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On this Day: Just How Significant is Online Learning?


The one topic which seemed to dominate the training and HRD agenda over the past year was online learning. The questions changed - how many people were using it?; which system to use?; would it be cost effective?; how to create greater acceptance?; who had the best content? - but the issue proved a recurring and growing theme which looks set to continue in the year ahead.

A survey carried out by the Epic Group for the Department for Education and Employment in early 1999 found only 5% of companies using online learning at that time, but 23% planning to be use such methods within five years. There was a smaller increase in the projected use of multimedia training and a significant decline from 53% to 31% in the projected use of classroom based training methods over the same period. The Managing Director of KnowledgePool is on record as saying "If you're not learning online by 2002, you'll be unemployable".

Several research studies have demonstrated the very significant cost savings (and increased flexibility of individualised learning programmes) which can be achieved through the use of computer-based learning programmes. And yet resistance to the use of new technology for training and development persists. Just six months ago, at one of the largest UK training exhibitions, I had a company director come up to our stand and ask what we did. On learning that we provided an Internet-based service, his response was "But that means I would need an email account - we can't afford that sort of additional cost, just for people to send me unsolicited junk". That was one customer we didn't recruit that day!

Talking with trainers, HR managers and employees across a range of differently sized organisations, three factors are widely regarded as limitations to the present growth of online learning as a widely acceptable method:

1. People still need other people to support their learning. Technology alone is not sufficient to motivate, encourage and sustain people who are choosing to engage in learning. This is something which the Open University recognised more than twenty years ago; their students appreciate contact from tutors who enquire about their progress and barriers. Many online learning services offer back-up tutors or mentors, but these services tend to be both online themselves, and reactive. What the learner is searching for is a more pro-active human being who initiate contact to sustain the training programme.

2. The content of online learning is still too heavily skewed towards computing and technology subjects. In the workplace, employees have a wide range of learning needs - management development, communication skills, behaviour change, self-awareness, specific skills, knowledge acquisition, etc. Interactive online learning programmes need to embrace this variety in content. CD-roms have shown how multimedia can create engaging multimedia programmes on many topics; increasing bandwidth will permit the migration of these programmes onto the Internet, but at present, all too often, the online content is little more than photocopied pages presented on the screen.

3. The reluctance of senior managers to lead by doing. In too many companies, a discriminatory trend is developing whereby online learning is OK for the basic grade staff, but senior managers and directors still want to retain the 'perks' of going off to seminars, conferences and away-days. Whilst face-to-face networking opportunities are undoubtedly valuable, the reluctance of some senior managers to embrace the networking and learning opportunities of the Internet serves to hinder the adoption of online learning as an acceptable and credible method within the company.

Technology will radically change the way we approach staff development, but without progress on these three issues, online learning will fail to gain the widespread recognition which it deserves as a valuable additional approach to human resource development.

Tim Pickles is a management consultant and author of more than a dozen books and manuals on training and management development subjects. He is the Managing Director of TrainingZone, the UK's largest interactive training, development and HR internet community.


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