviour really, really slowly. A year ago, the financial industry forgot this truth and ploughed money into B2C ventures, ventures that relied on people doing things en masse differently from before - like shopping on the Internet, like using a learning portal instead of their local college. When it became apparent that this wasn't going to happen overnight, or that, when it did, prices would be forced so low through competition that there weren't going to be any profits, then they pulled the rug. In a justifiable panic, learning portals tried to reposition themselves as B2B, but the damage was done. And, as if things weren't bad enough, those that remained B2C had to contend with the arrival of new portals that gave all their content away for free. For learning portals, it's one year older and deeper in debt.

So will people finally take responsibility for their own learning and pay for their own development? This concept underpins the business case for a learning portal, as well as major government-backed ventures like the University for Industry. My own belief is that, over time, the vast majority of learning will be self-determined and self-financed (with the aid of subsidies and grants where necessary) and not left to the whim of an employer. To remain marketable, as a freelancer or as an employee, you've got to look after number one first and ensure you've got the skills and knowledge that are currently in demand. Now, a fair proportion of this learning will be achieved at home using the Internet as a channel - this will not happen overnight, but it will happen, and when it does it will shake the foundations of our current system for further and higher education.

In the meantime, corporates still quite rightly feel the responsibility - and the need - to meet their own skills gaps with their own training programmes. The bigger players will want to do more than simply point their PCs at an Internet portal; they'll want a facility that provides the management information, control - not to mention improved bandwidth - that is only obtainable with a system installed on their internal network. What are we talking about? - why a learning management system, of course. Buying and installing an LMS is a time-consuming, complex and expensive business, so don't expect to see too many too soon. Finding a trusty supplier is vital, so only the major players (and, look out, Microsoft is entering the market soon) will get any sales. Expect to see consolidation (a polite way of saying casualties) amongst e-learning system providers, both the portals and the LMSs - in 2001. 
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Someone to turn tospacer
People don't realise how labour intensive e-learning development is. Not as labour intensive as classroom delivery perhaps, but pretty damn intensive nevertheless. Last year I forecast the exhaustion of capacity for e-learning development - as major strategic ventures got underway, there simply wouldn't be anyone to turn to, to get the work done.

The reality is that it has taken the whole year for demand to exceed supply, but that's about where we are now. E-learning requires a mix of skills - essentially project management, instructional design, graphic/multimedia design and programming. If we leave instructional design aside for a moment, there's a major market for all of the other skills. The problem is that, with e-business ventures abounding, these skills are much sought after and increasingly expensive. The supply is not exhausted, but it's strained.

The problem with instructional design is different. We're talking about a small hard core who have received any formal training at all in this area. Of these, many were trained in the 80s or earlier, when the models for interactive self-study were much more limited than they are today. Compared with America, there are few universities offering instructional design degrees and only a handful of training courses. The Institute of IT Training has done its bit, with both classroom and online courses for e-learning developers, but this training has increased the supply by no more than 150. We need thousands of new designers.

One way of addressing the problem is to improve the tools used to create e-learning, particularly the interactive, self-study elements. Those authoring tools that have been around for a while - Authorware, Toolbook and so on - were created for the development of CD-ROMs. Although they have been adapted for output to the Web, they are based on old CBT models. Other systems, such as Dreamweaver and FrontPage, are essentially generic web development tools, with limited built-in e-learning functionality and a steep technical learning curve. What do we need? New online tools requiring minimal programming, conforming to emerging technical standards, incorporating instructional design wizards and capable of outputting to just about any platform, including WAP phones and Web TV. There's a challenge for you.
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People who need people
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One of the reasons why the instructional design models of the past are seeming so inadequate is because e-learning simply doesn't conform to any previous pattern. Yes, it can be seen as just another form of interactive self-study medium, a sort of cyber CBT, but that is rather missing the point of the Internet. The Internet is not just the Web - essentially just a hypermedia publishing medium - it's email, newsgroups, chat rooms and webcams. It's interactive on a person-to-person level.

One thing we do know is that cyber CBT is not enough. It satisfies some learners for a limited period, but it's not enough of a base on which to build your entire training strategy. People need people and good e-learning designs recognise this. This is one area where real progress has been made - many off-the-shelf offerings now incorporate some form of e-tutoring and many hundreds of teachers and trainers have undergone training in these new skills. What would be even better is to see learner-to-learner and tutor-learner interaction built-in as an integral part of new e-learning courses - not tacked on as an afterthought. That requires new designs from new designers.
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Objects of interest
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Last year I was certain that learning objects would be the way of the future in terms of e-learning design. Why? Because, when you package learning in small, self-contained chunks, each handling a single learning objective and each no more than 5-20 minutes in duration, then you have a truly flexible resource that can make a adaptive learning a reality and learning at the desktop a practicality.

One year on and learning objects are still the way of the future. The reasons? Well, first and foremost, the majority of trainers have still not heard of them - a good enough reason in itself, but not the only one. Also to blame is the interminable time it has taken for the various standards bodies - IMS, AICC and so on - to agree on what exactly learning objects are and how they should work. This saga has been running for years but is only now nearing completion. Standards will help designers to create learning objects that talk to learning management systems in such a way that the objects can be aggregated to create customised courses to meet specific individual requirements. A mouthful maybe, but a tasty one.

There's one remaining problem and that's the skills shortage in e-learning design, which we've already discussed. Learning objects were not on the curriculum when those designers lucky enough to receive any training in this area attended their courses. 'All very well', you say, 'but learning objects are really just common sense.' Well are they? Just consider that the overwhelming majority of the communication you have received in your lifetime is sequential, with each component hard wired to the next in line. Think of books, films, albums and good old classroom courses. All rely on you starting at the beginning and sitting it out dutifully to the end. Is it common sense to break learning up into little pieces and then piece them together in response to user requirements? I think not. Sense yes, common no.
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Reason for optimism
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So, is there reason for optimism amongst the e-learning community? Well, in some cases yes, in some no. On the negative side, there are far too many systems facing too few customers and most of these will have to be binned. Too much content is still based on design models from the 1950s, implemented without flair, but this is increasingly complemented by more imaginative efforts that begin to exploit the potential of the technology.

On the more positive side, the training and education community is beginning to take e-learning seriously, not just as an opportunity, but as a threat. This year has seen some debacles but also some spectacular e-learning success - major corporate programmes delivering mouth-watering ROI and substantial enrolments on Internet-based college courses. E-learning advocates are beginning to realise that you mustn't throw the baby out with the bathwater and that self-study needs to be mixed intelligently with human support and face-to-face communication. Die-hard traditionalists may still be in a state of denial, but some of their colleagues have finally acknowledged that e-learning exists. And that's progress.
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E-learning 2001 - the ins and outs
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What's in What's out
Content conforming to agreed standards, that will work in any environment Content in proprietary formats, that will only work on one system
Content created in small, reusable chunks Content hard-wired in large blocks
Courses assembled intelligently to meet specific individual requirements Courses assembled on a 'one size fits all' basis
New instructional design models, incorporating guided discovery learning and encouraging collaboration Traditional CBT instructional design models based on 'tell and test' and working alone
Trainers who understand when and how to use e-learning Trainers who pretend that e-learning doesn't exist
Trainers who contribute to e-learning design and online mentoring Trainers who stay completely 'hands-off'
Use of e-learning by corporates to meet real, identified learning objectives Use of e-learning by corporates on a 'there if you want it', open learning basis
Learning management systems that integrate all aspects of the learning process and all forms of learning A hodge podge of systems handling different aspects of the learning process and different forms of learning

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