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The Future for E-Learning


David Wilson is founder and Managing Director of Elearnity and one of the leading authorities on learning innovation and e-learning in Europe. He speaks to TrainingZONE about the present and the possibilities for e-learning.

Has e-learning come of age, or does it still have some way to go before it reaches its potential?

An interesting question Claire, in reality I think both are true. E-learning is definitely a mainstream capability in many of the leading corporate adopters, and there has been a well established and fairly robust supply-side market for e-learning for a number of years. So e-learning is now a fairly mature and is becoming increasingly pervasive in many market sectors and companies.

But that doesn’t mean it’s like that everywhere, or that e-learning is fixed in what it can do. We still encounter large organisations that have little use of e-learning, or are only piloting it. Whilst there is a perception that this is driven by learner acceptance, actually we see it as more of an L&D cultural issue first, and then a combination of infrastructure and learner acceptance second.

While e-learning might be a mature capability it’s still evolving rapidly. It’s diversifying away from the structured e-course model that came from computer/web-based training, towards a more holistic view of technology-enabled learning with many approaches and solutions.

Where does e-learning truly excel and where do you feel it has its limitations?

If by e-learning you mean e-courses, I would say they have a role in supporting basic knowledge or skills development in almost in any area. The key thing they deliver is a consistent learning approach on a scalable distributed basis. That’s a huge advantage for a large organisation or for training large numbers of people. This especially works well for the “acquisition” part of the learning process, and for some subjects, also for “practicing” it too. This is especially true for anything involving an IT system, or that can be modelled into an online role-play or simulation.

Other aspects of e-learning, such as e-assessment, can be used very broadly for all forms of learning, both for formal testing and assessment, and also for personal diagnosis to streamline the learning process. Both of these areas are very interesting now and very generally applicable in most mainstream learning programmes.

I haven’t just said use e-learning for compliance, which has been a massive driver for e-learning over the last few years. It’s not that I think e-learning isn’t any good for compliance, of course it is. But e-learning has been unnecessarily pigeon-holed as a tool purely for compliance and mandatory learning in many organisations. Clearly there are big benefits for compliance; both in terms of consistency and scalability, but also because of the automatic tracking and reporting benefits as well. But e-learning can and should be being applied more generally, both as a standalone solution and integrated into blended programmes, and also for assessment, performance support, specialist advanced learning and so on.

What is it not good for? I think e-courses definitely have their limitations, partly because of the constraints for doing them properly, and sometimes due to subject matter. People often focus on subject matter limitations but I am less convinced. I think you can find high quality and effective e-learning on almost any subject you can think of. But delivering structured e-courses that require 30 minutes plus to complete obviously creates constraints. Elearnity’s research shows a shift towards performance support and referenceware materials for just-in-time needs, and collaborative learning tools for deeper learning needs. It’s about horses for courses, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

When it comes to rapid e-learning, often members ask which tool is best. In your opinion is there much difference between products, and what are the limitations of rapid e-learning?

In my opinion, there’s much too much attention at the moment on the tools part of the rapid e-learning question. There’s no doubt that rapid e-learning is a growing area in nearly all corporates, and much of the current debate is about tool selection. But Elearnity’s research doesn’t endorse this. Yes a bad tool will be a barrier, but a good tool is not a guarantee of success. The biggest issues are around process and expertise rather than tool. And by process I mean the whole process, not just the development task.

Rapid e-learning for most companies is part of what I described as the diversifying of e-learning. It is about collapsing the supply-chain for e-content and pushing it closer to the subject expert, either directly with them doing it, or with someone they can work with closely. To do that you need tools than can be used by non-e-learning specialists, and you need to create valid learning, and that is the challenge. Companies have comprehensively proved with PowerPoint that they can generate tons of presentation materials, but how much of it is high-quality learning? Rapid tools can aggravate that problem further – especially if the people producing it don’t have instructional expertise or understanding. They may know about the subject matter, but do they understanding “learning”?

Content is only useful if its accessible and usable, and if its valid. There are big challenges for organisations with many people creating content, but then trying to push it through a narrow pipe (called their e-learning team) to get it loaded onto the corporate LMS.

In short, rapid e-learning concepts are an important part of the diversification of e-learning, and have a real role to play in enabling local content creation. But they are part of a much larger story, and the short term exclusive focus on tools is misplaced.

There is a good deal of talk about how a VLE/intranet can facilitate informal learning. Do you feel that the potential of technology is being explored by organisations in this respect?

Informal learning emerged last year as a big topic amongst the market commentators, but I don’t think it has really impacted mainstream corporate thinking yet. Some of the leading corporates have been publicly talking about it, but most organisations are still focusing on their formal learning agenda. I don’t expect this to change much this year, but maybe it will become more of an explicit issue in 2008 and beyond.

I do think that technology has a role to play with informal learning, but we need to understand what we mean by informal first. This is where all the discussion of “80% of all learning is informal” starts getting a bit vague. For example, is coaching formal or informal? Is spending some time with a colleague to learn how to do something, formal or informal? Is accessing some performance support materials live in the work process, formal or informal? A lot of learning in companies is not managed or tracked by L&D but that doesn’t make it informal. It can very structured, and facilitated or delivered by professional training staff or coaches, but it isn’t described centrally as a formal programme or course.

Technology can clearly help facilitate informal processes of learning, both through search and through access to content and to people. Arguably the biggest learning tool on the planet is called the Internet, and one of its main LMSs is called Google, but that’s not how people think about it. Adoption of more informal thinking internally within companies, coupled with tools for live collaboration will be the start. But I also expect to see more pressure on integration of learning processes and content with work processes and content. At the moment they tend to be pretty distinct in most companies, but informal learning will blur the boundaries. At the back-end, this will also mean growth in content management and integrated search as well.

How have technologies such as podcasting, wikis etc added to the potential of e-learning?

As someone who spends most of their life learning online and informally, especially over the Internet, I find podcasts on their own to be too limiting. I have to listen to the thing to find out whether it’s worth listening too, which is nonsense. Having said that, I still feel it’s an important direction, especially for delivery to mobile and non-visual devices.

In some recent research we did only 13% of early adopter companies were using Wikis for learning on a regular basis. So they are not mainstream yet (for learning). But the concept of collaborative self-generation of learning content is a really powerful idea – especially when if you can everyone engaged as an active participant. Research shows that retention of learning is significantly enhanced if you become the teacher rather than just the learner.

This dynamic is under explored currently and I think it has potential to be very useful, particularly for developmental learning rather than basic knowledge acquisition. But as with any collaborative approach, there are the problems of non-contribution (lurking), editorial control, and so on. But these can be resolved. I expect we will see more use of Wiki-like approaches in the future, although probably with embedded learning structure in the Wiki templates to make it easier to manage and validate the learning process and outcomes.

And finally, how do you feel we will be learning in five years time?

Ah the million dollar question! Well I guess that partly depends a bit on how you are learning now!

If you are currently (individual or organisation) still pretty much focused on formal and traditional learning approaches, then I think the next five years will see slow but increasing change. Increasing pressure of business will force you to change your assumptions about how, where and when you learn. You will have to be learning online and probably by mobile devices just to keep up, and keep compliant.

You will be using e-assessment to focus your learning time as well as to certify you’ve completed it successfully. Much of your learning time will be tracked and reported (you’re in that kind of company), and tracking will help you access learning that is more relevant. Much of this is available today, but it will have become pervasive, at least within large organisations.

If you already learn online, and mainly informally or through your own research on the Internet or through your personal network, then I think things will change even more significantly.

Learning anywhere will become a key requirement, via any connected device. Much of your learning will be informally delivered, but through formal mechanisms to help you find it, access it, and deliver it using a variety of media types depending on your context. Much of this will be about access to people, not just access to content. All of it will need to be focused on your specific needs or context, and to be integrated with other learning mechanisms to add more depth or context when you need it. More learning will be collaborative rather than individual, both synchronous and asynchronous.

Companies will need to offer a holistic learning environment, skewed to delivering the above services rather than generic learning content. Formal learning programmes will still exist but be a lower proportion of recognised learning time. Programmes will be blended learning processes, utilising e-learning and face-to-face learning time to maximise value and impact, and to maximise flexibility.

There are other new areas of learning for which we expect to see increasing adoption. I have talked about wikis and collaborative tools already. We also expect to see increasing use of gaming and complex simulations, and use of intelligent learning agents to aggregate and to personalise learning for you. Will this happen in five years? Yes, at least in part, but many of the mainstream implications of it will be beyond that period.

In summary, much of the technology to do this is around today, but it’s not well-connected or pervasive. The challenge for many big organisations will be to be able to consume this fast enough to stay up with some of their more nimble competitors. This is especially difficult on a global stage, and when you have to migrate a corporate IT infrastructure. But there will be an increasing realisation that not learning like this is an indulgence that the majority cannot afford, either in cost, but most of all in terms of time.

* David Wilson will speak at the Learning Technologies Conference on 31 January.


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