New directions for e-learning

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As organisations review the use and value of their e-learning courseware, Tim Drewitt, director of Balance Learning, argues that the disappointments of the past can be resolved by better targeting of fewer courses and a truly blended approach. Here, he offers three prophecies for the future of e-learning.

Sensing a seed change in e-learning

Every year the forecasters (or should that be astrologers?) predict that this will be the year for e-learning! Yet somehow the benefits never materialise as predicted.

After numerous conversations with training managers at the 2003 Learning Technologies conference and exhibition, I would like to offer three prophecies for e-learning for the coming year:

- There will be a carefully considered and pragmatic review and rejection of the ‘old’ way of e-learning;

- New adopters of e-learning will start with small scale, blended learning approaches;

- There will be more in-house development, with more strategic and carefully considered ‘off-the-shelf’ purchases.

Let’s consider each in turn.

Out with the old

Trainers are now saying that the days of offering large catalogues of e-learning are numbered. Early adopters of online training told how they were reviewing the multitude of courses they had on offer and were planning to dramatically prune the range available.

Attracted by the ‘50 pence per user’ models of the past, they now realise that the actual uptake has been considerably lower than anticipated and that, aside from a few ‘hot topics’, the vast majority of courses attracted only a handful of ‘hits’. Even then, people were just browsing and deciding not to linger. As a result, the true unit costs of e-learning have proved to be much higher - in some cases high enough to have warranted an entirely different delivery approach when put back through a cost-benefit analysis.

Clear patterns of usage are emerging, both in terms of the internal customer base - highlighting the most appropriate target audiences for e-learning - and the content that is best suited to online delivery and, importantly, aligned to the everyday needs of the business. Those attracted by the ‘just in time…just in case…just enough’ message of the past now recognise that offering everything that anybody could ever want was eating away at budgets that could have been better spent elsewhere.

Now, there is a desire to be more selective in terms of the content. Rather than ‘finger in the air’ tests, there is a more accurate understanding of who the target groups should be and what their training requirements are. So instead of buying licenses that cover every eventuality, trainers can now be more precise; they only need to purchase a few courses for a much smaller number of users.

In with blended

Maybe the term ‘blended’ will quickly be forgotten as a buzz-word, but it is becoming clear that e-learning is finding its true position as just one delivery channel within a larger, more comprehensive training and development approach. Surveys have often shown that organisations were only planning to use e-learning for between five and 15 per cent of their total training provision. Now they appear to be focused on supporting other forms of delivery.

Encouragingly, late adopters of e-learning are now feeling more comfortable about the medium. Grateful to have been out on the periphery of the drive to move everything in the e-learning direction, they now feel that the blended path provides them with a number of opportunities including:

- Introducing e-learning to training departments that were sceptical about the method and worried about the impact it would have on their own roles;

- Overcoming fears about the reaction of learners who remain unconvinced about the validity of training in this way and who are increasingly aware of some of its failings;

- Avoiding the risks of high profile e-learning launches that later fizzle out as time progresses;

- Removing the need to spend considerable amounts of time putting together a business case for e-learning initiatives;

- Truly exploiting the most appropriate technologies to support their entire training and development strategies.

Within a truly blended approach, e-learning will:

- Fit seamlessly into new training programme designs and demonstrate its true value as part of the training strategy;

- Not be placed high on a pedestal, only to then fall from grace;

- Be undertaken as a matter of course, supported by other activities, and not be considered the one-stop shop;

- Have appropriate budgets allocated for it - budgets that are signed off with ease (if not invisibly) within an overall programme budget;

- Be targeted at discrete groups of students in discrete subject areas;

- Be easier to monitor, sometimes without the need for a complex learning management system.

In-house development

Judging by the proliferation of authoring tools, the market has sensed a greater desire for trainers to develop e-learning solutions that feature organisation-specific content. The early adopters have benefited from a better understanding of how e-learning can work in their organisations. They have also moved along the continuum from end-user buy-in to a stage where the business is identifying its own priorities and developing its own e-learning wish-lists.

Trainers are now more eager to see their own content delivered online and in-situ subject matter experts are examining how they could share their valuable knowledge throughout organisations by creating fit-for-purpose e-learning content. PowerPoint ‘power users’ now want to move to the next level and we’ll see the increased use of PowerPoint-to-E-learning authoring tools.

Along the way, I’m sure there’ll be frustrations as trainers try unsuccessfully to emulate the quality they’ve seen in the off-the-shelf catalogues, primarily due to the limitations of authoring tools which have to balance the need for ease-of-use with fit-for-purpose end results. However, that’ll change over time.

Conclusions

In all, 2003 should be an interesting year. There’ll be winners and losers along the way, of course, but the main beneficiaries should be the trainer and the end-user. They will not be faced with bewildering choices of content. They will deliver e-learning in a systematic manner and will mix pertinent off-the-shelf content with fit-for-purpose internally developed courses, both of which will deliver greater value for money and achieve the desired results.

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