10 years on…the e-learning debate continues

by | Oct 29, 2009 | Articles

A bit of history 
10 years ago, almost to the day, every staff member of the company I worked for was called to a special meeting to hear about a significant new event in the world of online learning. 

Together with my colleagues around the globe, I was interested to hear what was going to be unveiled.  After all, since the mid 90’s I had been involved in implementing some very state of the art learning  over the internet with equally state of the art organisations who were looking to address the pressures of working in a global economy. At that time, a number of those organisations were using engaging content, practicing in virtual labs and were supported by 24x7 online mentoring to support their IT qualifications. Earlier in 99 we’d seen the launch of a web-based virtual community full of educational resources and information, where learners could interact with each other and with experts in real time. At the end of the 90’s I had seen so much change hit the industry as a result of the internet so quickly that I wasn’t sure what could be next!
E-Learning happened next – I was working for a company called CBT Systems and at that October meeting in 1999, we were introduced for the first time to the term e-learning.  The core idea behind the term was about using the internet to redefine  how we learn, moving away from the traditional  course and assessment sandwich ( online or face to face) and instead breaking down the core elements of learning ( instruction, collaboration with peers and experts, assessment and ongoing application) to offer a seamless flow of learning opportunities to busy staff.

 New ways of learning for a smarter workforce?
Along with introduction of e-learning, we were also introduced a new company name –  Smartforce as the focus of this e-learning was to enable a smarter workforce who are better prepared and supported for the knowledge economy and internet age.   The press release announced Smartforce e-learning  as ‘reinvention of learning for the Internet Age, with e-learning empowering individual learners and enabling enterprises to gain a competitive advantage in today’s ever-changing business world.’
Despite the hype surrounding the introduction of e-learning ,  the concept of a reinvention of learning  ( both online and classroom) to encompass knowledge sharing, performance support  and  practice took off. Masie went on record to talk about the ’ e’ in e-learning standing for experience, extended and expanded learning  and Marc Rosenberg’s excellent book  on e-learning in 2001 provided clear guidelines for changing the way that organisations learn for competitive advantage.

10 years on
Yet 10 years on I attended the e-learning debate at the Oxford union and the same Mark Rosenberg who stood up to say e- is for enough!
The 2009 e-learning debate ( hosted by Epic)  was around the motion that ‘this house believes that the e-learning of today is essential for the skills of tomorrow’  .

Those for the motion  ( led by Prof Diana Laurillard)  were arguing that e-learning , defined in the widest sense as the use of technologies across the formal and informal learning process ( including performance support, online books, games, mobiles) is absolutely essential to address the rapidly changing knowledge and information needs of staff in the workplace today. Examples were given, statistics were shared and I found myself in agreement with everyone on the panel, their argument’s resonated strongly with my own concept of e-learning formed 10 years previously.
Those against ( led by Dr Marc Rosenberg) highlighted that e-learning today was woefully short with poor quality content, death by powerpoint and lack of market penetration indicating that we have a long way to go. David Wilson rightly commented that the main areas that e-learning was used for was induction compliance and product training- all of which were useful but how much was essential for the digital skills, leadership skills and innovative thinking needed for tomorrow? Again I found myself in complete agreement.

What has stopped us living up to the promise?
It was clear that 10 years on, e-learning as a term had failed to live up to the promise outlined in October 1999. I believe a number of factors have been responsible for that. The original execution of e-learning via a single proprietary system (mysmartforce)  was not appropriate, the social acceptance of engaging with others online did not exist then as it does today, the dot com crash crushed confidence and the ‘enron factor’ in the early 2000’s put the whole world on regulatory red alert. All of the e-learning industry’s resources were diverted into compliance training, which to be honest probably kept it afloat but stifled innovation.

However some took hold of that original vision and as tools became more widely available , more learning solutions embraced the power of the internet to  addressing customers service, leadership skills and problem solving – the essential skills of tomorrow. Organisations like Thomson Reuters, BT, Cisco and IBM are embracing web 2.0 to ensure that they harness knowledge from within. 10 years on I can see that the e-learning that does exist today (and was first defined in 1999) and can address the essential skills of tomorrow so I voted yes.
But I completely understand why the vote was overwhelmingly won by the No’s.  I am in a privileged position to see how the most innovative companies are making this work and are redefining workplace learning as a result. But our research also shows that many more are not getting the same results and most of the time, as a result of dumbing down, their e-learning experience doesn’t even match what was available 10 years ago!

So what to do to move on?

Chatting with Phil Green after the debate, I commented that I felt that all the building blocks are that we need to create the type of learning interventions we need to keep pace with the future are in place today and more accessible than ever. But Phil, ever the architect, commented that it is what you build with them that counts, a building is only as good as its design and I agree.  We need to focus on the skills and approaches of L&D staff to take full advantage of the opportunities in our hands.
For learning and development professionals I think it is time to feel the fear and do it anyway! – take time to push aside the negative experiences and preconceived ideas about what e-learning is and isn’t in order to work out how to take these tools and create solutions that will meet your organisations needs today – the future is in your hands.
For those in the e-learning supply side, we need to be open to innovation as well – where can technology add value to your customer’s needs, do you need to redefine your existing models of e-learning? How do you keep flexible enough to keep ahead of the curve?

This debate was very timely in my view – bringing the industry’s thoughts back to the original concept of e-learning – one of reinvention, agility and adaptability and relevance. I believe that e-learning of yesterday was essential for the skills of today but I agree that the e-learning of today is questionable. Lets makes sure that the e-learning of tomorrow (and I mean tomorrow- we don’t have time to wait another 10 years) lives up to its promise.

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