This is the first in a collection of articles written to support organisations implementing e-learning in the early 2000s. Much of the insight and advice is still relevant to L&D today, particularly in considering a strategy for maximsing learning technologies – not just e-learning content – and the ingredients for success.
There are as many definitions of e-learning as there are ways to get from Edinburgh to London. However, they usually share some common words. In a recent survey of definitions, the top four word groups were:
Any sentence including these words could end up describing a whole host of different topics. In our collection of papers in this series, we have included our thoughts and opinions on some of the topics, which cover both the technology and human aspects of e-learning shown in the keywords above. They range from e-learning strategy to Learning Management Systems and a discussion on learning communities. They are not intended to cover the whole subject in-depth, but instead to act as a guide to the key factors which influence the success of e-learning programmes.
E-learning is our business and we value your feedback on the ideas in this paper. Learning is about sharing experiences, and we have based the information on best practice that we have developed over five years of working in the e-learning world.
E-learning has been described as the next big thing in the training industry. Now attracting large amounts of corporate investment, e-learning has exploded into the corporate training market place. For good or bad, life will never be the same again.
Getting an independent non-marketing perspective on e-learning can be a challenge, as much of the market is still very vendor/tool based. Stepping back from the vendor sales pitch, we at Fosway believe that e-learning represents a fundamental and positive shift in the training business.
Fundamental, in that instead of being perceived as an add-on to mainstream training, e-learning should be viewed as something that will change and improve the core – the classroom business. E-learning may be perceived as an alternative to the classroom, but it should be considered in a more holistic way; as the part of the overall package of how learning will be delivered in future.
Whilst potentially a threat to traditional training, this change towards more integrated models of learning will represent a positive step for the quality of learning delivery as well as the profile of the industry itself. E-learning is already helping ‘learning’ to reach the top of the corporate management agenda, and longer term it will become integrated into the workplace, proving to be more inclusive and relevant, as well as more timely and flexible.
That’s not to say that we won’t have our challenges in the short term. Much of the investment in the e-learning market is translating into the marketing dollars of vendors rushing to adopt the e-learning banner. Whilst their clothes may have changed, the substance underneath may not. This creates confusion and confusion easily leads to cynicism.
Confusion is inevitable in an exploding market place. It is always easier to spend marketing money than deliver successful projects. And although it’s confusing, it is also healthy in that it reflects rapid and genuine growth (in size and maturity) in the market place. Over the past four or five years, e-learning has gone from being a niche of the technology-based training arena, (itself a small niche of the overall training marketplace), to being a major force and now the main focus of new training investment; corporate and venture capital. Whilst e-learning may have grabbed lots of attention, it is only just starting to secure training budgets. The budget land grab represents both a threat and an opportunity to conventional training. The good news is that the pot is getting bigger!
But e-learning is not just about sticking ‘click next’ content on web sites and magically expecting people to learn and be more effective. The e-learning discussion needs to move beyond content on the web and onto developing richer models with people at the centre of the learning process rather than content. Best practice instructional and learning design is needed to blend all components together to maximise their value, both educational and business. The realisation of this integrated approach will challenge the current ‘e’-world as much as the conventional training world.
The first step towards successful e-learning implementation is to develop a strategy. Approaching a new venture in an emerging and changing market without an overall plan and some careful considerations about alternatives and contingencies is a waste of time and resources. Here are some key points to consider as you define your strategy for a way forward.
1. E-learning should be viewed as strategic, and as an integrated component of the broader training and development strategy. This means executive sponsorship and committed investment both on specific projects and on developing a strategic approach, organisation and infrastructure.
2. Set direction rather than detailed strategy. A detailed strategy may look more convincing, but is often very fragile, easily made out-of-date or marginalised by changes in organisational strategy or strategic shifts in the market place through acquisitions. In a market that is so embryonic and changing so rapidly, this is almost guaranteed.
3. E-learning technology needs to be considered in a strategic context. You can’t afford to allow individual training or content vendors to drive the discussion, otherwise you will end up with expensive blind alleys. Technology should be considered as part of strategic framework and you should start developing this now.
4. Given e-learning should be an integrated component of a training and development strategy, then you need an integrated approach to managing it. Many companies are now starting to develop Learning Portals or looking at implementing Enterprise Learning Management Systems. These systems must support all types of learning and integrate e-learning delivery as well as classroom delivery and other forms.
5. E-learning is more than content on a website. You need a strategy that includes instructional support and collaboration, and you need vendors who can deliver more than content-only solutions. Focus on educational value as well as cost, and look for more than first generation transitioned content – otherwise you may be able to tick boxes about level of activity but not about improved knowledge or performance.
6. Finally, you need to change measures of success with e-learning. We are seeing a significant shift away from courses as the unit of consumption, and towards programmes of learning, learning on demand, and learning communities. In this context, measuring success through completion becomes meaningless. E-learning will accelerate this trend as well as giving many more options for delivery and integrating learning into the workplace.
Overall, what is the recipe for success? Of course there’s no single answer and no single model for how this ‘integrated e-learning’ will work. In Fosway’s research and development work to produce a methodology for e-learning, it has become clear that we need multiple models and flexible approaches. We also need flexible technology to support them. In summary there is a need for:
• A clear strategy to embrace and integrate e-learning with existing training
• Executive commitment and support to implement the strategy
• Flexible delivery models that can include classroom as well as e-learning components
• Best practice instructional design to develop and deliver high value e-learning
• One way of managing access to learning, regardless of form
• An organisational standard for how e-learning will be delivered
• An enterprise-wide capability not just local pilots!
Success in e-learning involves three key areas. Firstly, a broad understanding of all the various components – from Learning Management Systems to content development techniques, from IT infrastructure to learning design and management of organisational change. Next, since e-learning programmes are rarely inexpensive, it is critical to get a high return on your initial investment, so making use of the most experienced resources possible is vital for success. The value of those who have ‘done it before’ cannot be underestimated. And finally, it is essential to co-ordinate and manage these components, business functions and resources.
E-learning crosses many boundaries and should be viewed as a strategic endeavour, and managed as a truly cross-functional programme.
We hope that the articles in the ‘Recipes for E-learning Success’ series help you to understand some of the current issues surrounding this topic and have stimulated you to review your ideas on e-learning. Fosway is continually researching and developing e-learning best practice, and is focused on sharing its knowledge and experience with its customers and e-learning practitioners.
Recommended Fosway Reading
The other articles in this series are as follows:
• The Volume Vs. Value Equation
• Blended or Integrated E-learning
• Design Dynamics for E-learning
• Building Learning Communities
• Synchronous Vs. Asynchronous
• E-learning Standards
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