Towards an alternative e-learning

In many ways, e-learning is doing well. The Towards Maturity Impact Indicator report published last December showed that many UK organisations are experiencing significant benefits from e-learning in terms of efficiency and business agility. Learning Light’s recent survey of the UK e-learning market showed growth of 8% in obviously difficult economic circumstances.

However, it took the more recent Towards Maturity2010 Benchmark Report to show that the true picture is rather less encouraging. It would appear that face-to-face classroom courses are being converted lock, stock and barrel into self-paced, self-directed, online courses as a panic solution to a lack of funds. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that these decisions are being made hastily and unimaginatively as a defensive measure, and certainly not out of a heartfelt desire for e-learning. Most depressingly, the report suggests that a high proportion of users feel that the e-learning they are being offered is irrelevant to their jobs, probably as a simple tick-in-the-box compliance measure. When you consider how rich a learning environment the Internet is capable of providing (and does do for many of us outside work), this is a tragic waste of a wonderful opportunity for enlightened change.

The term e-learning is only a little over 10 years old, but in its most common form (interactive, stand-alone, self-study tutorials) it actually dates back to the late 1970s and has therefore been around long enough now to be considered traditional. This format certainly is efficient and agile, as the figures suggest (and when resources are tight, these benefits are definitely worth having), but they’re not the only measures that matter. Efficiency and flexibility only matter if you are doing the right things in the first place. What really matters is whether e-learning is delivering in terms of improved competence.

While there is much really excellent traditional e-learning, much of what is inflicted on learners falls short in a number of ways:

  • It fails to engage and inspire.
  • It is over-long and information heavy.
  • It is insufficiently relevant to employees’ jobs.
  • It provides inadequate opportunities for collaboration with peers.
  • It fails to provide the learner with opportunities for personal support.
  • In the way it is applied, it repeats many of the mistakes of the classroom courses it replaces, particularly when it is used primarily for sheep dipping and compliance. We need less courses and more resources.
  • It is designed and developed without consultation with learners or learners’ managers and is not continuously enhanced and improved in response to feedback from these stakeholders.
  • At a time when there are so many interesting ways in which online media can be employed (as video, podcasts, mobile apps, 3D environments, games and sims), it remains dull and uni-dimensional.

The end result is that e-learning is neither as popular nor as effective as it should be. It is time to envisage an alternative e-learning – just as efficient, yet more flexible, more engaging, more responsive, more powerful.

With alt-e-learning, the lengthy, interactive tutorial will be only one of many options available. The emphasis in terms of content will shift instead to tightly-focused, highly-modular media objects that can be employed on both a ‘push’ basis (as elements in top-down learning interventions) and ‘pull’ (accessed on-demand). Not all of these objects will originate with the l&d department, as subject experts from across the organisation become empowered and incentivised to contribute to the learning of their peers. The objects will be accessible on all sorts of devices (often as mobile apps) and come in many forms:

  • short how-to videos
  • podcasts (especially interviews and discussions)
  • screencasts that demonstrate software tasks
  • easy-to-learn but hard-to-master games
  • engaging quizzes
  • decision aids
  • visually-rich slide shows with narration or big, bold text statements
  • highly-adaptive tutorials, that feel more like coaching sessions than instructional materials
  • case studies and scenarios
  • drill and practice exercises for those skills that can be honed on a computer
  • exploratory 3D objects and environments
  • interactive timelines and maps
  • polls and surveys

Importantly, this content will often be integrated with a wide variety of collaborative online experiences:

  • 1-2-1 coaching and support
  • research assignments using the World Wide Web or an organisation’s intranet (learners can present their research with a live online presentations or packaged as videos, podcasts, etc)
  • collaborative content creation using wikis and other tools
  • online discussions using forums and blogs
  • live online lessons and discussions

Alt-e-learning provides an online experience that mirrors how we use technology outside work, which your typical traditional tutorial certainly does not. It also blends seamlessly with face-to-face activities and offline media such as print. Many of the elements of alt-e-learning will already be available to you or can be put in place at low cost and without heavy reliance on outside specialists. And because alt-e-learning is so modular, the elements are easy to re-use, enhance and maintain.

Onlignment is committed to the alternative e-learning. We’d like to think we’re not alone.