Talking turkey - new directions for e-learning in 2002
by Clive Shepherd
This time last year we made some predictions for
e-learning, We said that learning portals would be in a panic; that learning
objects would be ubiquitous; that e-learners would require human support and
that the demand for bespoke content would leave you struggling to find a
developer with capacity. As you would expect, these suggestions were made
without foreknowledge of economic downturns or terrorist attacks - otherwise
they would surely have been right on target! Nevertheless, Clive Shepherd sticks
his neck out again, with his review of the e-learning world in the closing
months of 2001 and his fashion statements for 2002.
Coming to terms with e-learning
Delivering in a downturn
Making e-learning sing
New and through in 2002
Coming to terms with e-learning
The e-learning market has become a pretty confusing
place. Not just for the poor customer, who is probably longing for the good old
days when you didn’t have to work with the IT department, and you could spend a
lazy hour or two on the pitch and putt course at the country training centre;
but also for suppliers as well. Even the consultants can’t be sure of what’s
going on, although of course they wouldn’t admit it.
The trouble starts with the term itself. In fact, there are probably only two
problems with e-learning - that’s the ‘e’ and the ‘learning’ bit that follows.
Let’s begin with the ‘e’. If, as a training manager, you become obsessed with
e-ness envy, then you’re in danger of missing the plot. Your responsibility is
for facilitating learning, not overseeing the launch of new technologies. Don’t
worry if you’re struggling with your e-learning strategy; far better to review
your overall learning strategy (note the absence of an ‘e’), in the light of the
opportunities provided by networking, which is, after all, what e-learning is
really all about. In years to come, we’ll look back and wonder why we were so
obsessed with the ‘e-learning versus the classroom’ debate, because computers,
networks, mobile phones and the rest will be so thoroughly integrated in all
aspects of our lives, and work so seamlessly alongside ‘traditional’
technologies like the TV, the telephone and speaking face-to-face (yes, it will
still be necessary), that we won’t ever be able to disentangle them. We don’t
have to make a choice. Take music as an example - we have our radio, our vinyl,
our CDs, cassettes and MP3s, we may even sing or play a musical instrument - we
don’t care, we use them all.
Then there’s the ‘learning’ bit. It’s becoming more and more difficult to
distinguish between situations when knowledge and skills are required, or just
plain old information. It makes no sense whatsoever to have different people in
charge of learning on the one hand and the dissemination and sharing of
information on the other. It’s time that knowledge management (in itself a
misnomer, as it’s more concerned with information than knowledge) and e-learning
got together. The same systems. The same people. The same goals - employees who
can perform because they have the information, knowledge and skills that their
The latest learning content management systems (LCMSs) are helping to integrate
the two. Not only do they assist users in locating and delivering those
highly-interactive and media-rich learning objects that have been crafted by
expert developers. They also allow users to build their own content - war
stories, case studies, tips, guidelines, procedures, flow charts or whatever -
by filling in simple forms or by transfer from existing documents. The resulting
content repository becomes the single source for just-in-time access on the
desktop, on the PDA or on paper. According to Online Learning magazine’s 2001
State of the Industry Report, only 18% of respondents had an LCMS, as against
45% who have a learning management system (LMS). The good news is that the two
types of systems are becoming integrated, which means you have one less thing to
The idea of the content repository is appealing, but still largely un-tested. We
don’t know how easy it will be to get users to take the time to add their wisdom
to the pot and we don’t know how willing other users will be to take advantage
of their contributions. What we do know is that, for the whole concept to work,
we must have a way of labelling and cataloguing content that is consistent and
standardised across the industry and across national boundaries. Yes, I’m
talking SCORM and the rest. It’s time to stop debating standards and time we
started using them.
As information and knowledge is packaged in smaller, more manageable chunks for
electronic access on a just-in-time basis, and is capable of being aggregated
into curricula according to individual requirements, it makes you wonder what
future there is for that essential unit of education and training called the
‘course’. Already, studies by the MASIE Center show that the majority of users
do not think of e-learning as a course - they approach it as a great web site.
We still have courses because it’s a convenient way of packaging and selling
learning and for awarding qualifications. But for how much longer?
Delivering in a downturn
Trainers with more than a few years under their
belts know all about what a downturn can mean. All too often training is seen as
one of those ‘fringe benefits’, which can be sacrificed when the going gets
tough. Well, trainers themselves are tougher than they used to be and the term
‘ROI’ no longer receives such blank looks. Training budgets will continue to
flow as long as they produce attractive returns in key areas of the business.
And it should not be any other way.
So what does an economic downturn mean for e-learning? According to Andy Wilson,
of HP Education: 'it will mean a rationalisation in the supplier market.
Customers will be looking for single-source suppliers, those who provide a
one-stop shop.' And rationalisation there will certainly be. A study conducted
earlier this year of 200 LMS suppliers, showed that less than 10% had the cash
needed to see out 2001. This is good for the market as we don’t need 200 LMS
suppliers, we need a maximum of 20. Not so good news if you’re a customer of (or
a shareholder in) one of the remaining 90%. Remember there were 100 or more car
manufacturers in America in the early years of the last century - now there is a
Pete Fullard is MD of Fullard Learning, a developer of bespoke and off-the-shelf
e-learning content for the customer-service sector: 'We’re noticing a sharp drop
in the budgets available for bespoke projects. The trend is towards tailored
generic products. Customers want the cost advantages and easy availability of
off-the-shelf courseware, but they want to be able to adapt the content
themselves to fit their organisation’s precise requirements.' Certainly times
will be harder for bespoke developers, although the industry does not have a
great deal of excess capacity and the public sector is holding up well.
Some would argue that e-learning has more to offer when times are tight. Steve
Dineen is CEO of fuel, a leading IT training consultancy and e-learning
developer: 'I expect e-learning to continue to grow at a substantial rate next
year, despite the gloom currently being predicted about the world economy. The
inherent cost savings of e-learning will come to the fore when training budgets
are under pressure. And the savings can be enormous. A client of ours, a major
international telecoms company, calculated that delivering a particular training
initiative using instructor-led training would have cost £2.7 million. Using
e-learning we helped them train everyone effectively in a shorter timescale and
for just £100,000 - saving £2.6million.'
Jerry West is UK eLearning Business Manager for Sun Microsystems: 'With the
economic slowdown customers are no longer writing blank cheques. They are
looking for real benefits, and that includes reduced costs. On the other hand,
customers are not reluctant to spend on the best consultancy support, to help
them in making the right purchasing decisions.'
And could it be that even the terrible events of September 11th could focus
positive attention on e-learning? Dineen: 'The disaster is already affecting the
way in which companies address training. Many organisations are seeking to
minimise the amount of travelling by staff and are trying to avoid too many
senior people being in the same place at the same time. It’s changing attitudes.
For example, we have been working with a major office automation equipment
supplier, providing instructor-led training for many years. Since September 11,
they are talking about rolling out e-learning as an alternative method of
Of course the downturn has been in full swing (if downturns can swing) for a
year now in the USA, so we should by now have some indicators of the effect on
e-learning. The report by Online Learning magazine shows the proportion of
training delivered by e-learning rising from 16% in 2000 to 24% this year
(largely at the expense of instructor-led courses). Eduventures.com estimates
the size of the US corporate e-learning industry to be around $1.4 billion and
is still predicting 20-40% annual growth to reach $4 billion by 2005. US
e-learning vendors have obviously been hit by the bursting of the dotcom bubble,
but the major players are holding up well and are beating the market generally.
Making e-learning sing
E-learning is not the finished article; in fact,
far from it. The last year has seen major improvements in the quality of
e-learning content (the Online Learning magazine report showed a user
satisfaction rating of 3.71 out of 5) and support services, but you can’t help
feeling we’ve got a way to go yet. Wilson: 'There’s room for much more
exciting content - not just data online but a completely new experience.
E-learning content doesn’t have to be cheap and cheerful - there are enough
savings to be made in travel and hotel costs.'
West concurs: 'It’s clear that self-paced learning does not work for everyone.
We need to provide blended solutions incorporating online support and
face-to-face elements.' A report published in October by Xebec McGraw-Hill and
Training magazine shows that 'only 6% of current e-learning users plan to
continue with stand-alone courses. Three quarters of organisations are
currently offering support to e-learners, including internal e-tutoring
services, online discussion forums and line manager coaching.' The report goes
on to claim that 'the UK training industry is at the dawn of a new era of
integrated (blended) learning.'
And many organisations are realising that e-learning simply won’t happen if
it’s treated as an optional extra. Fullard: 'We surveyed 2000 employees of a
major telco. The majority responded that they wanted e-learning that mapped to
recognised, portable qualifications. In fact, attrition rates went down by 40%
when a qualification was awarded.' When employment is less secure, then people
want to beef up their CVs. Help them by ensuring that the e-learning you
provide means something in the outside world.
So what will e-learning look like in 2002? Well, don’t expect too much too
soon - it will take more than a year for the medium to fulfil its potential.
What you will see is a greater use of simulations, games and other more
adventurous forms of interactivity. You’ll see more animation and other visual
niceties, but not yet a great deal of video. You’ll see more collaborative and
community-building activities that bring learners together. Tutorial support
will be a given, not a luxury. Most of all, you’ll see many new and
adventurous forms of blending - e-learning may even be so closely integrated
with traditional methods that it will no longer be identifiable as a discrete
medium. Which is where we came in.
New and through in 2002
|Making flexible use of
computers and networks in all aspects of education and training.
||Debating which is
better - e-learning or the classroom?
knowledge management and e-learning.
information and learning as if they were completely different things.
|Encouraging users to
contribute to the body of learning content.
experts to produce all content.
|Making information and
learning content easily available for just-in-time access.
all learning has to be packaged and sold as a ‘course’.
|Adopting technical standards
technical standards for e-learning.
|Linking learning to
recognised, portable qualifications.
e-learning that has no external recognition.
|Providing learners with
ongoing support and the opportunity to participate in a community of
|Using simulations, games and
other forms of advanced interactivity that allow learners to learn by
||Relying on ‘tell