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Parkin Space: Is E-Learning Missing the Point?


I am passionate about e-learning in principle, but pragmatic about it in application. And I am perturbed by the direction in which it is moving.

I have been immersed in this world of e-learning for too many years, have linked learners, mentors, and knowledge through too many corporate firewalls, battled too many IT policy makers, been frustrated by too many miracle software packages, been disappointed by too many consultants, and confronted too many medieval prejudices, to be anything but pragmatic.

Yet there’s a very simple, powerful, burning light that all of us need to keep in focus: properly used, the internet frees learners and instructors from the constraints of time and space, which in turn unleashes economical one-on-one communication and experience-sharing on a scale unprecedented in history. Any online learning model which uses the internet merely as a cheap means to broadcast canned courses is missing the point. And so many do. There is no excuse – not even pragmatism – for such a widespread failure of the imagination.

While every corporate university needs its library of knowledge and self-paced courses, it can actively add huge value by embracing the power of the web as a catalyst for knowledge-cultivation, making every employee both a coach and a learner, continuously.

So why is it not happening? Why is it that almost every project that I get involved in is seeking to use technology to re-centralise the locus of control, to choke off collaboration, and to make learning more tightly administered than ever before?

I was talking with a new client today who has a new Chief Learning Officer. That person wants to throw out all of the organically-evolved and extremely effective e-learning solutions currently in play and start from scratch. Well, nothing wrong with a new broom. But it’s the strategy for “starting from scratch” that I take issue with: they want to first get a new LMS and then build new courses that can run on it. Their argument, in essence, is that you first need a good foundation before you can build. My counter-argument is that you first need a clear idea of what you want to build before you lay the foundations.

I think that the LMS has become an end in itself, the new vehicle by which senior training people conspicuously wield their power and importance. And what status symbols they have become! At a recent symposium I shared a lunch table with two rather senior training executives from different companies. One alluded, with some pride, to the fact that he had spent nearly half a million dollars on a new LMS. The other smugly announced that he had spent over two million, and that was before the integration costs. Not only does a new LMS give you something to boast about, it lets you have total control over every micro move that learners and trainers make. If you were not a bureaucrat before the e-learning revolution, you can’t help becoming one now.

Imagine for a moment that e-learning does not exist, there are no courses online, and the vast momentum of “the industry” is not pushing us along. A complete outsider might look at how people learn in a corporate environment, might acknowledge that some small percentage of learning takes place in formal structured experiences, and might see that the overwhelming amount of learning takes place informally, through experience, mentoring, and networking of knowledge. The outsider might see the extent to which just-in-time random-access help leads to perpetual performance improvement, might wonder at the power of social learning networks, and might marvel at the initiative and diligence of the average learner.

Then that outsider might decide to foster an industry geared toward applying technology to amplify those processes where the corporation stands to gain the most from the least input. The result would be nothing like e-learning as we know it today, and the focus of the technology would not be on central administration and control.

It’s not too late for learning back out of this pretentious, claustrophobic little cul-de-sac and rediscover the freedom, creativity, and infinite potential of the information superhighway.

* Read more of Godfrey's columns at Parkin Space.


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