Tuesday, October 26, 2004

European e-learning: “experts” get it so wrong

Prompted by a scathing review of ACTeN’s most recent “E-content Report” by Heike Philp of Kolabora, I downloaded the report to see what the fuss was all about. I don’t find anything to support Heike’s conclusion that in ACTeN’s vision real human-being teachers and trainers in classrooms will effectively become redundant. But I have to agree that the report is woefully inadequate in a number of key conceptual areas.

ACTeN (Anticipating Content Technology Needs) is an EU-funded project that
aims at stimulating the development of a European e-content industry by monitoring the digital media market and by transferring know-how in Europe.

Given ACTeN’s content-centric brief, it is not surprising that it ignores or dismisses much of the value that internetworking brings to learning and focuses only on “e-content.” But it is alarming, and to my mind outrageous, that the EU can set up a project that is doubtless spending a great deal of taxpayers’ money investigating the wrong thing and focusing the attention of learning professionals in the wrong direction.

Having lived in Europe for much of the past two decades, I am aware of the disdain that many Europeans have for the experience of their colleagues in the US. But Europeans have come to the e-learning party rather late, and they would do well to learn from the many mistakes made by the industry across the Atlantic.

One of the central mistakes made early on in the evolution of e-learning was to focus on learning content instead of on learning process, and to see the internet as networked technology instead of as networked people.

That core conceptual blunder resulted in the metastasis of vendors peddling pedagogically impoverished courses-by-the-Gigabyte along with Learning Management Systems exclusively designed to serve it up. It has taken (in internet time) an awfully long time for learning professionals to start backing away from that model and to start moving toward a more enlightened view of technologyahanced learning.

Heike Philp is clearly a fan of synchronicity, and from that perspective her condemnation of the ACTeN report is quite valid. She feels that teachers and trainers will migrate to a virtual classroom. The report, bizarrely, ignores this big chunk of the e-learning industry, possibly because it doesn’t fit ACTeN’s concept of industrially packageable content. But the report does say that most companies have adopted various implementations of blended learning rather than “pure” e-learning, so the classroom is still in their picture by implication.

Just some of the statements in ACTeN’s report are worth commenting on:

Content, technology and services are the three key segments of the e-learning industry, where content still seems to receive the main focus.

This is not only an over-simplification, it is just plain wrong. It seems that ACTeN is supposed to help define how Europe can develop its e-learning industry, meaning define how vendor companies can make money out of the e-learning opportunity. So, they see three segments in which companies might want to compete: they define “technology” as LMSs, “content” as the kind of courses provided by NETg and SmartForce, and “services” as ASP services.

I appreciate that the project is trying to help evolve vendors in the industry. But should it not also be trying to help European employers find the most effective way to benefit from e-learning? Encouraging the growth of a vendor base along the lines described above will simply replicate the same dire misuse of opportunity that already occurred in the US.

Companies that want to be successful as vendors in e-learning should be looking for ways to facilitate truly effective value-added performance-improving learning experiences, not join an already commoditized course production line. The “learning supply chain” model that is entrenched in American e-learning is a 1970’s music industry publishing model that has no place in 21st century e-business.

In order to build a successful e-learning business scenario the cost for an e-learning programme should be lower than an alternative classroom-based, instructor-led training.

This assumption, bought into by trainers and learning decision-makers early on in the e-learning industry, is one of the reasons that so much e-learning today is so bad. Technology should be used to enhance the learning output, not merely reduce its cost for an acceptable loss in quality.

As e-learning becoming more mainstream, learning practitioners are more and more positioning themselves for the next significant movement in the use of technology in learning, namely simulations.

While simulations will play a part in some aspects of acquiring some skills, they will not be anything like a mainstream next phase in e-learning. Anything but the most basic pre-programmed simulations are currently way too expensive to design, build, and maintain. The simulations that will become more popular invoke real people interacting virtually with other real people, rather than people interacting with a machine programmed to replicate such reality.

The internet has a lot more in store for e-learning, including collaboration, deep blending, peer-to-peer, mentoring, social networking, synchronous and asynchronous groupwork, dynamic communities of practice, wikis, blogging, workflow learning and learner-generated content. I’d be encouraging would-be vendors to develop products an services that facilitate learning experiences such as these, rather than pursuing the supply of simulations and canned courses.

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