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Interview of the month: David Wilson, eLearnity


Founded in 1996, eLearnity specialise in consultancy for technology-based learning, advising and helping to implement e-learning programmes within organisations.

eLearnity will help an organisation to identify suitable methods of course design and development, technical customisation and integration, and implementation support using a range of products including e-Learning technologies from Asymetrix, Centra, Lotus, Macromedia and Microsoft.

eLearnity is aiming to become known as the leading independent consultant and commentator on e-learning.

TrainingZONE spoke to founder and MD David Wilson, who was previously a principal consultant at QA training.

TrainingZONE:eLearnity have been in the e-learning business for a relatively long time. What's changed about the market in that time - are the customers better informed about what they are looking for? Obviously there's been a lot of growth in the marketplace..

David Wilson:When we started, e-learning was a minor niche market - the other areas of technology-based learning such as CDROMs were far more important. Over the last 4 years, e-learning has gone from being a component to a driving force. In the last six to nine months, everyone has been re-inventing themselves as an e-learning provider. To say there has been a lot of growth is an understatement - the scale of the market has been completely transformed. E-learning is now a central part. There has also been a shift in the attitude of the corporates. It used to be the case that there were a limited number of players who were visionaries, now everyone is interested and this has transferred into real doing rather than thinking. I would say that as a result of the market growing there is more confusion about e-learning though.

TrainingZONE:Presumably the White Paper was an attempt to address this?

David Wilson: The White Paper was to do with finding a simple way of giving people advice. It also helped us to become more associated as being a place to go for advice relating to e-learning.

TrainingZONE:Have you had much of a response from it?

David Wilson:We've had an amazing response from it - 1100 organisations have had a copy, and we were only expecting 300 - 400. Also, it's mainly people coming to us for the information - we haven't done any big mail-outs. Most of the requests have come through the website, and we know there are more who have downloaded copies from there and passed them on to others.

TrainingZONE:What do you think is behind the impetus for e-learning? Is it driven by demand from companies, or is it those developing the technology who have been behind it?

David Wilson:In the early days, it was very much the case that people were more visionary. Some of these were 'techie' people, but it's easy to become too focussed on the technology rather than what it's intended to do. Our defining approach to e-learning is its about putting people back into the learning process rather than designing people out. One of the first things we did was to get involved with the Lotus project (Lotus LearningSpace), which was looking at how people were interacting with the technology. Now e-learning has become a reasonably hot management topic, and there's been quite a big shift in corporate investment in e-business in general.

TrainingZONE:Are you getting requests from people interested in developing Knowledge Management systems?

David Wilson:Yes, but some are more 'on the bandwagon' than others. Some are more focussed on learning in its own right. There's a high overlap, a high coherence between Knowledge Management and e-learning, but it's often easier to provide evidence of adding value to the business with e-learning than Knowledge Management. The value of learning i.e. performance is harder to measure, but should be more tangible than some of the more esoteric areas of Knowledge Management. With training in organisations, there are issues to do with compliance and tracking skills involved.

TrainingZONE:What are your views on delivering soft skills training online?

David Wilson:Our approach has always been to focus on a people-centric approach, by integrating e-learning with other components to create programmes of learning. We're in the business of re-engineering classroom-based learning, by thinking about how we do some of it online, and some in the classroom. Take a 4 to 5 day classroom-based course, some of which covers soft skills and some knowledge transfer. You can deconstruct this to do the knowledge transfer first online, and then can shrink the classroom part to take place afterwards, focussing this on higher value face-to-face time rather than learning facts or terminology.

TrainingZONE: So there is definitely still a role for trainers there then? Some of them will be concerned that their job is disappearing as a result of the new developments in technology.

David Wilson:There are a couple of key things to note. One is that there are much greater opportunities opening up - training is now at front of list rather than back of list, and the momentum for change creates significant business opportunities. The other thing is that you can't just replace lots of things you do in the classroom. There is absolutely still a need for mentoring, coaching and focussed workshops, and these components gain a higher value as the more mundane things are done online. The opportunity is there for people to embrace the opportunity to enhance their roles, but I can see that there is a large threat element because it's all about change. Vendors say, save money and do it online, which is a clear threat message to trainers.

With the overall shift to people doing things online, at some point, someone will start worrying about whether anyone is learning anything doing it this way. What will happen is that demand for online support and facilitation will become more important.

TrainingZONE: Do you think there are problems in standardising the quality of content for e-learning?

David Wilson:In a word, yes! A lot of people are chasing a 'holy grail' around interactive content. The reality is that high quality online content is very expensive to introduce, and many companies don't realise this.

Whether to make in-house or buy in training is a perennial question. The cost of developing e-learning now is potentially huge, which is why so far much of it has focussed on generic areas of training, such as the Microsoft packages and health and safety training which are available off-the-shelf.

The key thing for an organisation to understand is that volume (of staff being trained) isn't necessarily a good thing in terms of value to the company. The key things are going to be business-specific and corporate-focussed. An important question for e-learning is how to address organisation-specific training, because focussing on customer-specific content can become very expensive. For example, the cost to create web-based content for product roll-out training can be prohibitive, and can also take a long time to do.

We focus instead on designing integrated programmes and platforms and architecture to support multiple methods of delivery, such as live e-learning delivery and virtual classrooms. This way, I can take PowerPoint slides and run a live event with anything from 20 - 200 people who are sitting at their desktops within an hour, and will be able to focus on specific points which are relevant. The timescales involved are much faster, that's why we need rich models of e-learning.

TrainingZONE: TrainingZONE workshops operate using this kind of technology, for example.

David WilsonYes, and that's a good analogy, that kind of way of delivering things with audio and video. Application sharing can enable us to deliver custom content to a large audience base and make it interactive, giving the opportunity to ask questions just like a classroom environment.

TrainingZONE: Do you think the solution is authoring tools for small organisations?

David Wilson:Well, I think the ability to consume off-the-shelf solutions will increase. Portals and gateways are often very public at the moment, which is a problem - either that or they're geared to large companies. The thresholds will definitely decrease, making these services more suitable for small-to-medium businesses, and authoring tools such as macromedia will get easier and better, but it still won't be like using a word processor. The increased availability of hosted platform solutions like Centra will help - there'll be a greater chance to buy access to this technology on a per-usage basis, which will make it more accessible to smaller companies. We're still a way off ASPs (application service providers) in reality.

TrainingZONE:What are the main differences in evaluating e-learning compared to evaluating traditional methods of delivering training?

David Wilson:One of the advantages of e-learning is to be able to build evaluation into process into the thing itself. With assessment of performance, a lot of work needs to be done around creating simulations and testing. Because we can now 'touch' the student after they've left the training room via their desktops, we can put measures of assessment into doing the job itself. By carrying out pre-qualification testing, you can also alter the training programme to fit the individual. How much of this is being done at the moment is unclear, but it echoes the shift in HRM to competence-based assessments.

TrainingZONE:We're nearing the end of the interview. To conclude, are there any tips on developing an e-learning strategy you'd like to give TrainingZONE members?

David Wilson:Number one: talk to someone who knows what they're talking about! There is a lot of marketing being done, and a lot of money being put into selling e-learning products, which can make it confusing. Everyone is trying to sell you something - there's very little objectivity.

The problem is that companies often lack a real understanding of what they want to achieve. eLearnity make our assessment of what they're trying to do first and then work to develop a longer term approach. It's easy to invest in off-the-shelf content which isn't part of a longer term model. The problem is that most of the underlying technologies are different - they stand alone and aren't compatible with other technology. For this reason, it's important to own the architecture of the system

Lack of objectivity and independence in the market is a real problem. We have had experiences where we have gone to talk to people who have had people in trying to sell them things - we have to explain that these companies are just going to configure their product to fit the company. It's important to understand that a technology product vender won't always be able to deliver other services such as content management.

One thing we do is that we always try to get people to get their hands dirty, because one of the main things is that people need to develop an understanding of what online learning is first. We will then work with them to build a framework and run some pilot projects first alongside a strategic plan - it's important to develop a plan for e-learning which will grow over the next few years, so that it links with business strategy.


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