Monday, July 26, 2004

The future of e-learning

Today's newsletter from the UK's TrainingZone featured an article by Amy Finn of Centra, talking about trends in e-learning.

I agree completely with much of what she says, but disagree strongly on parts of it. Such is e-learning..

The industry latched onto “e-learning” as a term a few years ago. But I think it needs to go back to something like “technology-enhanced learning” because e-learning has come to mean (in common use) only a narrow part of the spectrum – usually courses online or live Web-conferencing. The author says that e-learning is here to stay, but it's not. As a term it will die out rapidly (it is already slipping from prominence in the US and Canada) as people realize what a poor descriptor it is of the wide range of things that are happening with technological backing. And as a concept it is evolving so rapidly in so many directions that the e-learning of last year is so different from the technology-enhanced learning of this year, that you can’t really even compare them.

I also don’t buy the author's notion of "e-learning as a business strategy". E-learning will not “continue to become a driving force in business and industry”. Performance improvement may become a driving force, but e-learning is merely a means. And it will not be that high a profile anyway, because there are many other things which feed into performance improvement. E-learning cannot be a business strategy in itself. Learning should be driven by business strategy, and the appropriate mix of available resources, human and technological, should be deployed to support that business strategy.

That is not to say that learning professionals should not have a seat at the business strategy table – they are appallingly under-represented in my view. But I think we need to think beyond the manifestation of technology-enhanced learning when we look at what is really strategically vital to an organization. The view that “smart organisations know that eLearning is a strategic solution that must be deployed throughout their organization” is stopping short of the mark. Smart organizations know that LEARNING gives them a strategic edge, and should be open to any technology based solution that sharpens or sustains that edge.

The author says there are three elements of the e-learning universe (technology, content, and services), but she left out two that are vital:  processes and people. It’s not simply about technology, content, and services. Admittedly, the lines between these elements get pretty blurred at times, but I believe that the architecture of learning processes is independent of technology and content. And the people that are to learn or provide the learning support are the most vital element in any technology-enhanced design. You are not deploying technology, you are deploying an enhanced capacity to improve performance, and the motivation to do so.

On blended learning, we are on the same page. In my view, all learning is blended. Always has been, always will be. There is very little that any of us learn exclusively through one medium. Blended learning in the “e” sense of the term has often been very successful and continues to improve. This is not because the technology is better, but because those who architect the “formal” blended learning processes are designing learning experiences that map more closely to the way people learn “informally”. We need to see more seamless transition from learning experience to workplace and back, as well as among elements of learning. Blending formal learning experiences with actual work activities and with informal learning processes -- that is integrated learning! Sadly, accountants are the enemy of progress here, because the less discrete an element is, the harder it is to cost it or to calculate an ROI.

Amy Finn's LMS comments are spot-on. The LMS is only part of any solution.  And the same is true of LMS standards such as SCORM. You can paint yourself into a very expensive corner if you view e-learning exclusively through the capabilities of your LMS. Unfortunately, that’s what has happened in many US corporations, and much evolution in e-learning is now on hold while those corporations wait for the paint to dry.

Finally, the author concludes that how your organisation will accept the “new paradigm of e-learning” is key. But it’s not a new paradigm. Paradigms are easily defined, relatively constant, and consequently easy to sell. What organizations have to buy into today is rolling change, constant innovation, continuous revolutionary prototyping. That’s a hard sell to senior executives who view the world through locked-in spreadsheets, annual budgets, formal ROI calculations, inflexible perceptions, and hard-baked ideas about the world they operate in. Breaking through those barriers is our biggest challenge!

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