The Evolution of E-Learning

In researching and talking with professionals in the learning marketplace, this quote from a Fortune 100 client made me think about the evolution of the e-learning industry and where it is going from here.

For the most part, e-learning has been characterized by the “bright, shiny and new,” much like the products that emerged during the dot-com era. These new products and delivery mechanisms were supposed to improve performance—at least that was the initial concept. However, this eventually got lost in the shuffle as e-learning firms pushed to go public before they were profitable, while others entered the industry and failed trying to realize their vision.

In the past decade the e-learning marketplace has evolved from a small cottage industry into one that is more defined and innovative yet more complicated in terms of the choices learning professionals have to make.

If we look very carefully at the e-learning industry, specifically where we came from, interesting trends begin to emerge. The industry’s past has been speckled with the “bright, shiny and new,” which sometimes failed to meet our expectations. In the mix however, there have been some winning solutions that will continue to drive the evolution of e-learning. This article will take a closer look at the past and what the future has in store.

The Past
In 1994 many professionals in our industry were unaware that training as we knew it would be entirely transformed. That year marked a vast transition for training providers. At that time, many companies were using videotape to teach employees, and the industry represented a very small market and lacked the “scalability” that is so important in today’s applications.

Video may have been engaging in concept, but it lacked the ability to customize the learning environment based on the needs of various users, was expensive to maintain and could not be changed on the fly to fit the evolving needs of the business. Workers would have to check out videotapes or request equipment to play the video, which made the system inconvenient and a nightmare to manage. In addition, very little interaction occurred, making it difficult to track which users were increasing their job performance as a result of the lessons they were engaged in.

With the exception of lower-quality video producers, there were three main players in the training space that delivered high-end, video-based training on VHS: LearnPC, MicroVideo Learning Systems and Anderson Soft-Teach. These companies initiated the transformation of what rich-media, highly interactive e-learning would come to be by delivering video on CD-ROM and eventually on a company’s LAN or WAN.

In 1994, I remember sitting in a production office watching a video running off of a CD-ROM. Never mind that the file sizes were larger than Godzilla. It was on CD! This eventually gave way to network-enabled training. These computer-based training systems (CBTs) could be installed on a server, and multiple users could train all at once. Cutting-edge companies could utilize their WANs to deliver training to other locations, which was a major push forward for computerized training.

The introduction of CBT represented the first phase of e-learning. These systems were more cost-effective and could train multiple learners at the same time. CBT also doubled as an electronic help desk, providing users with a searchable database that could answer questions on the fly. For the most part, users were still more engaged, but something was missing.

Like the early PC and software market, the CBT industry lacked standards. Many training managers could not track multiple “best of breed” content providers through one database. Companies with several business sites and servers required significant administration, and multiple spreadsheets and reports were needed to track learners at every location. All in all, it was an improvement, but still an unwieldy way of getting users to take training consistently.

The Internet changed everything. Clients began asking vendors to “Make it Internet,” and countless e-learning vendors jumped at the chance to define the market and gain first-mover advantage

These were still the days when the browser was considered a miraculous cutting-edge tool, yet all we were really doing with this new innovation was reading text online. No one really cared about the effectiveness of this new medium—it was just really cool.

Next came text with a few graphics and some interactivity, which helped to engage the learner. These new applications were still just page-turners, but many saw the value and the opportunity this new medium had to offer. Companies continued to develop new technology, and we are finding that innovation is still alive and well today.

The e-learning industry is still evolving. Today more companies are stepping up to the plate and delivering systems that are helping to change the way we learn online. The latest tools are more engaging, are simpler to program and can track student learning patterns and adjust based on the needs of one or many.

The Future
So what has the past taught us? That the opportunity and, more importantly, the technology for taking e-learning to the next level is right at our fingertips. The industry has yet to reach its full potential, but it will definitely start to emerge as a profitable business for companies that track the trends and innovate. The following are some of the advancements that will surface in the years to come.

E-Learning Will Be Implemented Easily and at a Lower Cost
Today, e-learning is still too expensive, and for many organizations skeptics remain. Many companies have achieved results with traditional classroom training and are stuck in the “why fix what isn’t broken” mode of thinking. This will change as off-the-shelf e-learning packages come down in price and become much simpler to operate. The year 2004 will be the year of rapid e-learning development systems that are lower in cost and provide tools for swift content creation that is engaging and delivers on the training ROI.

ASP Model: E-Learning Web Services Is the Future
ASPs (companies that host an application and charge for usage) are making a comeback from their heyday in the late ’90s and 2000. Salesforce.com is an example of a CRM company that has had solid success in this sector. Its pricing model is simple, and its product is scalable for small and large user bases. A similar model will be applied to the e-learning industry.

The ideal e-learning ASP-based product will enable multiple authoring permissions and will have an editorial hierarchy not only for content publishers within the corporation, but also for other developers and development companies that are partners with the organization.

The e-learning industry will head in this direction in the coming years. Courses and administration will all take place on the Internet. IT departments won’t need to be intimately involved, and product updates and improvements from e-learning ASP-based companies will simultaneously occur across their entire client base, enabling faster deployment, lower cost per user and more profit potential.

Rich-Media Instructors Redefine the Avatar
Rich-media instructors will soon become the industry standard for engaging all types and levels of users throughout the extended enterprise. The technology exists and improvements are being made daily. Content developers already have the ability to customize instructors based on age, race and style, which can be deployed locally, nationally and even globally. We’ll begin to see more companies leveraging this easy-to-use content creation platform, improvements in product and development costs and increased e-learning usage across the enterprise. Ultimately, these improvements will result in smarter employees and more dollars to the bottom line.

Mobile Learning
Mobile learning, or m-learning, is another potential area of growth. The easiest way to deliver learning on this platform will be to ensure that the content is engaging and easy to use. One approach to this will be the use of rich-media solutions that require very little bandwidth. One increasingly popular delivery method in this arena will be the rich-media instructor that will launch in a Flash-based environment. These lifelike instructors will bring the classroom to the student and deliver big e-learning results.

Educating customers to drive sales, or “EduCommerce,” will take the concept of e-learning in a new direction this year. An example is having a rich-media instructor explain a product online to a potential customer. This is best illustrated by L’Oreal’s use of rich media in the form of an FAQ (www.purezone.com). Why will these instructors have such a positive effect in the online commerce world? A Stanford research study shows that more than 90 percent of people prefer these virtual characters to none at all. Most importantly, the virtual character helps to increase the trust people have in online information, which helps to drive the e-commerce dollars right to the bottom line.

Employee Knowledge Transfer
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the vision of employees training one another at two Fortune 1000 companies. Employees who are star performers are often the best instructors for delivering practiced knowledge. Great idea, but the technology needed to creatively and simply transfer this know-how from one employee to many never existed until now.

In the past, most technology platforms were too difficult to program for the non-IT person and were too time-consuming to learn. As more companies begin to deliver solutions that are easy to operate, easy to learn and can create engaging content in minutes (not hours), we will start to see learning organizations deliver training from their most valued resource—their employees.

For me, the e-learning industry is perhaps the most exhilarating business to be in. As the individuals responsible for driving this industry to new heights, we must keep coming out with new products and concepts and ensure that this industry continues to be all about improving performance.

Michael Cooke is director of client services for Bersin & Associates, a leading provider of research and consulting services in e-learning technology and implementation. He was formerly director of e-learning business development for Oddcast, a rich-media technology company that develops solutions for the e-learning and e-marketing marketplaces.