E-learning has enjoyed a love-hate relationship with most learning and development departments since its advent, and has experienced a fair few teething problems along the way; yet more and more are falling under its spell. Annie Hayes reports.
If you are reading this you may already have a burgeoning interest in e-learning or at least a growing level of curiosity. You may also have an idea of what you think it is, but as the concept gets ever more complex the definition becomes as changeable as it does. One accepted definition is any type of learning that is delivered, enabled or mediated using electronic technology. Today that may even mean via a blackberry or Facebook profile.
Allison Rossett, of San Diego University, offers further enlightenment. She uses the terms 'stuff' and 'stir'. The 'stuff', she says, is the reusable web objects which are deployed on a corporate internet and, according to Martyn Sloman, adviser, training, learning and development at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and author of The E-learning Revolution, is what most people mean when they refer to e-learning.
The 'stir' refers to the collaborative tools of e-learning: the online discussions and virtual classrooms, and what Sloman slams as having 'an unholy hype' attached. This is the transfer of learning via social networking for example.
Position and pitfalls
When the CIPD last tested the waters in 2005 the overall view was that, while there was still much practical work to be done on implementation, e-learning had become accepted as an essential feature of training delivery. As such, many training managers have become a dab hand at weaving e-learning into their strategies but usually it is offered as part of a blended learning approach.
The 2005 CIPD research also found that 54 per cent of respondents reported that they used e-learning. Yet e-learning accounted for less than 10 per cent of the total training time. And two years later, the professional body finds that things haven't got any better.
Their 2007 Learning and development survey says that only 2 per cent of respondents identified e-learning as the most effective way that people learn in their organisation.
When they report again on e-learning in April 2008, they hope things will have picked up, but certainly at the grass roots, e-learning has a long way to go. Wayne Mullen, head of learning and development at Standard Bank, says that whilst they have rolled out an impressive 300 financial e-learning modules this year alone, e-learning still accounts for just 5 per cent of their entire learning and development budget.
Meanwhile, John Helmer, marketing director at Epic, a company that recently provided an e-learning tool for the Department for Work and Pensions, explains why this lag has occurred by offering three key reasons.
Firstly, budgets: "Face-to-face training is cheap to originate but expensive to deliver and the more you do it the more expensive it gets when you take into account people's time to travel and hours out of the office," he says. "E-learning reverses that; the expense is in the creation. Budgets are anything from £30,000 upwards, but the more you deliver the cheaper it gets."
In reality, what this does is change the whole risk and management of learning. Heavy investment can put potential converts off, but Clive Shepherd, blended learning director at the Training Foundation, says that suppliers continue to drive down costs. Open-source or free software is also available.
Secondly, says Helmer, is the problems associated with understanding how people learn. "When it comes to face-to-face learning, 95 per cent of the psychology of how people learn is academic. E-learning changes this; you've got to know how people learn." And adding to the trainer's woes is the fact, according to Helmer, that a lot of them aren't very technical. Helmer says many have run into trouble when it comes to integration.
The last reason Helmer provides is one also offered by others – learner engagement. "If there is no one standing over you it can impact the success of the learning, and if the culture is always to have a trainer on hand that can be quite a change."
However, Helmer adds that there are ways of getting around this, by providing places were people can learn, for example. Mullen agrees and says that the high-drop out rates is a downfall, however, he does say that in his experience it does work well for sheep-dip training in financial products and compliance training, for instance.
Peter Bullivant, director of Intelligent Development and Training Limited, says that monitoring is another crucial element: "I think downfalls are tracking and monitoring and the fall-off rates where commitment is less than 100 per cent. For some staff it will match their preferred learning style but relies on a good degree of self-motivation."
Indeed, such can be the problem with a lack of self-directed motivation that the CIPD goes as far as to say that the priority should be focusing on the learner and the learner preferences, rather than being seduced by the technology.
Most people go into e-learning hoping to salvage costs but surprise themselves when the key benefit turns out to be the access to learning. There is no doubt that a key attraction is the ability to learn anywhere and at anytime.
Mullen says this was part of Standard Bank's attraction to it. With investment bankers notoriously short on time, taking the learning to them and giving them the controls was almost too good to be true.
Consistency of message is another plus. Helmer says that there is the danger of trainers putting their own spin on learning and, in the worst case scenario, offering a prejudiced view. With e-learning there is a greater ability to control the method. The argument can fall down, however, when we look to the future and see how e-learning the social networking way can interfere with the message; a point that Helmer recognises:
"Take for example soldiers putting videos up on YouTube – it causes real problems for training managers because the messages aren't controlled." For now, the debate on how to police this type of learning is still open.
Helmer says these problems aside, e-learning offers delegates the opportunity to leverage the best: "Everyone gets the benefits of the best not just the journeymen." A point that Shepherd, in reference to virtual classrooms, agrees with: "Sessions are also recordable which gives staff the chance to catch up if they've missed one."
E-learning used to be limited to IT skills learning. This is no longer the case. Aside from financial product training, Mullen has also used e-learning with great success to help appraisee's prepare for their reviews and has found that e-learning, in certain situations, can be more successful than face-to-face learning interventions.
Online learning is also starting to replicate traditional learning situations, stimulating debate and encouraging interaction.
Shepherd says that packages commonly include voice over the internet applications with web-chat window availability. Polls and surveys, together with virtual whiteboards and application sharing, adds further feathers in the e-learning tail.
The official CIPD position, says Sloman, is one of "positive scepticism" in which e-learning continues to advance as a mere percentage of training time. Others are more positive and welcome the proliferation of different platforms to deliver learning; indeed Mullen would like to see more flexibility in the way e-learning is made available on blackberry's as an example.
Whilst most would agree that e-learning will never exist as a solo artist, others are seeing a cultural shift. Helmer says: "Increasingly we are seeing rising numbers of 'floor-walking' – experts come in to be on hand after the e-learning has occurred. The human element will never disappear, it,s just a questions of how it is delivered."
E-learning still has a long way to go if it is ever to take over traditional training methods, but as part of the learning and development armoury it offers some tempting benefits and many agree that its strength is that it isn't trying to replace the tried and tested methods. For now all that can be done is to wait for the next chapter in the e-learning journey to unfold.