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Online learning and learning outcomes


In this article for TrainingZONE, David Groom of online learning developers Nelson Groom discusses how different types of learning outcome require different types of online learning.

Diffused and focused learning

Online learning is either a sinister threat to high quality training or the elixir of eternal knowledge. Nothing seems to divide the professional training community with such passion as the arguments over online learning and yet much of this debate is misconceived because it argues about the wrong issues. The real challenge is not the standoff between classroom training and online learning but rather the need to focus on the outcome that the learning/training is intended to achieve. The learning outcome should define the appropriate method of learning delivery.

The flexibility of online learning in terms of time, place and cost is well established. Less understood is the range of learning outcomes in the workplace that it can support. Much of the public discussion dwells on the way online learning can enable individuals and organisations to acquire new skills, as in the UfI initiative and the wider brief of the Learning and Skills Council. However it can also be used as a powerful tool in driving overall development, especially within the SME sector. The important point is to recognise that different types of learning outcome require different types of online learning.

Achieving learning outcomes

We have engaged with the conflicting demands of different learning outcomes by creating two different types of online learning: focused learning to enhance business skills and technical knowledge and diffused learning to encourage personal and/or business development. Diffused learning sees a small change in many; focused learning a large change in few.

Focused learning

Focused online learning is rooted in the traditional techniques of classroom instruction. It is usually curriculum based and tightly structured, leading the learner through each module with regular tests and self assessment to ensure that the knowledge has been acquired. Focused learning is well suited to introducing a new process, as in quality or financial control, or wherever the learning outcome requires an understanding of a method, procedure or rule. It is widely used within the software industry to support professional accreditation such as the Microsoft Certified Professional programmes.

One of our current challenges illustrates this; it is the creation of a focused learning resource to help train a sales force in the theory of option pricing. As this is a complex subject, the online resource complements a half day of classroom instruction. It reinforces the classroom learning and builds confidence in the application so that the sales force can use the knowledge in discussing portfolio management with clients. The online resource is also then available on the sales person's laptop as a permanent reference and refresher.

Focused learning is therefore intended to bring about a large change in few. New skills are learnt by tackling each module in a traditional and schematic way. By delivering the learning online the modules or chunks of learning can be broken down into small units or linked together into larger programmes depending on the learning outcome required and they can be accessed by dispersed groups of learners that cannot be brought together in a classroom.

Diffused learning

Diffused learning is appropriate when the learning outcome is to change perceptions and open the learner's mind to new ways of tackling problems. It relies on the learners' own experience to motivate them to explore and evaluate the learning resource. The information and learning activities within the diffused learning resource have to be highly relevant otherwise learners soon lose interest. In many respects diffused learning is as much about communicating best practice as formal learning. The programmes we have created for various SME industry groups, demonstrate the power of diffused learning in whetting the appetite; in this case about the potential for e-commerce to develop their businesses.

Targeting the learning to your audience is key. Recently we created a learning resource for the road haulage industry. John Faulkner, chairman of the Kent distribution and transport sector group and managing director of Intercity Trucks, was heavily involved in the project as an industry advisor. He knew that road hauliers would be reticent in setting aside time to engage with a formal learning programme on e-commerce but as he said," most hauliers use electronic communications, mobile phones and text messages without realising that they have joined the electronic age". It needed a diffused learning resource, packed with highly relevant industry information and specific road haulage web links, to get them inspired and excited.

The learning resource

Our experiences have led us to view the online learning resource as comprising of two complementary websites, a learning centre and an information centre, tailored to the specific demands of the learners. The flexibility of the whole programme encourages learners to navigate the material at their own pace and in their own way, using their own commercial savvy to investigate information relevant to their particular organisation. While a rigorous design underlies the learning programme, learner access is deliberately kept unstructured and free. The learning takes place through the interplay of the learning resource and the information resource as the learner explores the material both within the programme and outside on the web, through the rich network of links.

Certainly the road haulage programme illustrated how diffused learning can stimulate business development initiatives among SME executives unwilling or unable to spend much time in formal class training. Susan Filby, Continuous Business and Development Manager at Business Link Kent commented, " Road hauliers are not used to an environment where they should explore…I think online learning is a useful tool to raise awareness that there are different ways of learning".


There is considerable potential for using diffused learning in other situations, both within business and beyond. It is a powerful tool wherever there is a need to communicate important new messages or corporate ambition to a large and dispersed organisation or a business community.

This is demonstrated by some of our experiences in this area, which include a major new product launch and a corporate rebranding for a multinational involving several thousand employees in five countries. In each case the desired learning outcome is to open the minds of a large number of people to the potential of the new product and the new identity, and illustrate how it will affect each individual. As the individuals access the learning resource they will explore the sections most relevant to their own responsibilities using the information resource designed for their department or function. Diffused learning programmes will not replace other forms of corporate communication but provide a new way of driving the message deep into the organisation, reaching the parts often impervious to glitzy presentations and glossy brochures.

Lessons to be learnt

There is a clear lesson from our experience. Choose the style of learning resource that delivers the desired learning outcome: focused learning to teach business skills and technical knowledge and diffused learning to open peoples' minds to new ways of developing themselves and/or the business.

Online learning can facilitate the achievement of both learning outcomes when planned and executed by someone who understands and supports the requirements of the business or organisation. Of course it maybe that a combination of the two can be used to even greater effect, as long as the desired learning outcomes are clearly defined.

The author

David Croom is co-founder of Nelson Croom, a developer of online learning materials. David created the well-known publishers Routledge, by merging four print publishers, and then continued for several years as a Thomson general manager. He developed the core idea behind Nelson Croom whilst studying medieval history at Bristol University.

David Croom
Nelson Croom Ltd
N307 Westminster Square
1-45 Durham Street
SE11 5JH
020 7582 3309


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