The Place And Value Of E-Learning

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Bob Little
Is e-learning just a mass-market delivery mechanism that offers the prospect of cutting per person training costs? What lessons have been learnt from its use? And how is its use changing and its value being assessed? Bob Little reports.

Over the last 15 years or so, e-learning has not only emerged as a learning delivery method in its own right but has also become increasingly accepted as a part of ‘mainstream’ learning delivery being combined with classroom-based learning in ‘blended learning’.

This is because e-learning offers things that classroom-based learning does not – for example, e-learning can provide a standardised message to more people, almost anywhere in the world simultaneously and at lower cost (in terms of development costs and worker downtime) than can be classroom-based learning. It can also appeal to those whose preferred learning style does not fit with instructor-led training.

However, e-learning is not a panacea for all learning needs.

While e-learning can perform a useful function as pre-course material where skills-based/soft skills learning is concerned, classroom-based instructor-to-learner and peer group learner interaction is also essential.

Nonetheless, there is evidence from studies by, among others, the internationally acclaimed business school Ashridge that e-learning works well for knowledge-based learning.

Ashridge includes elements of e-learning on its international Executive MBA programme including four sophisticated business simulations produced by Tata Interactive Systems (TIS) and it recently concluded a three year study of the effectiveness and value of the e-learning element in the course.

Ashridge’s Anthony Mitchell and Sue Honore carried out a study of 75 learners on three successive programme intakes over a three year period. Individuals completed 12 MBA modules over two years. Of these, two were delivered via e-learning (one in year one and one in year two) and the second of these contained the TIS-developed simulations. The online experience was blended with six conventionally taught modules at Ashridge and four in Germany at corporate universities, supplemented by an international unit (in South Africa and/or China).

Mitchell and Honore said that, among the things that they had learnt from their research were:

  • Care is needed to get the correct ‘balance’ in terms of blended learning. Participants felt two virtual modules out of 12 is about right. Most students did not want to lose the classroom Ashridge experience, but they also wanted e-learning.
  • E-learning is not a cost cutting activity. Not only are the costs involved in providing and supporting the e-learning substantial, but cost-cutting sets the wrong tone for successfully motivating the students to learn, since it sends the message that e-learning is cheaper and therefore ‘second best’.
  • A lack of resources has an exponentially negative impact on the outcomes of the learning when it is remote. The support and participation of the tutors, facilitators and technical team are all critical factors in the success of e-learning.
  • It takes time for people to become comfortable in the online environment, so early activities are important for generating confidence.

When it comes to assessing the value and place of e-learning, there are those – e-learning suppliers among them who argue that all forms of learning are only validated if they are closely tied to organisational goals. These include financial and customer, as well as internal business and ‘learning and growth’ perspectives.

“Learning materials developers need to focus on business problems and their cause rather than the symptoms of the problems businesses face,” said Vaughan Waller, chairman of the eLearning Network and head of membership services at Learning Light, a non-profit organisation that helps to build relationships between learning technology researchers, suppliers, buyers and learners. “Developers should think ‘value’ rather than ‘courses’ and ‘performance improvement’ rather than ‘training delivery’. They should also prioritise on improving employees’ skills that relate directly to business critical goals.

“Only then can developers and buyers of learning make informed decisions about the mode of delivery of that learning,” he added.

As Charles Jennings, head of global learning at Reuters, speaking at this year’s Tata Interactive Learning Forum in London, said: “Cost savings have a place in measuring the value of learning but this is only one element in the whole sum. The value of learning in an organisation is not just about cost savings but about building performance. To be successful, a learning programme has to be shown to have contributed to the overall business benefit and this will involve using a mix of metrics, along with a ‘warm, fuzzy feeling’ that ‘learning is good’, that will impress the CEO.”

Technological advances are continually enlarging learning’s delivery options. Increasingly, there are those who are using games and simulations; performance support systems and so on, as well as introducing the human element to e-learning through e-tutoring, e-coaching and e-mentoring.

According to Jane Knight, the founder of the e-Learning Centre and now head of research at Learning Light, the e-learning industry has moved from a state of ‘automation’ (putting ‘static’ courses online) to one of ‘innovation’. This has been made possible by a number of new technology-driven tools including blogs, wikis and podcasts.

“We now have ‘Web 2.0’,” Knight said, “and we are moving into a new era of sharing content, collaborating and syndicating learning materials online. This is not just about learning content but about developing new ways of learning.”

Bob Little has been writing and commentating on technology based training, including e-learning, since 1990. His work has been published across three continents – the USA, Europe and Australia, making him unique as a commentator on the worldwide e-learning scene.

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