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Stop the courses, I want to get off!


SwingDonald Clark, fresh with indignation at Rob Chapman's explosive piece asking whether elearning was just a passing fad, pulls no punches himself in describing 'the curse of the course'.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs, that great staple of 'train the trainer' courses, is typical of the simplistic junk that is thrown about in the training world, but he did have one great line: 'If you walk around long enough with a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail'. That's training, folks. Our hammer is the 'course' – the pat solution for every problem. Our toolbox has little more than a sledgehammer, the 'chalk and talk' courses.

Photo of DONALD CLARK"This tick-the-box, course-driven culture has to stop."

Less is more

The 'course', tied to the triple tyranny of a specific place at a specific time with specific trainers, is seriously outdated. This is why the long-winded residential courses at stately homes are a thing of the past (except in large public organisations and banks – more on this later). Courses have been getting smaller. The week long courses came down to a few days and now we're into hours and even 10 minutes here or there. Technology has also given us on-demand, realtime access to flexible learning. This makes sense in terms of organisational demands as the world becomes real-time, agile and flexible.

I have seen a director of training describe the pride she had in delivering thousands of meals to her trainees at her training centre that year. I have seen millions of pounds wasted on compliance courses that clearly had no effect on the excesses of banks. I have seen diversity courses that have had no effect, and some that were even counterproductive.

"The 'course', tied to the triple tyranny of a specific place at a specific time with specific trainers, is seriously outdated."

Read Harvard's professor Frank Dobbin's major, systematic study and evaluation of diversity training in 708 companies. It's devastating: "Practices that target managerial bias through… diversity training, show virtually no effect... Research to date suggests that… training often generates a backlash." This tick-the-box, course-driven culture has to stop.

Courses and psychology

Courses are also at odds with the psychology of learning. We know that 'spaced practice' is a necessary condition for almost all learning, yet almost all courses do the opposite, delivering large, single doses. We also know that most skills need a 'learn by doing' approach, yet most courses are skewed towards knowledge. We know that learning is about long-term memory, yet most courses focus on short-term memory and assessment. We know that learning needs to avoid cognitive overload, yet most courses suffer from an obesity of content. We know that learning benefits from being situated in the context in which the learning is to be put to use, yet most courses pluck people out of this context. I could go on and on, but perhaps the greatest problem is the sheer lack of knowledge and awareness of the basics of the psychology of learning, and its application in training. It's like engineers who build bridges but know nothing about physics.

Devalued course currency

The only unit of currency in training, is the 'course'. How many training departments have an informal training strategy? Very few, despite the evidence that the majority of what we learn is not through courses, but informally from our colleagues and other sources. Almost all of the budget, in many cases almost every last penny, is spent on formal courses, despite the known fact that the majority of our learning is informal. This is what Jay Cross called the 'spending paradox', not so much a paradox, as business crime.

"In many cases almost every last penny is spent on formal courses, despite the known fact that the majority of our learning is informal. This is what Jay Cross called the 'spending paradox', not so much a paradox, as business crime."

Most Boards pay scant attention to training departments, and maybe for good reasons. First, training departments don't often sell impact-driven, business-focused ideas, they come cap in hand to fund courses. Second, they come with platitudes such as 'People are our greatest asset' – they're often not; users, customers, IP, brands, cash and property can be greater assets. Third, they're mired in new-age, faddish and non-empirical theories and practices; learning styles, NLP, Maslow, Vygotsky, Gagne, Kirkpatrick. Fourth, all of these board members have been on training courses and have seen how long-winded, inefficient and non-business focused they can be, that's why they no longer participate in the course culture. Courses are too long and life's too short.

Stop the courses, I want to get off

Wouldn't it be right to simply say 'stop' to the excesses of course-based training and look to more sophisticated, responsive and agile models in learning. Apply the psychology of learning, to cut, slice and stop as many of your courses as you can by subjecting them to much stricter criteria for success. Go to the board with cost savings before they come to you.

Peter Honey may have inflicted us with personally what I think are meaningless and misleading 'learning styles', but he did pen a great paper in 1974 called, 'Stop the courses, I want to get off', in which he recommended an immediate halt to courses as an experiment and included fines for even mentioning the word. He had a point.

Donald Clark was CEO and one of the original founders of Epic Group plc, which established itself as the leading company in the UK elearning market, floated on the Stock Market in 1996 and sold in 2005. Describing himself as ‘free from the tyranny of employment’, he is now a board member of Ufi LearnDirect (Government agency delivered elearning to 2.5 million learners), LINE Communications (elearning production), Caspian Learning (learning games tool provider), LearningPool (public sector elearning), Brighton Arts Festival, and a school governor. He has produced over 40 papers, dozens of book reviews and many articles on elearning. Donald has also won many awards for the design and implementation of elearning, notably the ‘Outstanding Achievement in e-learning Award’. He is a regular speaker at national and international conferences and has won best speaker awards at several conferences. He is also a regular (and controversial) blogger on elearning and blogs at:


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