I’ve been in the e-learning game since the early ’90s, and it has been one of the most fascinating journeys throughout my 25-plus years in education. Like most new approaches to instruction, e-learning came on the scene as the next great learning frontier. The promises were staggering and impressive. New acronyms were born, such as JIT for just-in-time learning. Training budgets were slashed, and traditional training departments were closed down in favor of this supposedly cheaper and more effective learning modality.
I’m not going to use this page to argue the merits of those decisions, but I think that most people, including early e-learning developers, would agree that as an industry, we may have gotten ahead of ourselves. The unfortunate part of this journey is that we have done this before with other “revolutionary” learning technologies. Anyone remember similar accolades attached to the VCR and laser disk player? Don’t get me wrong—I’m not knocking the potential of any of these modalities. I’m simply taking issue with our approach to using them.
Each effort has shown that the journey from the classroom to any of these newer methodologies is long and difficult. The learning dynamics found in a classroom are difficult to replicate and support in a self-paced environment. The support structures that will make methods such as e-learning work need to be well-thought-out and properly implemented.
The physical classroom is not what makes instructor-led training (ILT) successful. We wouldn’t dream of putting a group of students in a room with an instructional text and assume that the environment would teach. We add key things, such as a gifted instructor, a structure for the day, other instructional components and an overarching operational staff. Let’s call these additions “enablers.” They are the sparks that make the brick-and-mortar aspect of ILT work.
My question is: Have we provided the same enablers for e-learning, or have we assumed that the tool should be able to stand on its own? In my experience, the more independent the modality, the more important the enablers become.
Many would argue that when it comes to e-learning, the enablement issue is supposed to be covered by a learning management system (LMS). That may be the case someday, but many LMS implementations only address the overarching logistical issues. They track students’ progress and help direct them toward the right content, much like the registers, sales reps and greeters did in the classroom model. This is not to say that an LMS doesn’t possess the capabilities to do more than this, but many organizations aren’t taking full advantage of many of these features. Look at the LMS you’re using in your organization. Does it help replace the other enablers, such as the instructor, the other students in the room and other instructional resources? What do these bring to the table, and how do we replace them?
If nothing else, these other enablers help bring relevance and context to the learning experience. Many learners will tell you that this is one of the most obvious omissions from their e-learning experience. Well-designed e-learning does its best to establish relevance and context on a grand scale, but the very definition of these words implies a more tailored and customized experience. This is a responsibility that each organization needs to own and enable—not the e-learning vendor. Mapping learning preferences and tools to measurable business outcomes is a difficult thing to do and cannot be achieved by simply making different e-learning tools available via an LMS.
The organizations that are making these tools work are using other enablers, such as organizational assessments and job-role mapping, to bridge the often-generic content found in commercially purchased e-learning to their learners’ specific needs and skills gaps. They also are offering other modalities, such as ILT and job aids, to enable learning in areas where e-learning alone is not appropriate or effective.
I remember standing next to a colleague as we watched one of our first demonstrations of e-learning at a tradeshow in the early ’90s. He turned to me and said, “When it seems too good to be true, it usually is.” Effective learning involves a suite of enablers to help it work. This isn’t e-learning’s fault—it’s ours as educators for the way we’ve implemented it. Now that e-learning has been around for a while, let’s start surrounding it with the tools and techniques needed to finally help it reach its potential.
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning and has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.Filed under: Technology