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E-Books Mature as Learning Tool

Last Wednesday, Amazon introduced its tablet, the Kindle Fire, to the market — an environment swarming with new Android tablet vendors and the famed iPad. While the Kindle Fire does the same thing as most devices already offered, it is different enough from the iPad in size, usage and price that economists believe there will be a shift from a one- to a two-tablet nation. Instead of being late to the game, Amazon’s new device, with little onboard memory, few business apps and no camera or microphone, is making an impression because of its e-reader capabilities.

While the device uses Amazon’s own variant of Android and is deeply integrated with services for buying books, magazines, movies and music, much like the Google or Apple app stores, its strong heritage in reading capabilities has made it more adaptable for reading than tablets such as Samsung’s seven-inch Galaxy Tab. And while e-books are not new to the industry, their enhancements are being welcomed as a forward-looking learning technology at a time when e-books had become stagnant.

“We have found in our overall research that use of e-books peaked in 2008 with about 63 percent of organizations using them. This has now dropped to 43 percent,” said Laura Overton, managing director of Towards Maturity, a benchmarking company that provides advice and support to help organizations use learning technologies to accelerate business performance. “However, they’re still going strong in leadership training, with 63 percent still using them — a third of which plan to increase their use in the future. They are being used directly by managers to dip into subjects of interest but are also used as part of prerequisite reading and case study work as part of formal programs. Online books that come from known, credible sources are important to managers.”

Rapid technological advances have created a learning environment that is used to learning on-demand in a media-rich way. Leaders expect to access knowledge where and when they need and want it in bite-sized chunks that suit their busy schedules. E-books allow for this.

In November 2010, Towards Maturity conducted its Benchmark Study, drawing response from more than 400 organizations in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors providing development opportunities for more than 35,000 leaders and managers. The study indicated that for learning innovation to take hold, it’s not enough to just deliver more courses online. The methods and media necessary to support reaching business goals and achieving peak performance rely on immediate, remote learning.

Four out of five respondents to the survey reported that they are reducing cost, increasing the speed of engagement with learning and reducing time that managers spend away from the business for improved responsiveness. Two-thirds believe that technology is helping to deliver a more consistent and faster application of learning back into the workplace, is reducing time to competency and is increasing adaptability and sharing of effective practices. “Technology-enabled leadership learning is delivering significant benefits in terms of improved efficiency,” Overton said.

James Reed, managing director of online leadership and management specialist LMMatters, echoed these findings. “Modern leaders and managers like accessing learning exactly at the point of need,” Reed said. “There are a couple of big providers in the e-book market and they’re doing this exceptionally well. They’re providing summaries that allow leaders to develop with small nuggets of information, quickly. You can’t take 40 management books on an airplane, but you can take 40 summaries in one device and not be intimidated to finish them.”

In 2008, international legal firm Eversheds was looking for ways to increase efficiencies to support busy lawyers and their teams. The organization was already committed to rapid e-learning tools and live online learning environments to help professional support, so lawyers created their own in-house programs to build legal competency using e-books.

“E-books were our first step in e-enabling our learning and development programs,” said Tim Drewitt, e-learning specialist at Eversheds. “We’re still a long way off from all our employees having e-book readers, and even then, it would be wrong to assume that all our learners will want to consume literary content in this way. The good old paperback or hardback book still offers considerable advantages. And I doubt we’d ever require someone to just read a book as part of a business-focused training program.

“So we were clear that an e-book needed to be different. It needs to be short and full of practical hints and tips, so that people can dip in and out quickly, find what they want fast and implement something new or different back on the job straightaway. As we move to learning on the move with mobile learning, offering just snippets of content will become even more important.”

According to Drewitt, the role of learning and development is to source the most powerful e-content to support employees across all their priority development needs. Since employees don’t want to be overwhelmed with too much material, learning leaders should carefully filter e-book selections to align to the primary elements in the company’s skills frameworks.

“It’s a combination of pushing and pulling content,” Reed said. A lot of organizations want to push content to their users, but the real learning need is to answer an employee’s question immediately. Learning and development individuals need to provide a wealth of content in multiple forms and environments so users can seek what they want and answer their questions. E-books are an easy way for employees to do that for themselves.”

Ladan Nikravan is an associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOmedia.com.