Management Articles


 

E-Learning: The Pros, Cons and Making The Right Choice

By: Denny O'Farrell


E-learning has been a core focus for businesses worldwide in recent years. Partly due to new competitive challenges, increased web use, cheaper/faster access, geographic mobility and the rise in telecommuting/mobile working, this virtual learning now takes a variety of forms across a number of media. Although championed as THE latest killer application, e-learning does not come without its problems. So how do you get maximum return for your e-learning dollars and how can consumers of e-learning programmes make the right choice? H@ppeneur, Denny O’Farrell investigates.


The Story So Far

According to IDC research, the worldwide corporate e-learning market will exceed $23 billion by 2004, with North America expected to maintain its dominance of the market (two thirds), and Western Europe stated as the fastest growing market. The research company also expects a shift in content demand, predicting that non-IT content will account for 54% of worldwide e-learning revenues by 2004. The numbers relating to the exponential growth of e-learning provision/adoption speak for themselves.

Additionally, IDC report that over 27% of business skills training in Europe will be provided via e-learning by 2005, while eMarketer report that 24% of US organisations are already using e-learning to train employees (up from 16% last year). That’s an astounding growth for what some are calling, the new ‘killer’ app.

However, killer applications do not come without their killer problems and barriers to adoption. The main barriers here are cost, a lack of management buy-in, low motivation and the different levels of technology among multiple users. And for those who overcome those barriers and adopt an e-learning strategy, there may be more problems yet to encounter.


Pros and Cons of eLearning

Thanks to the global culture of choice, where ‘a better offer is just a click away’, today’s business imperative is the ability of organisations to secure the fleeting loyalty of their clients, investors and staff. The traditional model of enterprise has been dislodged by a new structure, which has new technology, people-centric solutions, and a rise in competition as it’s driving forces. Enter e-learning, the ‘strategic weapon’ that promises to help businesses to compete better, and increase the value of its most prized asset – its people.

Additional benefits include savings in travel costs, access to a wider set of programmes than ever before, and, depending on the components of e-learning that are adopted, e-learning can:
  • Transform behaviour and aid organisational change and the whole learning process (www.transformpeople.com)

  • Increase performance levels and productivity with skills e-learning (www.hitsnclicks.com)

  • Increase customer satisfaction, retention and brand loyalty, with customer-focused and negotiation e-learning (www.mlinktech.com)

  • Enhance collaboration, partner and supplier relationships and organisational team work (www.teamdna.co.uk)

  • Create competitive differentiation with a tailored approach and improved systems (www.learningit.com).
Benefits are therefore very clear and very worthy but, to paraphrase Abe Lincoln, all types of learning delivery work some of the time for some of the people. And this is glaringly true of e-learning. People learn differently, have different learning behaviours, motivational drivers and attitudes. People learn at different paces, using different media and strategies, with different sets of goals and objectives. Therefore, e-learning must be needs-based rather than ‘linear’.

In addition, e-learning across geographical and language boundaries can be problematic, while mobile workers often have limited bandwidth, different screen sizes and connection opportunities to contend with.

For these reasons, mobile workers need their web-based learning to be available online and offline in whichever language. Instructor-led training and continuous online learning are not always appropriate for mobile workers whos primary needs are speed and convenience, because they move around so much and are not always able to be online. And, while they move geographically, they also move between different technologies, including handheld PDAs, laptops, desktop machines and mobile phones.

Producers of e-learning programmes are now more aware of this and are now delivering information in manageable chunks, accessible both online and offline on a variety of different technology. In addition, the student/teacher or student/administrator relationship is still crucial, even in virtual learning scenarios. Some e-learning programmes mix the human dialogue element in to their overall programme structure, but others do not – so users must be aware of the options. Self-paced training modules generally need to be delivered with additional support or guidance from a live instructor to get optimal results.


It is also generally agreed that active learning is more effective than passive learning, so courses that involve doing rather than just reading are generally more effective. Adoptees of e-learning need to decide how much active, self-paced, web based learning is practical to suit their own objectives.


Web Mania

In the blind rush to convert everything to web based training/learning, some companies have replaced printed manuals with web-based learning, when this is often a mistake. A combination of many learning media is of best value for ROI of e-learning. In some cases, printed instruction/learning manuals are easier to read and portable, so people can catch up on reading wherever and whenever they choose. In addition, computer screens provide lower resolution than the printed page and can lead to fatigue and eye strain – not conducive with effective e-learning.

Another occasional mistake is to substitute CD-Roms with web based training tools, or to generally assume that web learning should be the only technology based delivery system within e-learning. Some web based e-learning solutions work perfectly well as stand alone applications, but CD-Roms are excellent for programmes that depend on multimedia, as they have better quality video output than the average web based viewing experience, despite increases in bandwidth and streaming technology.

Consider who will be using the e-learning programmes to decide whether CD, traditional, live in person or web based e-learning is for you – or a combination of the above. CDs are portable and don’t require a net connection, while live web based interaction can bring encouragement, guidance and assistance to a course. Evidently, it’s all about getting the right balance.


E-Learning Solutions: CD, Web-based and Instructor-led

One company who seems to be getting that balance right is Transform People International (www.transformpeople.com). They see learning “as an ongoing journey rather than an event” and have produced a range of learning and organisational change programmes to suit. Their most recent is the TPI Behavioural Connections Tool ™ CD, which combines CD multimedia with web-based learning and instructor led training.

“Our challenge was how to bring all the elements together in the best possible combination,” says TPI Director, Ronnie Stronge. “We succeeded in taking the best of what is delivered live in the classroom using video to get key messages across with impact and then we interact online with new tools to encourage the viewer to stay engaged and really take on board new learning that they can immediately apply to make better connections”.

The CD is split into three areas. The first section displays a video clip of a speaker reading the text displayed in the box below. This text is highlighted as it’s spoken, and a search function is also provided. The third area displays accompanying powerpoint slides. Within the CD there are web-based learning modules and profiles that are accessible both offline and online, and the learning strategy is self-paced with a combination of web and multimedia learning tools. In addition, the CD can be delivered as part of a Behavioural Connections or other TPI programme that is instructor-led.

“While it is logical to think first about what you want to achieve with your learning programme and then look at how the technology can help, we have found that understanding what the technologies can do helps you be more creative about reaching people with learning that would previously have been ignored,” adds Ronnie. “It’s much more than a travel or other cost reduction exercise.”

In effect, the Behavioural Connections Tool is an e-learning application in itself (for those learning how to better connect), but it’s content can be completely tailored to suit. Essentially, it’s an e-learning solution that works on a variety of platforms that puts its clients in control.

Another company putting the organisations it works with (trainers in particular) in control is RMR plc (www.rmrplc.com). They provide a web based training/learning system that develops a multimedia environment, allowing a trainer to seamlessly build a training course from the ASP software themselves, thus having ultimate control over content and methodology. The software can be tailored to suit and draws on audio, video and 2D/3D graphics. The actual programme can be revised and refreshed at a click of the button, so it’s all focused on the requirements of the trainer (ie. The person/people with the best knowledge of their learners and their learners’ needs and objectives).

Many other companies offer e-learning courses tailored to suit. One such company is www.learningit.com who put business analysts together with their clients subject matter experts to storyboard a complete course. They then put the tailored web-based course over an intranet, or via their own ASP.

Meanwhile, in a similar approach to TPI, a Professor in Global Management has created a CD-Rom that aims to ‘revolutionise executive education.’

“It is not just a repeat of what was presented in the classroom,” says Fariborz Ghadar, Professor of Global Management at Penn State University (www.psu.edu), “the CD offers thoughts on the topic in an entertaining fashion from top CEOs in the country and can be put on a company’s website so any employee can access it.”


The CD-Rom, titled Global Strategic Management in the New Millennium, features audio, links to related articles and video presentations by CEOs. Interspersed throughout the learning module are vignettes on global strategies in various industries, links to websites and case studies, and a video panel conclusion.

“I believe we need to make learning exciting and entertaining,” says Ghadar. “You need to get interest and attention before you can communicate effectively.”

Centra, the world’s leading provider of software and ASP services for live e-learning, have also strived to make their services attention-grabbing. The Centra Knowledge Server™ (www.centra.com) is the first standards-based learning content management system that “enables organisations to personalise and re-use knowledge assets in the form of prescriptive learning programmes”. Like the TPI CD, the Centra Knowledge Server™ blends live events and recordings with self-paced content in order to accelerate time-to-performance, lower costs and increase revenue, although this is not on portable CD format, it is a web-based client interface, which enables individuals to personally prescribe their learning tracks and activities. It provides access to a searchable online catalogue of learning resources and engages users in a series of pre and post-activity assessments.

Noticibly, larger companies are paving the way for effective e-learning by providing previews and follows up to their programmes. This again ties in with learning being a journey rather than an event or series of events, something all potential e-learners must realise.


Return On Investment

With the pressure on to learn, retain knowledge and put it all to productive use, the number of solutions available is growing and improving in order to help e-learners to achieve a better ROI.

One company is going even further, by helping companies to calculate the return on investment of e-learning compared to traditional training. The Human Element (www.thehumanelement.com) recently launched their eLearning ROI software programme to provide a first step toward a more in depth analysis of the ROI of introducing or expanding e-learning.

“Maintaining traditional classroom corporate training environments has become very expensive,” says Scott Risner, CEO of The Human Element. “The logistics of coordinating travel, space and people are made much easier in an e-learning environment. Our software has been designed to assist businesses in calculating the favourable impact of e-learning on their organisations.”

In order to achieve maximum ROI on e-learning then, users must be aware that:
  • Self-paced learning has more unknowns than instructor-led training, so content for users of this medium (such as mobile workers) require needs-based content rather than linear-based content.

  • Web-based and multimedia based learning systems cannot improvise to meet the needs of e-learners, but can provide feedback and follow up mechanisms, whereas, web based learning can offer live interaction and guidance. E-learners need to weigh up the pros and cons of each medium and approach, alongside their own learning objectives and behaviours, to achieve the right balance.
Wherever the future of e-learning lies, the Internet and other offline technologies have the capacity to revolutionise the way we learn. As usability and user-centred design expert, Judee Humburg says, “We just need to challenge technologists to create tools that really can enhance people’s ability to collect, apply, access, re-asses and use the kind of experiences and intelligence that individuals have when they collaborate.”

© Copyright 2002 Denny O'Farrell

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.

 

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