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Why elearning doesn’t work


Elearning has its merits, but, argues Mark Walsh, it isn't a cure-all and should be used with other forms of learning.

Elearning is increasingly popular but there’s a problem: It’s not really learning and it doesn’t really work. What! How can I say that? It’s all modern and uses computers and everything! I’m being somewhat flippant but here’s my point – elearning is good at certain things and rubbish at others.

First, I should explain my own perspective as I’m not an impartial observer. I’m a specialist in experiential, interactive and 'embodied training'. I use this approach both because it fits my values and because I’ve found that it’s what’s most effective. I would be equally happy writing an article called 'why traditional classroom learning is a total waste of time' too. I am also no technophobe enjoying Twitter, blogging and my iPhone.

What is learning?

The majority of people in the western world now have close to the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips via the internet, to be more precise they have information, and elearning is a part of this boom. Information isn’t however wisdom as almost any viral internet phenomena will prove! Like the web, elearning is great for learning about things. Like most people I use Google and Wikipedia to find about things and elearning makes this more efficient collecting relevant data in one place, but this is not to learn to do things.

"What about all the advantages of elearning? It’s cheap right? Yes, so is the clock I bought from Poundland and that doesn’t work either."
Think about driving – yes, the theory test is useful, but there is no substitute for lessons. Learning any skill whether it be driving, speaking French or leadership skills, takes real-world practice and bespoke human support. Elearning often misses these two critical points. However, I would add that the growing use of video, customer support and real-time “synchronous” elearning is making this more effective - the irony is, this is making it more effective by making it more like traditional training!

The human touch

Being able to see delegates, resonate with them emotionally, pick up on subtle nuances of communication and respond appropriately is the very essence of education. I believe passionately that training and coaching are not about getting something from one head to another, but are an intimate dance that transforms both parties. We are not computers and if we treat people as such they will rightly resist and rebel.
I highly recommend the new film 'Up in The Air' staring George Clooney. In it a company that makes people redundant tries to switch from face-to-face firing to video conferencing. The film explores the issue of removing this vital 'human' touch. I use this fictitious example to protect the guilty in the real world. I would regard some elearning 'solutions' I have seen applied to human issues (and this definitely includes stress management and leadership training) as not only ineffective but dehumanising and ethically dubious.

Retention of knowledge

Tell me by email I forget. Show me I may remember. Involve all of me (and not just by clicking through a few games) and I really learn.

Second order learning

A whole level of learning that Wikipedia doesn’t touch is when the learner themselves changes. This 'second order' or 'ontological' learning is what is required for lasting behavioural change and therefore impacts on bottom-line results. Take stress and time management training. I’ve seen bad elearning programs which are just like Power Bore slides telling people about stress and time management. This in no way helps with people’s actual stress or time management. More advanced interactive elearning programs may encourage people to set goals and establish practices like regular deep-breathing or list-making to support behavioural change in these areas.
"Learning any skill whether it be driving, speaking French or leadership skills, takes real-world practice and bespoke human support. Elearning often misses these two critical points."
This is a bit better. I have never yet however seen an elearning program which works effectively at the level at being. What do I mean by this? For example - does a person have a set of beliefs about their workload that means they will always be overwhelmed? Is there an embodied tendency to say yes? What is a person’s unique emotional pay-off for consistently being overwhelmed? Unless this level of highly individual learning is accessed 'tricks and tips/tick-box elearning' won’t be effective, and any money spent will be wasted.*
This applies to other areas too, from leadership which I hope is very obviously not learnt from an iPad, to health and safety. Can a person really safely learn manual handling without being given feedback targeted to their specific body and tasks? Traditional classroom learning (which itself can be non-interactive and 'cookie cutter' in its approach) often fails to shift lasting habits – much like those few slides which may or may not even be read.

But what about...


What about all the advantages of elearning? It's cheap right? Yes, so is the clock I bought from Poundland that doesn't work either. If not effective at producing behavioural change (and therefore better results) elearning is hardly good value. Likewise, it can be standardised but this is not usually a good thing for learners and therefore outcomes.
Much of what I have said is also not fair to all elearning providers so feel free to “yeah but...” this article and advertise quality wares that address the issues I raise. My sense is that elearning is definitely improving (there are some great companies here in Brighton alone - hello Brightwave, Kineo and Epic!) I also don’t think that the elearning train is likely to stop, I do however hope it picks up the essence of what learning is all about along the way.

The future

Perhaps blended learning solutions are the future - bringing together the best of elearning and traditional training? Getting some factual learning across electronically before an interactive course and having good e-follow-up for example can make better use of 'contact' time. I also think elearning is a good challenge to stagnant traditional trainers as now they have to offer something that Wikipedia cannot. A concern I have is that increasing demand for elearning will replace subject-matter experts who know their material and how to work with people deeply, with tech wizards and companies large enough to afford the outlay of elearning design. Time will tell, and ultimately what works will prosper.
* See also Kirkpatrick’s work on learning evaluation theory.
Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer of embodied training. Based in Brighton, Sussex, he heads Integration Training - business training providers specialising in management and leadership training, team building, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his training blog.

One Response

  1. elearning may be imperfect
    elearning may be imperfect but it’s a step up from ‘book learning’, which is essentially what happens at universities and colleges around the world.

    Good courses are now highly interactive (it’s 2017 and the article appeared in 2010). They use videos, animations, interactive quizzes, etc. And students use chatrooms to engage with each other. The potential of this form of training is still a long way from being reached.

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