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Are you an elearning xenophobe?

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Despite our high ranking in the elearning league tables it seems we are afraid to engage with the rest of Europe. But are we cutting off our nose to spite our face? Bob Little reports.

Some 16 years or so ago, an EC report purported to show that the UK was third in an EC league table of elearning usage per head of the population. The table was topped by Ireland and the Netherlands.
At the time, amid ‘hardliners' pleas for greater uptake of elearning materials in corporate learning, there was general satisfaction that the UK was among the leaders in Europe in terms of elearning. While Ireland’s position in the table was as a result of attracting EC funds to help develop its ‘elearning industry’, the UK was benefiting from its ‘special relationship’ with the USA. This meant that, in the 1990s, a number of US elearning courseware and systems producing companies were establishing European offices in the UK – principally because they believed that the US and UK shared both a language and culture – and this helped the UK to its exalted position in the EC league table.
Since then, US-based firms have come (such as Cornerstone OnDemand, OutStart and Plateau) and gone (including Pathlore and Thinq) and the UK elearning market is maturing into an industry with a number of bespoke elearning developers, augmented by ‘rapid’ and ‘self’ development tools suppliers/distributors (such as Atlantic Link and Trainer1) and systems providers (such as the US-based firms already mentioned plus the Italy-based LCMS/digital repository provider, Giunti Labs).
"While elearning-related producers and distributors in other countries see the UK market as ‘fair game’, UK-based companies have been slow to sell their wares abroad – or at least throughout Europe."
Increasingly, national distinctions are blurring in the elearning world. Even ‘UK-based courseware developers’ are not as ‘wholly British’ as they might appear. While some of these developers claim to do all their development in the UK, even fewer match up to that claim. As technology has made the world smaller, many companies are outsourcing at least some of their elearning development work to overseas. This work not only takes place in India but also in such places as Eastern Europe and South America.
While elearning-related producers and distributors in other countries see the UK market as ‘fair game’, UK-based companies have been slow to sell their wares abroad – or at least throughout Europe.
LINE Communications operates a thriving office in Zurich and, a few years ago, Tata Interactive Systems – based in Mumbai but with an office in London – acquired a business simulation development company in Germany but these are exceptions to the rule that, generally, UK elearning firms shy away from engaging in continental Europe.
Market trends
So, how do the current elearning market trends in the UK compare with those in the rest of Europe?
According to a recently published survey by the France-based learning and development specialist Cegos, organisations are at odds with employees over the types of learning being developed. Some 50% of employees across Europe want more elearning and blended learning over the next three years, but only 40% of HR professionals plan to develop more programmes using these techniques. In addition, while nearly 50% of learners want to use collaborative tools such as blogs, forums and wikis, less than a third of HR professionals are in favour of these methods of learning delivery. Nonetheless, the UK continues to lead the way with the use of elearning. Almost half of UK employees have taken part in elearning. In France, the figure was closer to 25% of employees.
In 2006, Cegos provided training to more than 150,000 people worldwide and generated revenues of €165.6m, of which 30% came from outside France. Cegos has 10 subsidiaries outside France: in Germany, China, Spain, the UK, Hungary, Italy, Portugal, Poland, the Czech Republic and Switzerland – a network which, so far, no UK-based elearning company can match.
"Elearning has largely disappeared from the EU policy agenda. So we must take a broader vision of next generation learning that is enabled by information and communications technology."

Elmar Husmann, ELIG
Last year, Cegos published another survey which found that the biggest budgets for corporate training occur in France but much of this money is spent on administration rather than on training. The UK spends about a third of French budgets on training but provides its workers with broader access to training materials – and 47% of surveyed companies in the UK are assessing return on investment (ROI), compared with a mere 26% in France.
“Nonetheless,” said Cegos’ elearning director Pascal Debordes, “learners across Europe have the same expectations of elearning materials – notably that they are user-friendly; have high-quality content, design, graphics and interactivity, and contain ‘concrete’ examples and exercises.”
Debordes was speaking at the AGM of the European Learning Industry Group (ELIG) – a group inaugurated, in 2002, by the European Union (EU) to provide input to the EU’s elearning strategy. The AGM delegates, drawn from leaders in the field of learning within the EU, heard Elmar Husmann, a senior policy advisor to ELIG, comment: “Elearning has largely disappeared from the EU policy agenda. So we must take a broader vision of next generation learning that is enabled by information and communications technology. This will include supporting informal learning and knowledge creation via social networks.”
Elearning organisations in continental Europe look to the EU for help in developing new products and systems. EU-funded research projects in this sector – each involving a consortium of at least 10 organisations drawn from countries within the EU – are developing the next generation of ‘technology-delivered learning’ applications and systems. These include the IRMOS Project, which is combining the real and virtual worlds to provide ‘personalised’ learning materials, along with access to coaching and mentoring as well as real time performance support.
Even if the UK still maintains its position as a leading user and developer of elearning materials and systems, its elearning firms are – as yet - under-represented among those selected to work on these EU-funded projects.

 
For over 20 years, Bob Little has specialised in writing about, and commentating on, corporate learning – especially elearning – and technology-related subjects. His work has been published in the UK, Continental Europe, the USA, Singapore and Australia. You can read his blog here.

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