Sunday, October 26, 2003

Resistance to e-learning (still)

People did not want to accept e-learning even as a concept in the early days, and two of the biggest barriers were 1)learners not wanting to take responsibility for managing their own development and 2) trainers not wanting to give up their hierarchical control position. I'm talking about 1997/98 before the hype blitz, when most learners and trainers that I spoke with did not even know what WBT was about, or at best had a primitive superstitious view of it. We all have a need to cling to hierarchies of control, and have anxieties about freedom in a work context.

But the world is changing. Those more entrenched in corporate hierarchies may be unaware of it, but those newly entering the workforce are different than new employees ten or even five years ago. They grew up with technology, and the freedom, even anarchy, that it engenders. Are we "experienced" trainers and consultants to simply ignore the fact that those who populate our world -- those whom we serve -- have different needs, abilities, expectations, and perceptions than those we taught last decade? Are we to ignore the fact that new technologies are enabling new processes for communication and learning? Are we to become like the citizens of the city in Kafka's story whose culture was changed by nomads who suddenly appeared among them, leaving them aliens in their own landscape? In An Old Manuscript, the citizens were accustomed to assaults on their way of life in the old-fashioned military-invasion way, not in the subversive infiltration way. They were left unable to understand the language and customs of the poulation that had appeared within the walls, and could only stand by and watch new norms and new behaviors take over.

Is my view a superficial look from someone who develops e-learning? Far from it. True, I develop e-learning where that is the most appropriate solution for a client. I am primarily a learning strategy consultant (more often recommending classroom-based solutions than online solutions, or some combination of both). And I am a classroom trainer with nearly three decades of experience. I still run classroom courses whenever possible, and I fully understand their value and the value that good trainers add to the learning process.

I am not a technology geek that has descended like a parasite on the training industry without earning my dues -- in fact my comments often upset mainstream e-learning vendors because I see the industry through a trainer's eyes. Learning strategy, objectives and constraints should determine learning solutions, and blindly pursuing e-learning (or classroom learning) is going to produce outcomes that are far from optimal. That's been my mantra for years, yet somehow I often get re-cast as the e-learning zealot. E-learning is not always appropriate, effective, or efficient. Equally, there are instances where classroom solutions may be less effective or less economical.

For example, we run a series of courses that help a company's employees get their heads around the wired world, covering subjects like what the Internet is and why it matters, e-business, e-mail etiquette, security and privacy, and so on. Those courses are most effectively taught by e-learning, and the online courses are, appropriately, structured to be experiential. They are efficient as e-learning because each 6-16 hour course can go for $50 or less online, but has to be priced many times higher to be viable in a classroom.

But I digress. I just don't get why some people in the training field still -- at the end of 2003 -- think of e-learning as a threat and interpret any even vaguely positive reference to the concept as a put-down of classroom trainers. If they really understood e-learning, and its place in the array of available training methodologies, they wouldn't feel so insecure and defensive. The citizens in Kafka's story tried denial, but they lost anyway. They could not defend themselves from the changes that were already within their system. If trainers want to have some control over the evolution of their field, and avoid being marginalized, they should embrace innovation instead of fearing it.

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