Why e-learning often fails

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We've heard a lot about the limitations of e-learning, but exactly why have some organisations succeeded where others have failed? Kieran Levis finds some answers in the first of four articles based on his own research into the development of e-learning internationally.

Kieran is the principal of Cortona Consulting and the author of The Business of (e)Learning, published by Screen Digest. The report is based on a strategic analysis of the e-learning industry and a detailed study of the development of corporate and university markets in North America and Europe.

Part Two: the pattern of e-learning adoption

Part Three: How big are e-learning markets?

Part Four: Has e-learning caused a learning revolution?

One of the most striking things about e-learning, along with the stunning successes, is how many initiatives have failed. The fundamental reason for this is a poor understanding of how learning actually works:

  • The mental model most of us have of learning is a crude one. We typically assume that it’s about transmitting knowledge and underestimate the crucial importance of motivation, of learning-by-doing and of learning with and from other people.

  • Most e-learning suppliers have focused on improving the efficiency of the process, rather than the effectiveness of the learning. The underlying assumption is that technology is a kind of machine for inserting knowledge into passive learners.

    Learners need a reason

    The single most important factor in the success of any learning activity is the motivation of the learner. If the individual does not want to learn, he probably will not, or only to a very limited extent. If he is highly motivated, the quality of the teaching and support materials can be almost irrelevant, as it is when a child learns to talk. Most learners fall somewhere between these extremes. They need guidance, positive motivation and reinforcement, and in particular, they need to see a reason why they should be learning what is being taught.

    Most e-learning within corporations assumes that individuals will largely work on their own, and often in their own time. However, learning programmes that depend entirely on the motivation and self-discipline of the individual only really work for highly motivated, disciplined people. Most of us, without some external stimulus, are not. Any learning programme that depends on people organising it for themselves, without any guidance, encouragement, criticism or feedback are placing unrealistic demands on most mere mortals - even if there are sensible goals which the learner would like to attain.

    People need people

    The reason most people prefer learning in a classroom is that they need social stimulus, both from teachers and from fellow-learners. A classroom is not the only way of doing this, but it is the one we are all familiar with. It may not be very effective as a medium for transmitting information and it is certainly not very efficient, but it gives us something a crude CBT program never can.

    The great transmission fallacy

    The commonest fallacy about learning is that it is essentially about the transfer of knowledge from teacher to learner. This idea is particularly beguiling for the e-learning industry, and most attempts to apply technology to learning, from satellite networks to the web, have concentrated on improving the efficiency of information transfer. Useful and efficient as this can be, it is only ever part of the solution.

    Information systems can deliver information, but e-learning technologies and content can’t actually deliver learning. Only people can learn. And they learn most effectively by doing, and by learning with and through other people.

    Cost cutting

    Cutting costs is a perfectly legitimate reason for trying new approaches to learning, and the single most important driver in the adoption of e-learning. However, learning programmes introduced solely in order to save costs, which leave all the responsibility to the learner, whilst giving her none of the help and support which might previously have come from a tutor in a classroom, have tended to work badly. Completion rates are generally less than 30 per cent. Companies that made big investments in learning management systems and libraries of online content in the hope that this would mean big savings and more learning have been sadly disappointed.

    One-way networking

    The main drawback of most pre-Internet learning technologies was that they only allowed one-way communications. They assumed implicitly that they were filling empty vessels with knowledge. We now know that learning needs to be an active process and that passive recipients of information learn very little. Sadly, a great deal of web-based learning might as well be one-way for all the interaction that goes on. It is effectively reading from a computer screen, with periodic exercises to check whether the learner has got the “right” answer.

    Networks where participants can exchange information, on the other hand, have proved to be highly effective media for learning:

  • individuals can share ideas and learn from each other;

  • they can communicate in a variety of ways with tutors, obtaining guidance, encouragement, criticism and feedback.

    However, the use of asynchronous collaborative learning has largely been confined to universities. Very few companies have even tried it. Indeed, in the corporate world, collaborative learning nearly always means synchronous - the virtual classroom. This is really a replication of traditional teacher-centered methods, with most of the information flowing one way. Like self-paced web learning, it has its uses, but a lot of limitations too.

    Learning, doing and coaching

    For learning to be truly effective, it has to work in the real world, it has to be applied. The ultimate test of a training programme is how well people can do their job subsequently. Adult knowledge workers tend to spend:

  • 5 per cent of their learning effort obtaining knowledge

  • 10-15 per cent of the overall effort gaining the basic skills

  • 80 per cent or more of the effort adapting and applying new skills and knowledge in their working life

    Most training programmes just deal with the first two - generally less than 20 per cent of the total. Most technology-based learning programmes have concentrated on the knowledge part alone. But the rare and really successful programmes ensure that human support and information are available to help during the adapt-and-apply phase as well. The human support does not have to be an instructor. More appropriate may be a coach, a subject matter expert or a colleague. Learners also need easy access to detailed information once in the nitty-gritty of the job. That cannot easily be extracted from a CBT program, but a well-designed portal can help enormously.

    The most successful e-learning programmes treat learning as an integral part of work, building as much doing as possible into the formal learning processes, and ensuring that the learning goes on after the course. Interactive content should encourage the learner to find things for herself, to try out different approaches, to learn from something like experience what happens in a range of scenarios.

    What technology has taught us

    One of educational technology’s unintended consequences is that it has forced educationalists of various kinds to think hard about how learning actually works and to question some of their earlier assumptions. A number of clear lessons have emerged from the ferment of experimentation.

  • Learning only happens if learners have a goal.
  • All learners need encouragement, feedback and other social stimuli.
  • Classrooms are just one of the places where this can happen.
  • Classrooms are poor places for transmitting information.
  • Technology can transmit information very well, but not knowledge.
  • It can also enable valuable human interactions.
  • Skills can only be learned from doing, by applying knowledge.
  • Learning is only ever done by learners, not by teachers or technology.

    A few organisations have learned these lessons. Cisco, IBM, Shell, and the Open University are amongst those who have shown that a more thoughtful, supportive approach, which does not make unrealistic demands either on technology alone or on lone learners, can yield substantial and measurable results. A few pioneers in simulation have demonstrated measurable improvements in learning effectiveness.

    The key is to view technology not as a panacea or a machine for learning, but as a set of very useful tools which are only as effective as the way that they are designed and used.

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