Two camps support opposite views on e-learning:
- E-learning provides anonymity and improves access, removing barriers and traditional sources of discrimination.
- E-learning favors those who operate well in a medium that distances learners from others, those who are technically sophisticated and those who are fluent in English.
The anonymity of e-learning prevents the learner from being treated unequally by peers or instructors. Personalized technology allows learners to overcome physical disabilities, to advance at their own pace and to be treated equally in the learning process. Negation of these traditional inequalities is one of the true and well-documented benefits of e-learning. However, some claim that e-learning presents new modes of discrimination.
A recent, global e-learning initiative at Deloitte Consulting that analyzed more than 135,000 test scores of 19,000 Deloitte employees offers some insight, demonstrating that an online setting can level the playing field. It is well documented that males and females perform differently in face-to-face settings, often to the detriment of women. In a global organizational context, local business practices may lead to discrimination against women due to religious, corporate or industry cultures. E-learning can conceal gender and potentially eliminate gender discrimination. Others suggest that the impersonal, stilted nature of e-learning technology poses a different challenge. Research has proven that women are more emotionally astute and sensitive to people in a face-to-face setting. When this advantage is eliminated, those capable of higher emotional intelligence no longer possess a competitive edge. In the Deloitte program, males and females performed equally well across cultures and language settings, demonstrating that e-learning is a useful tool in achieving a more equal learning outcome.
Many have expressed concern that e-learning creates technology barriers, discriminating against those less technically able. There are two components: the ability to interact with the e-medium and the ability of the learner to fix problems with the e-learning deployment. Within Deloitte Consulting, 56 percent of the learners were considered IT specialists. By comparing the results achieved by this group with the rest of the learning community, it was shown that technological ability did not create e-learning inequality. Highly sophisticated IT learners and non-specialists performed equally well. Therefore, it can be assumed that if the learners have a fundamental degree of IT competence, those with high IT ability will not be unfairly favored.
When Deloitte Consulting opted to deploy its global e-learning program in English across 30 countries, there was discussion about the disadvantage this presented to employees for whom English was a second or third language. Deloitte’s program not only relied on the content itself, but also offered many opportunities for linking to third-party Web sites, all of which were also offered exclusively in English. Deloitte employees for whom English was a second or even a third language dramatically outperformed their colleagues. There are two aspects to the e-learning deployment that may account for this. First, no time limits were placed on the mastery of the course content or on the testing process. This enabled non-English speakers to work with their dual-language dictionaries, causing them to interact with the material in greater detail. Second, the automated testing system allowed users to retest until they passed or achieved a grade they were satisfied with. Thus, non-English-speaking users who may have had additional difficulties could simply be retested. This retesting also allowed users who came from cultures where academic perfection was deemed important to continue retesting until a perfect score was attained.
These language findings are critical when contemplating the cost of translating e-learning for global deployment. If users have the opportunity to move through the course at their own pace and are allowed to retest, translation expenses may not be warranted.
Although the debate on the impact of e-learning on the learner will continue, the Deloitte study shows that:
- E-learning removes traditional barriers and provides equal access.
- IT skill is not critical to success in an e-learning program.
- Language is not a barrier if the learner has sufficient time to achieve results.
Nick van Dam is Deloitte’s global chief learning officer for the consulting practice. Nick thanks former Deloitte colleague Shannon Hood at University of Southern Australia for conducted research. For more information, e-mail Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org.