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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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What makes bad elearning? part 1

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Robin Hoyle, head of learning at Infinity Learning, tells us that separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to elearning might be harder than you think.

The answer to this question is 'it depends.'
I know. Not that exciting is it, nor particularly helpful, but to a great extent context is all.
Let's define a few terms first of all, by elearning I mean a packaged application (or linked series of applications) launched on a computer, either locally or from the network. I'm not distinguishing the myriad of technologies used because I've seen amazing elearning content using technologies from the late 80s which blew my socks off prior to Windows being launched on the PC, and I've seen fantastic examples of elearning using the very latest high-end technologies. I've also seen complete dross using terribly sophisticated technology.
"The willingness or ability of the intended audience to learn independently of a trainer is fundamental to whether elearning will work or not."
The other defining feature is that an individual can use it on their own; the training or instruction is embedded into the programme or application and the computer 'teaches' the user. 
Now, right from the off there are a whole host of issues in that sentence alone.  A computer 'teaching' someone something? Is this a weird dystopian vision of the future where, Matrix-like, we are all plugged into a network to have 'knowledge' piped into our memory banks? Are we to be reduced to walking memory sticks? No, but this whole area of self-managed learning is one of the most tricky areas when it comes to what makes a good or bad elearning programme. The willingness or ability of the intended audience to learn independently of a trainer is fundamental to whether elearning will work or not. And that is the crux of bad or good, surely? The worst elearning is found in the programmes which sit unused on the organisational intranet. Bad elearning doesn't get used. Often that is nothing to do with the design of the programme but the culture of the organisation where a desire to learn and an understanding that the individual needs to manage their own learning has not been established; if your learners only ever want to be taught by an 'expert' with PowerPoint slides and handouts and chocolate hobnobs at 11 o'clock, then you're probably on to a loser from the start.
Let's assume that you have sorted the cultural issue and people are prepared to complete some elearning on their own. The easiest way to do this is to make the elearning part of a blend of different interventions. Not because elearning is intrinsically flawed, but because it is very good at some things and very poor at others (as are face-to-face courses).
I'm often invited to observe face-to-face courses on technical subjects prior to the conversion of some or all of the course content into an elearning or a blended programme. Very often, what I witness is a pretty average presenter, displaying PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide with 12-point Arial text in bullet points which animate onto the screen one at a time before being read out to the assembled group – many of whom have been able to read independently since they were about five and some of whom can do so without moving their mouth at the same time.
"I reckon that each time an organisation puts on a course, the real cost associated with every time the course is run is around £2,000 to £2,500."
Bad elearning in many contexts simply replicates this practice but at least does so without adding the myriad costs of taking people out of the workplace for the day - and for a group of 10 people on around average wage that equates to a whopping £960 per group per day! It also avoids the costs of catering, hotels, handouts, trainers and travel. I reckon that each time an organisation puts on a course, the real cost associated with every time the course is run is around £2,000 to £2,500. Run the course 10 times, £20,000+. If all you're going to do with this 20 grand is talk at people for a day, then not only will elearning reduce the cost of repeating the exercise, but it will be quicker, more scalable and more effective. Even pretty rubbish elearning is more effective as a learning tool – that is, more of the information will be retained by the audience – than the endless presentation model.

Part two follows next week.

Robin oversees all learning design activities within Infinity Learning and was nominated for outstanding contribution to the training industry in successive years 2006 and 2007. Robin has been a key speaker at the European eLearning Conference in Monte Carlo, Learning Technologies, Word of Learning, CIPD’s HRD conference, and the HR Forum.
He has a BA Hons in Humanities (Drama) and cognitive psychology from the University of Huddersfield; a certificate in training and development (Institute of Training and Development - now CIPD) and a post graduate diploma in management from Leeds Metropolitan University. Read Robin's TrainingZone.co.uk blog here.

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle
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