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Does elearning have a future?


Tarot cardsIn the 1990s elearning was the bright new hope in L&D, promising time- and cost-efficient training, but in reality it promised far more than it could deliver at the time. Ten years on and elearning appears to be casting off its tarnished image and enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Donald H Taylor assesses the lessons learned over the last decade, and asks what next for elearning?

Does elearning have a future? No. And yes. It all depends what you mean by 'elearning'. For many people the term still means centrally-created, text-intensive documents piped down network cables to be read at computers, with learners tracked each step of their tortuous way through the content.

This 'elearning' is based on a set of misconceived notions cooked up about eight years ago. It has little to do with learning, and everything to do with reducing costs by cutting out classrooms. It has no future.

Photo of Donald H Taylor"Encouraged by the dot com frenzy, elearning got a bad name 10 years ago by promising more than it could ever deliver. Now that skills are back on the agenda, it is essential not to make the same mistake again."

But elearning used in its wider sense to mean technology-supported learning is different. In fact, it is so much part of our daily lives that it has already gone past being 'new technology' and has just become a part of our daily lives. Rather in the same way that we no longer marvel at jet planes or CDs, we have accepted computers as easy gateways to a world of information. If you take 'elearning' to mean 'technology-supported learning', then its future is assured.

The old elearning was born looking backwards

Launched at the end of the 1990s, this elearning was founded on a previous computing boom lasting 10 years, a boom that both put the personal computer on your desk and used client/server architecture to hook it up to your employer's servers and centralised applications.

The result: The late 90s saw a functionality arms race between software vendors that resulted in the birth of the Learning Management System (LMS), first in a client/server environment, and then re-cast to use the internet instead of computer networks to deliver content.

But how did the vendors decide what functionality to include in their first LMS? They asked potential clients. The problem with this approach is that while people know what they want (a solution to their daily problems), they do not always know what they could have.

So this approach missed a trick: the trick of doing things better or even differently. Lessons to be read on paper became documents to be read online. That could have been done better. Reading lots of text online is just plain hard work. Why not use the system to chunk it up and deliver pieces of the content according to need? Instruction for just-in-case learning could be delivered differently to reference for just-in-time help.

Another classic opportunity lost early on was the evaluation form. In the client/server environment, evaluation forms which had been handled on paper became evaluation forms which were filled in online, replicating an existing practice of trying to guess whether training had worked after the event. Instead of this, the power of collecting data widely could have been used differently: to collect pre-course skills gap analysis to provide more informed selection of courses before they took place.
Is the newer, technology-supported learning done any better? Usually, but not always. We still use technology to do silly things faster, rather than different things better.

In particular, technology is often used to attempt something it can't do – fix a bad idea. Training on a new IT system weeks before it is deployed is never going to be effective, whether it's done online or in the classroom. Yet both still occur.

And there are some problems that technology alone cannot solve, like understanding complex requests, or providing sensitive guidance. Sometimes you just need a person. A simple example: providing an employee with a large list of possible online courses is not technically difficult, but generally it is only with a thoughtful manager's input that it becomes practically useful.

For all that, the past few years have been a valuable, if sometimes painful, lesson in how to use technology in learning. It is now better understood, and deployed more effectively, than ever before. It is also – importantly – no longer seen as a panacea, but rather understood to be a key part of an overall learning strategy.

This pragmatic understanding of how technology can be used in learning is important for the future for one crucial reason.

Learning is now part of the business

Increasingly, the only way that organisations can differentiate themselves and deliver on their promises is through their people and their skills.

"There are some problems that technology alone cannot solve, like understanding complex requests, or providing sensitive guidance. Sometimes you just need a person."

A decade ago nobody cared about skills. They were never on the inside of the newspaper, let alone on the front page. Today it's very different. Skills finally matter, and that means that L&D is suddenly part of a game a lot of people want to play – whether it is operations, HR or elsewhere. And now that the CEO suddenly cares about skills, everyone wants a piece of the action. If L&D is not playing the game right here, it runs the risk of being at best sidelined, and at worst laid off wholesale while another department takes over.

At this point some in L&D may be tempted to reach for technology as a solution, to suggest that only with a particular piece of software can the business understand and develop its skills. Of course it's true that technology will be an essential part of the mix, but while it is required for a solution, it is not sufficient by itself. Other parts of the mix include: L&D staff with the right skills, good networks with helpful peers outside your employer, and links with managers and executives within your organisation.

And here's the twist - these managers and executives have about as much interest in how you get the job done as you have in the plumbing and wiring of a house when you move in. It's essential. You want to know that it works. But you don't want to know how it works.

Encouraged by the dot com frenzy, elearning got a bad name 10 years ago by promising more than it could ever deliver. Now that skills are back on the agenda, it is essential not to make the same mistake again. Instead, conversations with the rest of business should be couched in the language of business – about performance, rather than learning, about readiness rather than knowledge. Anyone who doesn't talk the right language will be seen – and treated – as a technician rather than a strategist. And in the current climate that's risky. L&D needs to be seen as core to the business, not a technical triviality.

The future of technology-supported learning, then, is a paradox. It is a crucial part of the future of organisational development. But if we want to be taken seriously, we shouldn't talk about it too loudly outside the department.

About the author: Donald H Taylor is chairman of the Learning Technologies conference. He blogs at and


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