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The Way I See It… Getting it Right – Not Getting Away With it

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Charles Gould, Managing Director of BrightWave, believes that when it comes to e-learning style is being confused with subject matter.


There are two distinct audiences that e-learning suppliers consider when they provide their clients with content. The obvious audience is the – usually – large number of potential learners. This is the audience that should fully exercise the minds of the design and development teams in e-learning companies. But there is another important audience that may get more than its fair share of attention when an e-learning product is being conceived. This, of course, is the group of influencers, decision-makers and buyers that account managers and sales directors refer to as ‘stakeholders’. Think for a moment, how different the following two experiences of the same e-learning programme are likely to be.

Stakeholders
First, you are the conscientious learner – well motivated and committed to working, at your own pace, through an on line training course. You know that your achievements in tests will be tracked. You are cognitively receptive and focused on the message, not the medium. In the second scenario, you are a manager representing your business unit in selecting an e-learning vendor. You sit passively and watch as a sales person ‘presents’ to you the highlights of the e-learning programme. Yes, you know that there are interactive exercises and you can see that it addresses the subject it’s supposed to. It looks good and the sales person is convincing talking about ‘engaging the learner’. What else is there to know? Your own experience of e-learning has been mixed and your main priority is that it shouldn’t be ‘boring’.

Of course, the two experiences are entirely different. Yet, it is the group of ‘stakeholders’ that decides what should be supplied: the learning experience is made subordinate to the sales experience. The result has been a focus on style and subject coverage at the expense of learning design. Suppliers have exploited this, focusing on the easy bits, the elements that may garner stakeholder approval.

Does it work?
But amidst all the gloss and gadgetry, there are increasing suspicions that e-learning and training in general, doesn’t really work. A recent survey across 15 European nations, suggests that three in five respondents rate e-learning fair to poor. The hype around e-learning has at least served to expose the reality by raising the stakes, and consequently the attention paid to it. The claims made for e-learning and the bigger budgets and upfront investment it demands mean that its ability to deliver is coming increasingly under the microscope.

The key, of course, is evaluation. Those e-learning players that are in it for the long haul will, ultimately, live or die by the sword of evaluation. Without it, they can hardly expect repeat business from clients nor can they continuously improve their services. US e-learning analyst, Clark Aldrich, thinks the tide is turning. “Buyers are negotiating harder at e-learning contracts, holding providers accountable for performance. And providers are engaging in ‘richer’ dialogue with buyers.”

Learning design
So what really is learning design? Well, it's more than just instructional/pedagogical design. Yes, we need to analyse learning needs, factor in business objectives, be able to structure facts, concepts, principles, and processes and match all these to the specific needs and circumstances of individual clients. But today, with the ever richer toolkit of tools and technologies for learning, learning design is also about selecting and assembling the right elements of learning (face-to-face lectures, on line discussions, multimedia content, books, tutorials, etcetera) and it's about frameworks and environments for learning to happen.

In the end, developers of e-learning content are first and foremost in the business of learning. A few years ago, as the dotcom boom was getting underway, hundreds of Web-design agencies sprang up, many of them making an awful lot of money by simply knowing how to create clever web sites. Today, the small numbers of agencies that have survived have done so by understanding and reacting to the real business needs of their clients. In a few years time, e-learning may still (just) survive as a term and as an industry, but it will be the suppliers who can apply learning design to business needs that will go from strength to strength. The providers that will succeed in the long run are those that work on getting it right not just getting away with it.


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