Last Updated Nov 28, 2007 5:46 PM EST
E-learning is flexible, cost-effective, and measurable. Obviously, online "classrooms" can accommodate far more people than traditional ones; and usually, it's much faster and far more convenient—not to mention free from ringing bells at the end of class! Perhaps that explains why the global e-learning marketplace, now worth over $25 billion, is growing so rapidly. When investigating e-learning, consider these factors:
- E-learning puts students (of all ages) in the driver's seat, allowing them to learn specific subjects when they need to, at their own pace.
- To be effective, e-learning requires collaboration with other students and mentors. The classroom should not be eliminated, but rather introduced at strategic points in the learning process.
The fast-maturing e-learning world attracts many companies who offer a wide variety of lessons and related content, technology and services.
In an economic upturn especially, the logic for e-learning is compelling. Change is constant, and there is an ongoing need to keep employees educated and up to date. Quality workers are hard to find, which has two major implications for education: First, the best people tend to be focused on constantly improving their skills, and will find to an organization with a comprehensive learning program more attractive. Second, if filling certain positions becomes difficult, an alternative is to retrain current employees to fill them. This, too, requires a learning program.
In a downturn, the need to quickly train individuals may be less compelling—but the cost-effectiveness of e-learning becomes more attractive. Just getting people to and from traditional classrooms is expensive—a cost that e-learning essentially eliminates. It's also time consuming. In addition, the effectiveness of classroom-based learning has been difficult to measure. E-learning is considered more accountable and measurable.
Here's what e-learning is all about:
- E-learning is primarily delivered over the Web, often through what are called interactive portals.
- It can adapt quickly to meet changing needs. Learners can find what they want to learn, and at a time and pace that suits them (note that some e-learning is instructor-led; learners log-in at a given time, when an instructor takes them through a module).
- Many e-learning modules are designed to be 20 to 30 minutes long, so learners can take them during break periods if desired. By taking a series of modules over a period of time, learners build up a skill.
- Learners collaborate with instructors and other learners, and absorb more faster;
- Compared with classroom-based learning, e-learning is a fast and cost-effective way to teach large numbers of individuals.
- E-learning can deliver lessons in multimedia format: text, images, audio, video, interactive and simulation tools.
- Material that e-learners have studied and completed can be accurately measured, allowing the organization to gauge effectiveness and determine which resources are most popular.
Organizations invest in learning so their people can become smarter and more productive. That's great theory, but the reality has been described as the "great training robbery." Like the old advertising adage, organizations know that half of their training works—they just don't know which half. E-learning promises to make learning more efficient and accountable by getting the right training to the right people as quickly as possible. Subsequently measuring the results helps ensure that e-learning achieves expressed goals and that is does so in a cost-effective manner.
If there is no "learning culture" already alive within the organization, e-learning is not going to flourish and may be a waste of time and money. It can only work where staff and management are committed to it. Perhaps many employees feel the only way to learn is in a classroom: They will need to be convinced of e-learning's benefits. Simply installing a system and waiting for everyone to sign up for courses is not likely to work.
For e-learning to thrive, some additional components need to be in place.
- Personalized learning space Learners need their own customized environment at the central e-learning web site so they can see what modules they have completed and have yet to complete, who their mentors are, and what collaborative learning groups they are part of.
- Mentoring Without interaction and mentoring, e-learning can become very dry. Learners need to be able to speak with experts in order to ask questions and receive guidance.
- Simulation Quality e-learning offers simulated environments in which learners can practice and reinforce what they have learned.
- Collaboration Interaction with other learners is a fundamental building block of all learning. E-learning is no different. Organizations can help by actively encouraging collaboration. Requiring learners to work together in order to complete tasks successfully is one way to do it.
- Assessment This is important both for the organization and the learner. The organization needs to know if the e-learning is, in fact, increasing knowledge within its workforce; learners need to have targets in order to know where they are doing well and where they need to work harder.
E-learning requires sophisticated administration if it is to be properly managed. These elements will need to be in place:
- Registration process
- Payment process, or a process that matches costs against budgets
- Monitoring process that allows the manager to track how learners are performing
In addition, a process must be established that allows managers and employees to jointly plan and discuss what needs to be learned and how lessons are progressing. This was traditionally done during annual or biannual staff assessments. But because of rapidly changing learning needs, this now has to happen with greater regularity.
A method to measure how the new skills learned contribute to a more productive workplace is also required. People may be learning lots of new skills; but, if they're not applicable to their job or their future prospects, they will be wasted.
It is shortsighted to think e-learning will totally replace classroom-based learning. A critical function of a classroom is people getting to know each other and building productive relationships. The classic way many people find out about things is to call or e-mail a classmate. If they don't know whom to contact, or don't feel comfortable doing so because they don't know the expert well, this vital interaction doesn't take place. A happy medium is needed: for example, learners could complete most of a course in e-learning sessions, but gather in a classroom environment at strategic points to confer with their peers—as well as maintain enthusiasm.
E-learning does reduce training costs, but few believe that e-learning on its own will meet an organization's entire training requirements. People still need to get together to share ideas and develop friendships. Typically, the socializing that occurs after class is as important as what happened during class itself. Note, too, that e-learning is less suitable for teaching soft skills and those that require a lot of hands-on activity.
Selecting an e-learning provider will largely depend on your specific needs. For evaluation's sake, however, here are some useful questions to pose:
- What is its reputation, and how well accepted is its brand? Has the company been around for a while, and does it look as if it will be around in the future?
- What sort of global reach does it have? If the e-learning works well in one office, can it be quickly rolled out in other offices around the world? This is particularly important in an increasingly globalized business world where it is ever more expensive and difficult to bring people together into a single room.
- What's the quality of its learning content? Is it highly interactive and engaging, with access to experts—or is it like a digitized textbook? How comprehensive is the offering?
- Will this organization meet all your e-learning needs or will you have to seek other courses elsewhere?
- What is the technology like? Is it robust and scalable? Do the modules download quickly or do they devour bandwidth?
The e-learning marketplace has expanded rapidly and there are many companies who offer comprehensive and cost-effective e-learning offerings. E-learning technology is very complex, so it rarely makes sense to build your own. One model that has emerged for organizations with their own training content is to buy, lease or rent e-learning technology.
A multitude of technical difficulties often hobble the shining promise of this new way to learn. E-learning that uses a lot of multimedia elements—sound, video, animation, sophisticated graphics—can cause unending delivery problems. Even within the internal network, bandwidth can be scarce. Many people are using older computers beset by poor quality sound, and slow processors.
Not everyone is itching to learn. Some people will always find an excuse for not taking a course. Often, the only way that you can get them to focus on learning is to order them into a classroom.
Some of e-learning's most ardent proponents go so far to imply that teachers are the enemy of education and that getting rid of them is the answer to all training problems. Hogwash! E-learning without active input from mentors and education experts can be a very shallow experience.
The e-learning promise of "learning when you want to" often translates into learning after work or during weekends. Learners strive with gusto, but then there's no recognition of that effort. A sense of isolation creeps in and, as the day-to-day workload increases, the need to tackle that e-learning course drifts into the background. Don't let that happen. Recognition is relatively easy, inexpensive and pays huge dividends—including the productivity gains that e-learning is intended to deliver.
eLearn Magazine: www.elearnmag.org/index.cfm