Can e-learning survive (even thrive)?

Close-up of person in scrubs holding defibrillatorIs e-learning really in a perilous state? There are some who are suggesting its death knell has all but rung.

And you might believe it too, if you saw the provocative LinkedIn Pulse post entitled ‘RIP online learning …?’.

Its author, Laura Overton, founder of learning and development advisory service Towards Maturity, had asked LinkedIn users to contribute to an imaginary obituary for online learning. It turned out plenty of people in the L&D community were keen to speak ill of the hypothetically dead.

The post was thick with pointed accusations. One contributor said online learning had fallen foul of a serious affliction common to other teaching methods: of overloading learners with ‘too much content dump’.

Are reports of e-learning's passing premature? Or is it time to pull the plug? asks @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet

Another blasted online learning for shackling users to desktop PCs. It should, they said, have learnt a lesson from the decline of VHS and Beta video players, that ‘good content is not as important to modern users as a convenient, small and portable format’.

There was some cynical sympathy, too, for the deceased, defending it as stifled and robbed of its promise by bureaucracy: ‘Born for knowledge – caged for compliance’ was the pithy epitaph.

But is e-learning really dead?

Hold off ordering a wreath for a moment, though, because reports of e-learning’s passing are somewhat premature. Overton’s article was a largely tongue-in-cheek prompt to get us all thinking about the current state of online training.

Writing your own obituary can be a helpful (if slightly unnerving) exercise in examining your priorities for living. In the same way, Overton’s post is not so much a voice at a wake as a wake-up call for the industry.

Why do we need this wake-up call? Well, though online learning is not dead, it might need some TLC. Besides, we can’t let it die. We need it now more than ever.

If organisations – and individual employees – want to compete, succeed and thrive, then the ability to continually up-skill can’t be an optional extra.

A competitive advantage

As CEO, CPA and LinkedIn Influencer Tom Hood says in this post, self-paced online learning is a key source of ‘competitive advantage’.

Indeed, if companies want to survive, then their rate of learning has to outstrip the rate at which the business world is changing. This, Hood argues, is what separates business’s winners and losers. He illustrates this by comparing Nokia (whose decline and eventual buy-out he ties to a failure to learn and adapt) to thriving US telecommunications conglomerate AT&T. Randall Stephenson, the CEO of AT&T, has declared that if staff don’t keep current with at least five hours a week of online learning, they will ‘obsolete themselves with the technology’.

Realistically, today’s stressed and time-poor workers won’t achieve this rate of learning solely through traditional in-person training that takes them out of the office.

Long live learning

The tech-related industries are admittedly an especially fast-paced example. But whatever field we’re in, most of us face competition – whether from market competitors or a colleague vying for the same promotion. To stay ahead, there’s always something to learn – and ever more limited time in which to do so.

We need to sharpen our employees’ (or our own) skills to stay current and advance our organisation – and do this within budget. So what lessons can online learning take from the candid contributions to its hypothetical obituary?

A digital distinction

It’s first worth noting (as Overton does) that there’s some distinction between ‘e-learning’ and ‘online learning’. It’s a difference lost on many of us (indeed, I’ve used the terms quite interchangeably so far in this article). But thinking about it will help us make the e-learning we bring in-company as good a tool as it should be.

We can think of ‘e-learning’ as the officially sanctioned, often content-heavy modules typically found on a company’s learning management system. It can have a whiff of box-ticking about it (it’s often related to company compliance), and it has a reputation – deserved or not – of being a bit dull.

Meanwhile, for those who observe the distinction, ‘online learning’ refers simply to finding things out via the internet: something most of us do every day.

What e-learning can learn from online

While we may not give it the term ‘online learning’, what’s the first thing we tend to do when we need to find out the answer to any question? Yes – turn to Google (or YouTube). We have an immediate interest or need to solve a problem, so we seek the answer. As soon as we find it, we apply it. It’s an active, targeted process – and usually an engaging one.

The answer, then, is for corporate e-learning to learn from this more informal approach. Much of this hinges on ‘just in time’ learning that is available and easily accessible at the moment it is needed.

So, what features make good e-learning?

Training should be accessible through smartphones – not just on PCs, or even just on tablets. This not only ties in with our usual experience of searching for information, but also with working trends: increasing numbers of remote or flexi-time employees, globally dispersed teams and working on the go.

Short and specific
Another form of learning on the rise is nano-learning, where each lesson is very short (2 to 15 minutes) and covers just one learning objective. This makes each lesson easy to fit in between other activities. Each one will solve a particular problem or teach a focused skill, and will be more searchable.

Searchable and easy to access
As I’ve noted already, effective learning needs to be user-led and readily available when and where it’s needed. Targeted lessons should be provided in a searchable application so users can find them easily and return to them to reference, review and repeat.

Adaptable and reusable
Rather than limit itself to a one-size-fits-all strategy, ideally, e-learning should be adaptable. So, self-contained and focused nano-lessons need to work together to build related skills or fit into a blended solution, alongside face-to-face training, virtual classrooms and other online interactions.

Though some kinds of e-learning may be losing favour, there are growing areas, including gamification, virtual reality and scenario-based training. It all points to the importance of user engagement for success. Other ways to engage users include incorporating short videos, quizzes or other interactions.

Like all of us, e-learning needs to adapt in order to survive – @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet

So it’s definitely not time to bury e-learning and simply move on. Like the staff at AT&T, those who design (or commission) e-learning just need to keep learning, adapting and improving – or they too may face obsolescence.

Yes, there are plenty of examples of e-learning best forgotten. But recognising these past mistakes and continuing to innovate gives something strong to build on. We need accessible, engaging and effective training that will fit into the working day, genuinely help users learn, and allow employees and employers to achieve their goals.

Now that would be a legacy.

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