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E-learning: extending the boundaries


Prof Malcolm Bennison, Director of Learning at Cambridge Online Learning explores the highs and lows of learning on the net.

E-learning, online learning, blended learning, distance learning - all manner of definitions have been created to encapsulate variations on learning via the Internet.

Yet regardless of the differentiation each is trying to create, all have received mixed reviews from industry and the media alike. So let’s strip back to the bare essentials of ‘delivering education using the Internet’ before delving in to the real successes, weaknesses and future shape of the e-learning marketplace.


Time and costs

There is no doubting the time and cost benefits of e-learning. Business people across the globe are enjoying the freedom of being able to log on at a time and place that suits whilst bean counters marvel at the travel and time advantages over more traditional courses.

An example of this was back in November 2002 when Dell reported that its decision to move 8,500 staff to e-learning had halved its training costs, impacted significantly on accessibility and increased productivity. The move was a huge success, dealing with a host of problems previously caused by the wide geographical spread of its workforce.

This decamp magnifies the ability for worldwide organisations to unite their employees across borders, whilst also developing a knowledge sharing culture. Automatically, such developments lend themselves towards creating a stronger management culture and increased business integration as one half is fully aware of the actions of the other.


Likewise, the e-learning market has lent a lifeline to those who, whether tied to changing shift patterns or working flexibly to accommodate domestic responsibilities, have historically found it difficult to fit training into their schedules.

Whilst we can clearly see the business and personal benefits that the advent of e-learning has brought across a wide spectrum of society, we still haven’t looked at the critical strength that government backing can give to the development of this phenomenon.


In January 2003, we saw the launch of a white paper that confirmed the government’s stance on e-learning – for the first time, learning via the net was integrated as a core educational element as opposed to being treated as an optional add-on.

This position was further qualified with the launch of UKeU last month, driving universities across the UK to incorporate e-learning into their study programmes. With some 12 institutions already signed up, the platform looks set to reach far and wide.

As bystanders to the launch, industry has been in the enviable position of being able to watch and learn from the hurdles our government has had to jump to make UKeU a success. We now know of the trials and tribulations of developing sophisticated systems that mean: students can register securely; progression can be monitored; results moderated; and feelings of isolation are avoided. Business can learn from and build on these early experiences as it continues to advance its own e-learning platforms.


Prep work

Despite having a wealth of resources to hand, secured by the likes of the UKeU launch, business still has a lot to be learnt. Closures of e-learning initiatives are frequent and it is alarming that many of these are from well respected establishments such as the Open University – which lost some 14.5m dollars after failing to attract students to its US venture last year.2 What this teaches us is that no matter how much experience and credibility you have, as an educational provider you must do your homework before rushing to launch.

Guaranteeing quality control

Students are rightly attracted to courses that offer a highly recognisable and respected qualification across the globe, yet this is coupled with an ever increasing sense that e-learning is dumbing down the standing of executive qualifications such as MBAs. Attempts by particular providers to rush ahead and gather more market share by dabbling in overseas franchises with little known providers, has led the way in this downgrading scenario as students realise their qualifications have little weight across certain waters. Ultimately this impacts heavily on the credibility of the e-learning market.

Whilst these problems both come down to strategic planning, there is also a worrying lack of understanding at a delivery level – and e-learning simply won’t gain ground until these issues are ironed out.


The traditional view is that the logistics of e-learning mean face-to-face contact and guidance from tutors is at most minimal. Coupled with the lack of fellow students to engage with in discussing assignments and study, some early e-learning initiatives led to feelings of isolation. The onus on relaying ideas as well as fears and concerns, is now shifting from individual students to communities of colleagues and tutors in which, at any given hour, support is probably more available than from family and friends.


These feelings of alienation are amplified when the course rotates around a purely theoretical programme. The lack of drive to pull students into the midst of their working environment to solve problems in situ and get to grips with the reality of business further embeds a sense of ‘lone learning’. Not only do students qualify based on theory, but those interactive skills that are critical to any employee development have been pushed down to make room for ‘text book’ learning. As a result, businesses are reluctant to opt for e-learning when it comes to looking for providers of practical based qualifications. A clear indicator of this is the admittance by Scottish Power’s head of learning that whilst she enjoys being able to offer a range of training to staff, she believes that there is little scope for e-learning when it comes to developing practical skills such as interview techniques.


So now we’ve looked at the problems posed by e-learning in practice, what can be done to rectify them?

Utilising the central point of contact

On a strategic level, it is time to recognise the strong advantage that e-learning has when it comes to quality control. The focus on one delivery channel ensures that the quality of delivery, available materials and grading can be tightly regulated both internally and externally. This, along with the introduction of a separate certificating body to mark, assess and accredit, will automatically wipe out concerns about the recognition and portability of qualifications.

Firming up support

Delivery wise, e-learning is crying out for a support network and programme that maximises interaction. It is not enough to have a tutor available to simply answer assignment related queries - they also need to play a leading role in ensuring work and online discussion is facilitated, learning plans are agreed, deadlines are set and guidance is provided on available resources.

In addition to subject tutors, a personal tutor and customer services team who are able to monitor students’ habits throughout the lifetime of a course and recognise when things happen out of character, is critical to alleviate the feelings of isolation historically associated with e-learning.

However, support doesn’t have to stop with tutors. The innovation of online meeting places means students are able to discuss ideas with other professionals, who are studying the same course, but from other walks of life and varying levels of expertise. This development enables students to draw on opinions from outside of their immediate working environment whilst again reducing that sense of loneliness.

Learn on the job

Finally, assess the focus your proposed course places on relating assignments to real work-life problems, commonly known as Action Learning. Both employer and employee win with this concept. Trainees engage with work colleagues – developing a keen understanding of how different aspects of business inter-relate, whilst the employer benefits from having instant in-house management consultancy, as those doing Action Learning seek solutions to workplace problems.

Whilst ensuring high levels of interaction, greater self-awareness and an increased ability to be more reflective on the student’s part, Action Learning also answers any debate around ‘theory and practice’ as students graduate with real life skills as opposed to paper qualifications. In a recent CIPD survey assessing the successes of learning processes in 400 organisations across the UK, 43% of respondents recognised project and Action Learning as most effective.

Action Learning and online learning together provide the opportunity to get the best of both worlds when it comes to learning – gaining practice that is of utmost relevance to a role, ensuring continuous interaction and providing the flexibility needed in that role.


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