Taking Inventory

What Has eLearning Delivered?

Berlin (GER), December 2009 - (by Angelika Eckert) Some researchers contend that the difference between traditional learning and eLearning is negligible. So - if this is the case - what has the decade of eLearning's development yielded in the corporate environment? At Online Educa Berlin, three eLearning experts, Marc Niemes of the Australian eLearning Association, Laura Overton, head of the British firm Towards Maturity, and Dr. Gale Parchoma, an academic from Britain's Lancaster University, exchanged views on the topic. On the agenda were two questions: What has eLearning altered, and where does the future of corporate eLearning lie?

Marc Niemes, Vice President of the Victoria eLearning Industry Association concentrated on the future of the eLearning, of which he has a clear view in the Australian and East Asian contexts. Here, he sees more than seventy percent of future eLearners having to wait for appropriate applications, most of which are to be mobile, given the fact that satellite links for mobile telephones are available worldwide. According to Niemes, Australia has become a nation of mobile eLearning, because broadband capacity, both expensive and in short supply, limits learning via the Internet.

The Association sets three criteria as a basis for the development of high-quality learning applications: format, content, and context. Furthermore, it has identified mobile devices as the format of the future, based on the assumption that the spread of Smartphones will increase dramatically in the next few years and the mobile network will become ubiquitous. In addition, research results have proved that eighty percent of knowledge acquisition occurs through informal learning, and it is mobile devices in particular that provide sustainable support for the culture of informal learning in an increasingly mobile world of work.

Marc Niemes is convinced that in order to be good, content must be relevant to the learner. "Research has proved that learning can do without multimedia altogether when content is important to the learner and the motivation high enough. Even possible deficiencies of mobile devices are insignificant when the motivation to learn something is high enough, meaning that the context is right.

"Australia has good content, from which students in Europe, America, and Asia can benefit", says Niemes. However, the Australian eLearning Association sees a future challenge in setting "instructional design standards". In this effort, experts from Down-Under hope for closer cooperation with European institutions on a long-term basis.

Indicators of successful eLearning

Laura Overton, head of the Towards Maturity UK, has been working in the eLearning industry for years, including for companies such as Smartforce. She remembers the promise that eLearning seemed to hold in regard to revolutionizing learning, giving the individual learner more authority to decide, and providing a competitive advantage to companies. Her critical eye fell on promises that have not been kept, results that have lived up to their expectations, and why some firms achieve better results than others.

A benchmark test encompassing 600 British firms from the service, financial, health, training, IT, communications, and public sectors provided a great deal of information about the status of eLearning. It revealed that approximately 72 percent of all firms that employed it were rather half-hearted in their eLearning efforts, with more than half of them reporting that their activities were still in the development stage. Laura Overton commented in a pointed tone that "This status sometimes extends over many years, and in some cases, never ends.

Only ten percent of all companies canvassed have eLearning embedded consistently in their learning endeavors and feel they have established a learning culture that influences their everyday business life in its entirety. Towards Maturity discovered that companies having this type of sophisticated eLearning strategy also reported having significant performance increases, high motivation among their employees, and clear commercial advantages.

Back in 2004, inadequate technical infrastructure was regarded as the main obstacle. In 2006, it was equipment costs. Today, in contrast, the hurdles always have something to do with humans. The lack of employee commitment is as the very top of the list, followed by knowledge deficits and a shortage of the skills needed for mutual understanding and cooperation. Technical people and trainers all too often work against each other rather than with each other due to fears and reservations.

So what is it that the highly developed firms do better? According to Towards Maturity, they stick to a defined procedure based on six essential factors:

  1. The definition of needs - This includes strategies that align learning content with both personal and business demands.
  2. The context of learning - Content is offered in a context that is promotes both career choices and motivation.
  3. The context of work - This comprises the necessary IT infrastructure, support from management, and the corporate learning culture.
  4. The training of skills - This involves the education and training department's development of new strategies and embarking on new paths of further education.
  5. The maintenance of commitment - Perceiving marketing and communication tasks in order to address the needs of learners, managers, and trainers.
  6. The creation of value - Establishing corporate values through a process of gathering feedback that both measures and communicates success.

Here Towards Maturity has identified six relatively basic areas of activity that - despite their fundamental nature - can produce sweeping effects. "Companies that cling to these procedures often see a 300 percent output to input ratio in regard to their learning-technology investments", summarized the eLearning expert Laura Overton.

The future demands precise definition

The conviction of the need to tear down barriers is shared by Dr. Gale Parchoma, a researcher at Lancaster University's Centre for Studies of Advanced Learning Technologies (CSALT). The variety of philosophical and technological approaches results in the fact that everyone who has to do with eLearning sees something different in the meaning of the term. As a result, she finds the use of the singular phrase "eLearning" problematic.

Parchoma distinguishes among six different schools of pedagogy, such as humanism and behaviorism, as well as a variety of technological approaches. In order for eLearning to have a future, she feels a clear definition is necessary. Furthermore, she opines that - where appropriate - eLearning should be replaced by terms like Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL), Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (CSCL), Blended Learning (BL) and Networked Learning (NL). Her contention is that greater differentiation would ultimately guarantee more precision and reduce ambiguity.