E-Learning: A Reality Check
Brenda Sugrue, PhD
HSA Technology Partner

The e-learning marketeers would have us believe that e-learning is the fast, cheap and easy solution to all learning and performance needs. The current reality of e-learning is very different from the hype. A benchmarking study of 11 best-practice companies (Hall and LeCavalier, 2000) concluded that an e-learning implementation is as difficult, if not as costly, as an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) implementation. Don Norman, President of UNext Learning Systems, said in an interview with Training magazine (September 2000) that he was surprised by how difficult and complex it was to develop online courses. This article will help to dispel some common misconceptions about e-learning and identify trends that could bring us closer to the reality of the "killer application" predicted by John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems.

E-Learning is not One Entity
We use e-learning as a generic label for any learning materials that are delivered via the Web; but there are as many types of instruction on the Web as there are in all other media combined.

E-learning, or one type of e-learning,
can rarely provide
the complete solution to a learning or
performance need.

The Web can deliver any existing type of instruction: live (synchronous) instruction via video; self-paced (asynchronous) CBT/multimedia-like or print-like materials with or without interactivity, tracking, and feedback; collaborative learning activities such as online discussions (synchronous or asynchronous) among learners and instructors. It can, and does, deliver the worst and the best of any existing instructional approach, from text of lectures to monitored collaborative problem-based learning. Unfortunately, the initial uses of any new instructional medium gravitate toward more primitive instructional methods because the focus is on demonstrating that the delivery technology can work.

E is not for Easy
It has never been easy to design, develop and deliver good quality instruction. Why should it be any different for e-learning? For asynchronous learning materials, the difficulties are comparable to those encountered in any CBT or interactive multimedia project. We cannot rely on live instructors or developers to fill in gaps; everything has to be explicitly scripted by instructional designers. As the volume of courses to be produced increases, project management becomes more complex. As more sophisticated technology is used, for example, interactive simulations or databases for content or tracking learner data, then information technology specialists and database managers become more critical. Managing the communication among all the parties involved becomes a major challenge.

The development and deployment of e-learning can become easier over time, if effort is invested upfront to create processes, prototypes, specifications, templates, interfaces, scripting formats, directory structures, file naming conventions, database structures and so on, that are reusable. The more sophisticated the instructional approaches selected, the more time it will take to create reusable processes and train everyone on a team to use and adhere to them. If you are not focused on reusability (and not just for content), e-learning will never get easier.

E is not for ChEap
The promise of reduced training costs has lured many into e-learning. The reality is that you will only save money in two cases:

  1. You have audiences of thousands who are scattered around the globe and your systems for design, development and online delivery are running like clockwork;
  2. You can find off-the-shelf courses or suites of courses that target the learning objectives you need met - for example, if you require all your employees to have access to training on Office 2000 or a basic course on "How to Run a Meeting".

Custom development of content will never be cheap. Well over half the time and budget to develop a course will be spent on task analysis and instructional design, and the costs for those have not changed. People who have the qualifications and experience to do this type of work well are not readily available and are highly remunerated. The costs of implementing and maintaining an infrastructure to support large-scale development and delivery of sophisticated e-learning will never be cheap, whether you do it internally or contract it out.

Custom development of content will never be cheap.

If an e-learning vendor tells you that they can "convert" your content for less time and money than it would take to desktop publish it, then there will essentially be no instructional design, no customization of interface and no system for easy updating of content. Many companies are using "Web developers" who can create Web pages or Flash animations, but know nothing about instructional design or how to do all of the tasks involved in producing e-learning materials that purport to be performance-based and effective in producing workplace results. As the saying goes, "Garbage In, Garbage Out." The quality of your e-learning environment is largely a function of the quality of the instructional design: are the objectives performance objectives? Do the information and practice activities match them? Are the practice activities contextualized to reflect the job situations in which the learners will have to use the skills? Is there monitoring and feedback beyond "incorrect, try again"? If not, then it might cost less to produce, but do not expect it to achieve significant changes in workplace behaviors and accomplishments. You will end up paying for the penny-wise savings in instructional development with pound-foolish costs from trainees taking up valuable time on the job to learn skills that they may have acquired more efficiently in a well-structured online learning environment.

E is not for Everything
Don't be misled by advertising that seems to suggest that e-learning, or one type of e-learning such as "live e-learning" is the solution. The recent buzz in the industry is around "blended e-learning" or "blended solutions". This acknowledges the fact that e-learning, or one type of e-learning, can rarely provide the complete solution to a learning or performance need. Given the audience, tasks to be trained and context, there will be more effective and efficient mixes of online elements and more effective and efficient mixes of online and offline ones. The kind of front-end analysis that instructional designers and performance improvement specialists have always done will identify what blends are best for a particular context.

The Killer Application
One of the events that added fuel to the e-learning fire was the now famous quote from John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, which appeared in the New York Times on November 17, 1999: "The next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education." The killer e-learning application will take advantage of the integrative and adaptive features afforded by Internet technologies. However, we are not there yet. The latest trends in the industry suggest that we eventually will achieve this exciting goal. Reusability is key. Not just reusable information objects or reusable learning objects, but reusability as a feature of all elements of the system. Reusable interfaces that connect directly to databases containing reusable, mix-and-matchable elements that can be assembled in real time for an individual learner and a particular learning objective. Reusable task analysis templates. Reusable practice activity templates that draw content from databases. Reusable code for analyzing learner data, customizing feedback and making recommendations and selections of learning events for individual learners. Also, connected to the content databases, online task analysis tools that facilitate the extraction and organization of knowledge from sources of expertise.

It still will not be easy or cheap. Nor will e-learning be the only - the miracle - solution. What it will do, however, is truly revolutionize the way we think about and design learning environments.

2000 Harold D. Stolovitch & Erica J. Keeps

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