Early e-learning has a bad reputation. Even today, some ‘click next’ style content does little to enhance its image. But even in 2001, Fosway analysts could see beyond this. ‘Embrace e-learning because you’re increasing the options. Use it to change the mix to enable learning to be deeper, better, more accessible, more appropriate or more cost effective. It isn’t about not doing it in a classroom.’ It can still offer powerful opportunities for creating blended solutions if approached in the right way.
At a recent conference, someone in the audience asked the e-learning expert panel what wasn’t e-learning suited for? The general answer was typical – maybe e-learning wasn’t so useful for management development or soft skills training. I flippantly added car mechanics, but my real response was that the question itself was wrong. In many ways, the question itself reflects the polarization within the training and development community. Either you’re a training provider or you’re an e-learning provider. Either you can use e-learning or you can’t. Wrong!
We shouldn’t be thinking ‘either/or’, we should be thinking ‘and’. Rather than worrying about which subjects e-learning is unsuitable for, we would be better off thinking about how e-learning could add value to the learning process, regardless of the subject matter. It’s not about e-learning versus anything, it’s about using e-learning as part of the mix. The industry has developed a term for this – we call it blended learning.
What is blended learning?
Now blended learning could be perceived to be a bit of a band-wagon of its own. Cynics might argue that the e-learning guys have changed their tune. Last year they were telling you to dump the classroom and go online. This year they’re saying it’s ok to use both. I don’t believe the rise of ‘blended’ is due to e-learning losing the argument, I think it just means that e-learning is growing up.
I know e-learning may seem to be a mere youngster – after all most e-learning companies didn’t exist a year and a bit ago or were at least describing themselves as something very different. But when I started to look at this stuff in anger five years ago, we already had a group of people who knew the answer – Media-based training. Whether via videodisc, computer-based training on CD-ROM or more recently via the web, media-based training was going to transform the training business.
It is this school of thinking that dominated the first year or so of the e-learning industry. In a strongly vendor-driven market, the CBT vendors who were the first to reinvent themselves as e-learning vendors, have had set much of the agenda and foolishly we’ve allowed them to do it.
Growing up is the realisation that this argument is missing the point. Sure, there is some e-learning that can be delivered purely online – if you have to. That doesn’t make it the best way of doing it, just that it’s an expedient way. There are also some people that have a preference for online learning. That doesn’t make it the best for everyone, it’s just an alternative way of doing it. It suits some circumstances more than others, and some people more than others.
If we move the discussion onto higher value learning needs, the argument develops further. Higher-value learning is a) more important (by definition), and b) requires deeper learning. Value is relative. If something is easy to learn, people and companies can learn it quickly and easily. That means that you knowing it isn’t particularly valuable, because lots of other people know it. The higher the value of learning required, the deeper the learning process. We can’t just read it, we have to practice it. We can’t just do it, we have to change the way we think about it.
In learning terms this means knowledge acquisition, experiential learning, mental model change and behavioural change. It doesn’t come out of a manual or web-based interactive content, it comes out of a mixture of learning activities – theory, reflection, action and so on.
What is e-learning?
It’s a way of increasing the options in the learning process. Because of technology, we can now push content to people regardless of their location We can pre-test them before they come to a physical delivery event. We can make them do work assignments relating to their actual work rather than theoretical case studies in a classroom. They can continue to work in their syndicate groups whilst out in the workplace. We can pull world experts and guest speakers from across the world into live delivery events, regardless of their location or the learners. We can follow up each and every learner after they have finished their programme and ensure they receive updated learning as it becomes appropriate. We can even shift the responsibility for determining their learning path to the learners themselves. Tell me if something in this list is not relevant to virtually everything.
Embrace e-learning because you’re increasing the options. Use it to change the mix to enable learning to be deeper, better, more accessible, more appropriate or more cost effective. It isn’t about not doing it in a classroom. It’s about using the best of everything to provide a better solution – for the learners, for the organisation and for your long-term business. The components make a difference, but the key is not the parts, it’s all in the blend.
This article, written by Fosway’s CEO, David Wilson, first appeared in Training Journal in August 2001