Making e-learning work
by Clive Shepherd
As trainers, we have all experienced the disappointment of seeing promising innovations fizzle out or fail to reach their potential. All too often, on reflection, we realise that, if we'd only put as much care and attention into the implementation as we did into the design and build, we could have made them work.
It is a sad reality that we generally only get one chance at making an impression on an organisation, and so that's a chance we've got to take. For many trainers, e-learning is the biggest chance we'll experience in a lifetime; a chance to transform the way an organisation learns, with - because of the priority being attached to e-business initiatives - the budget to match.
So, what do we have to do to make the best of this opportunity? How can we make sure that we don't waste this chance? Well, the best way is to copy those who've already made e-learning a success and to avoid the mistakes made by those who've lost out. That's what we'll attempt to do here.
Happiness: The reactions of students are important, because happy students come back for more and, just as significantly, tell their friends. So are students happy with e-learning? Well, according to a new report from Forrester (www.forrester.com), 'enthusiasm for online learning runs high'. On the other hand 'a lack of interactivity and resistance from the old guard are primary roadblocks'.
Time online: Learning management systems make it possible to measure how much time students are spending online, but it's doubtful whether this means very much. As Stephen Bennett of Click2Learn jokes 'you don't know whether a student has been studying assiduously for hours or just forgotten to log off'.
Bums on seats: Quantity is, of course, not the same thing as quality, but important nonetheless. If you have large numbers participating in your e-learning courses you must be doing something right.
Completions: Many would argue that the number of completions - how many people actually get through to the end of the course - is a more a significant measure than the number of starters. For others this is simply missing the point - surely the whole point of e-learning is that you don't have to sit courses through to the end; you pick the bits that interest you and then you get out.
Learning: Surely we can all agree that it matters whether students learn or not. A successful e-learning project will bring about a change in behaviour, based on new knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Performance change: But learning is not enough. As John Ruskin said: 'What we think or what we know or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only consequence is what we do.' And in the end, it's performance change, leading to a healthy return on investment, that will ensure the success of e-learning. It's not hard to see a healthy ROI from e-learning just because it saves so much money compared to traditional methods. What will be interesting is whether anyone will be able to demonstrate financial gain from the benefits of better learning.
An ASTD survey, in July of this year, asked American trainers who offered the most resistance to the introduction of workplace e-learning. Topping the list by a long way were managers (40%), followed by trainers (25%), learners and technical support (both 15%). Again it seems that, for your project to be a success, you've got to get management on your side.
So what can you do to win over the hearts and minds of managers? According to John Newton of NCR it all depends on the person. Some are only interested in the numbers, so tell them the potential ROI. Some are people people - they want to know how employees will benefit from e-learning and how they'll be supported. Others are process people who will want to know how it's going to work. Finally, you have the entrepreneurs and they just want to get on with it. The answer, then, is to sell on all fronts, providing arguments to win over all four types.
You may be surprised to see that our fellow trainers are high on the list of obstacles for change - but don't forget that many trainers are humans too and are quite capable of being as resistant to change as the next person. As Guy Sellwood of Prosell points out, drawing on Kotter and Schlesinger, there are four reasons why people resist change: parochial self-interest (they expect to lose something as a result), misunderstanding (often based on a low level of trust), different assessments of the situation (they see the world differently) and a low tolerance for change (based on a fear that that they may not possess the necessary skills and aptitudes). Guy proposes a variety of methods for dealing with resistance, ranging from education and communication, to participation and involvement, through to facilitation and support.
You can point out that no e-learning means no career progress. According to Professor Anne Jones from the Centre for Lifelong Learning at Brunel University, 'people don't understand that, without change they will be without work'. Make them understand. You can also point out that alternatives to e-learning are more expensive and much less flexible (sorry, all you classroom trainers). If you want to use coercion (because you're in a hurry and in a position of power), why not make the e-learning compulsory? Don't allow any alternatives.
A diversion here. A common argument from trainers is that e-learning must be run alongside traditional methods as an alternative, to accommodate different learning styles. Big mistake. Firstly, this destroys your ROI argument, as you're now increasing the cost of training rather than reducing it. Secondly, it doesn't give e-learning a chance, because very few people will change to something new if they have a choice. Lastly, it's hypocritical. For years we've been giving learners no choice - it's classroom or nothing. Why is it suddenly so important to do so now?
And then, for the more liberal amongst us, there's always the carrot. Make it clear how e-learning can lead to career success. Better still, design your courses so they lead to accreditation of some sort. As Professor Anne Jones says: 'People really like external validation, any form of certificate.' To make the carrot attainable, smooth the way by making e-learning easily available at home or work, and ideally, allow time off for self-study.
Professor Anne Jones believes that occasional events where course members can meet make all the difference. 'When they do, even by video-conferencing, they are more likely to be motivated to use the discussion groups and the synchronous events. And as any trainer knows, peer group support is a very powerful tool in learning.' Anne points to six key factors for success: 'Understanding the vision; understanding what's in it for you; feeling confident to begin; being motivated to continue; being supported and valued; having external recognition.'
The jury is still out as to whether it helps or hinders to have target dates for completion of e-learning courses. The Institute of IT Training has experimented with both methods. Students on The Online Trainer are allowed as long as they like to finish the course. The result? Most students take their time and work on the course when it suits them. When polled as to whether the course should be given a deadline, they voted resoundingly against. On the other hand, The Online Tutor, which requires a much greater deal of group collaboration, has a strict six-week timetable. The result this time? A few hiccoughs, but almost all students are finishing the course on time or thereabouts.
waste the chance
E-learning is not just another way of delivering product to your empty open learning centres. It's a route to strategic change in training. To more learning, cheaper learning, more accessible learning, more measurable learning. Don't waste the chance.
study 1: Royal Bank of Scotland
Working with e-learning developer Epic Group, RBS designed and produced more than 100 hours of online material, based on a clear definition of job roles and competencies, for delivery through its Training and Communications Network. As a result, the bank has received a 700% return on its investment and the programme will now be rolled out throughout NatWest.
RBS still uses a variety of non-online methods to meet its skills requirements, but is experimenting with a virtual classroom, named AREL, as a way of meeting needs which don't justify a workshop. A typical AREL session, lasting about one hour, includes video, multi-way audio and frequent interactivity. Although a virtual classroom takes some getting used to, employees are finding it a useful way to tackle learning needs, in the company of their colleagues throughout the country.
study 2: ICL
KnowledgePool designed a modular, six-month programme comprising a mix of instructor-led and online methods. Each student had to take at least three modules online; otherwise the mix was a free choice. Backing up the whole programme was real-time tutor support. The result is that 800 have already been accredited, with a commitment to reach a new target of 8000 by 2003 and a shift of emphasis towards e-learning.
KnowledgePool identified four key factors in the success of the programme: buy-in from the very top of ICL; a deadline for completion; ongoing facilitation and support; and an extensive communications
study 3: NKN
"We have a good level of education in Norway but most people now require several 'refills' of learning during their career," says Tore Egil Holte, chairman of the board of NKN. "Workers need easy access to learning, in a way that is independent of geography and time." So access to NKN will be actively encouraged in the workplace as well as at home. Indeed, legislation has been put in place to encourage learning at work. For example, employees have the right to have their skills, and any gaps in those skills, assessed; and the employer is obliged to pay for filling those gaps.
Sven Erik Skønberg, NKN's managing director, isn't daunted by the challenges that lay ahead either. "We are moving at a fast speed," he says. Indeed he anticipates more than 100,000 citizens could be using the NKN network by this time next year.
For Bobby Yazdani, the chief executive of Saba, who supplied the learning management software to make this all possible, the Norwegian commitment is something special. "The dream of an entrepreneur is to transform people's lives," he says, "so it's a great day when we see that our vision is affecting an entire population. Our technology is being used to better the lives and performance of people."
study 4: EDS
As part of their goal to have 80% of their training delivered online within 3 years, EDS decided, with their training partner Oracle, that e-learning should form the major part of the programme, without sacrificing the face-to-face element entirely. The course is topped and tailed by five-day workshops, bringing the students together to create a learning community. The body of the programme consists of CBT modules, delivered online or from CD-ROM, real-time net classes, email and telephone support, held together by an online study guide.
Steve Hobbs of EDS felt that the programme had met all his criteria for success: students were provided with expert tutorial support, the content was of high quality and students were able to network with each other. The result is an increasing demand for the course and an extension of the design to other subject matter.