E-Learning at the Crossroads

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CrossroadsClive Shepherd, chair of the e-learning Network, looks back over the last 10 years of e-learning, and says we all need to 'think outside the box' if e-learning is to progress over the next decade.

E-learning comes with baggage. The term may be only 10 years old but the concept goes back as far as the 1970s, before even the launch of the first personal computers, back to the days of the green screen mainframe terminal. In those days, e-learning – or computer-based training (CBT) as it was called then, had one predominant form: the interactive, self-study lesson.

CBT was designed to completely replace the teacher and all contact with fellow learners, with the aim of delivering self-paced training to large numbers of learners with hugely improved efficiency.

Thirty years on, in the corporate arena at least (much less so in education or in the personal use of computers) this model continues to dominate, sometimes successfully, but with generally mixed results.

"E-learning either continues along its existing path, loaded down with all its baggage, or it puts down its bags, takes a good look around to assess the opportunities and then sets off in a new direction."

Clive Shepherd, independent e-learning consultant and current chair of the e-learning Network

This is in spite of the myriad of opportunities for enhancements and improvements to the model that have arisen over the last 10 years from greater connectivity, mobility and computing power, not to mention the new expectations and aspirations of a population that is now immersed in technology.

E-learning is now at the crossroads. It either continues along its existing path, loaded down with all its baggage but optimistic that it can make faster progress in the future, or it puts down its bags, takes a good look around to assess the opportunities and then sets off in a new direction. Let’s examine these two options in some more detail.

If e-learning follows its existing path, as a medium devoted to self-study, it will probably maintain its current status at the periphery of learning and development strategies; a tool that’s ideal as long as you restrict it to short interventions focused on knowledge-based topics, where you have long lead times and large budgets.

On second thoughts, it may struggle to maintain this status, as lead times become shorter and budgets are constrained by the effects of the credit crunch. And if quality standards are not maintained at a more uniformly high level, there will be a gradual attrition in audiences exposed to the risk of death by electronic page turning.

Of course, taking an alternative path is always risky, but let’s look at some of the possible benefits. By restricting e-learning to self-study, we are narrowing the range of applications to which it is applied.

Over the past two or three years, the internet has become a focus not so much for information publishing, but for collaboration and information exchange. Organisational learning benefits from these same phenomena, and e-learning can be the means to make this possible, transcending the usual restrictions of time and space. What’s required is to think outside the box, to redefine the ways in which technology can support learning.

Let’s take some examples. E-learning may have originally been intended for self-study, but the experience can clearly be enriched by allowing communication with fellow learners, facilitators and sources of expertise. The tools – forums, wikis, blogs and social networking software – are freely available and already widely used; each has the potential to enhance an otherwise isolated learning experience enormously.

"What’s required is to think outside the box, to redefine the ways in which technology can support learning... the tools are available and ready to use, we just need the will and the vision to exploit them more fully."

As another example, e-learning is usually considered as a self-paced activity, but we all know how valuable live interaction is when we want to get things done, learning or otherwise. Again, we have the tools available and most learners are already familiar with their use: text chat, instant messaging, internet telephony and full-blown web conferencing make it possible for learners to interact in real-time, one-to-one or in small groups, or to participate online in seminars and conferences.

At the same time, while e-learning has traditionally found its home on the desktop, advances in mobile technologies, from phones to media players and handheld computers, now make it possible for employees to enjoy rich media content and collaboration wherever they may be. The tools are available and ready to use, we just need the will and the vision to exploit them more fully.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to e-learning’s take-up within the learning and development profession has been the sense of alienation that trainers feel from a medium that has traditionally been the sole domain of technical and creative experts. While top-end e-learning content, such as 3D simulations, games and scenarios, will undoubtedly require expert care and attention, most e-learning activities are now within the reach of generalist trainers and subject experts.

It is not asking too much of trainers to package up their content as PDF files or PowerPoint presentations, perhaps even to enrich these with interactions using the wide range of rapid development tools now on the market. Most trainers already have sufficient IT literacy to transfer their existing communication skills to the use of collaborative technologies such as forums, instant messaging and virtual classrooms.

Traditional e-learning has had its wins and has continued to grow, largely because of its efficiencies in large, geographically-distributed organisations; but it really is time to look for alternative models that build on what we have already learned while taking full advantage of exciting new opportunities.

While never replacing other media, e-learning can play a fuller role in most organisations’ learning and development strategy and integrate more happily with other approaches. To make this happen requires vision, courage and the ability to enfranchise the whole learning and development community in the effort. You can do it.

Clive Shepherd is an independent e-learning consultant and current chair of the e-learning Network.
He blogs at: http://clive-shepherd.blogspot.com
For more information you can contact him through the eLearining Network.

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