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Elearning: Haven’t we been here before?


Uphill struggleMartyn Sloman experiences a case of déjà vu as he reveals the results of the elearning element of the CIPD's annual survey. Elearning he says has definitely arrived, but it still faces an uphill struggle to reach its full potential.

The results of this year's CIPD learning and development survey could not be clearer when it comes to elearning. We have made a lot of progress, know where we are, know what we have to do and know how to go about doing it. That's the good news. The bad news is that there is an awful lot of noise around which could prevent that message getting across.

That noise comes from the elearning industry, many in government who continue to regard elearning as an attractive quick fix for the skills agenda, and indiscriminate commentators. Nothing new here. As the US baseball icon and wit Yogi Berra once commented; "its déjà vu all over again".

This is a shame since we've learned so much and, if we avoid the hype, over-optimism, and sheer confusion of vocabulary that seems to surround every consideration of HR and technology, we could construct an attractive and purposeful forward agenda.

Let's start with the facts. This year we at the CIPD conducted our 10th annual survey. Nearly 800 learning and development professionals completed the questionnaire including a series of questions on elearning. A similar series had been included in our 2002 and 2005 surveys.

Photo of Martyn Sloman"57% reported that they are using elearning... What this proves beyond any doubt is that elearning has arrived. It is firmly established as a key part of training delivery."

In our 2008 survey more than half of the respondents (57%) reported that they are using elearning. This is the first time that the proportion has topped 50%. Of those who are not using elearning more than one quarter (27%) plan to do so over the next year. What this proves beyond any doubt is that elearning has arrived. It is firmly established as a key part of training delivery.

No questions were asked in the survey on the type of elearning that respondents are implementing in their organisation. However we have acquired a good base of knowledge from our contact with organisations. This suggests that the predominant form of elearning is web-based modules which are specifically produced for the organisation concerned. By way of illustration see the case studies on 'Implementing and Reporting on Basic Skills Training' at Hilton International, 'Integrated Elearning' at Cable & Wireless and 'Embedded elearning in the Crown Prosecution Service' on our website at

So there is positive and consistent progress, but undoubtedly problems remain in implementation and acceptance. In each of the three surveys that concentrated on elearning (2002, 2005 and 2008) respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of statements on elearning. The same list of statements was included in each of the three years. Two statements have now emerged at the top of the list and seem to command near universal support. One is 'elearning is effective when combined with other forms of learning' (95% support) the second is 'elearning demands a new attitude on the part of the learner' (92% support).

The truth of the first statement has been reinforced by the near-universal acceptance of the term blended learning – which features in countless journal articles and conferences. The idea that a range of approaches is required to generate and maintain learner interest is hardly new. Blended learning reminds us that simply making elearning content available on the web and at an individual's PC and hoping something happens is not likely to be effective.

The second statement reminds us that elearning is about the learner not technology. After an extensive international research project we have offered the following as the role definition for the trainer: "Supporting, accelerating and directing learning interventions that meet organisational needs and are appropriate to the learner and the context". In elearning, learner and context are even more critical.

However, even after almost a decade, elearning is still not loved by trainers or learners. A series of answers in our survey indicated that, in organisations using elearning, it is likely to be offered to about 60% of the employees, but taken up by only 30%.

Respondents to our survey were asked: "Which of the following training and development practices do you believe are most effective?" They were invited to choose three practices from an extended list. Elearning came next to bottom with 7% of respondents including it as one of the three – by contrast the more human-touch interventions of in-house development programmes and coaching, attracted 55% and 53% respectively. When asked the direct question "How effective do you think elearning is as a learning and development intervention?", only 8% stated "very effective" with the majority (64%) saying that it was "fairly effective".

At present, according to our survey results, in those organisations that are using elearning, it now accounts for about 12% of "total training time". This is far below the 30% figure recorded for the United States in 2006 by the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) who are remarkably sanguine about progress and prospects.

"Respondents to our survey were asked: "Which of the following training and development practices do you believe are most effective?" Elearning came next to bottom with 7%... by contrast the more human-touch interventions of in-house development programmes and coaching attracted 55% and 53% respectively."

Optimism for the future of e-learning is rife. As well as asking what percentage of training time is currently delivered through elearning (12%) we asked what this figure would be in three years time. This produced the answer 27%. This phenomenon 'We'll all get it right over the next three years' has been observed in previous CIPD surveys and earlier ASTD surveys.

What this all shows is that we still need to undertake a lot of hard work in our organisations if elearning is to be fully embedded. The potential of making up-to-date information available to a distributed workforce at their PC is immense. So too is the benefit of allowing motivated workers to share and build knowledge in electronic communities.

The hype doesn't help. One of our key roles at the CIPD is to provide a realistic assessment of current trends and produce reports, factsheets and tools which can assist our members in achieving maximum effectiveness in their organisation. In February we commissioned researchers from the University of Glasgow to undertake a review of Web 2.0/social networking and we await their findings with interest. Currently there is a huge interest in how this new form of collaborative activity can assist learning in organisations. As ever the potential is there: as ever it is very hard to distinguish the substance behind the promotional articles. Positive scepticism will continue to be needed for some time to come.

Martyn Sloman is the CIPD's adviser for learning, training and development.

For more details about the full CIPD annual survey look out for a feature which will appear on site and in our email bulletin on Monday, 14 April.

The CIPD HR Software show will be held on 18-19 June 2008, in London. For more details, please log onto:


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