Hard lessons from the big e-learning experiment

Nov 06 2003 by Nic Paton Print This Article

The dotcom boom led to many hyped-up claims, not least that, by now, we would all be sitting at computers instead of in classrooms when it came to workplace training.

Management experts made wild predictions.

One said 90% of workplace training would be online by 2003, another that the market for e-learning, as it is known, would have grown 95% by 2006.

The reality has turned out to be somewhat different. In the past two to three years firms that rushed to buy expensive technology and courses have often found either the kit doesn't do what they'd hoped, or their staff simply don't want to know.

“Some of the predictions for e-learning turned out to be fatuous nonsense,” admits Martyn Sloman, an adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“E-learning has failed to deliver on its expectations. In the past two years there has been some quite scandalous overselling by e-learning vendors to companies.”

Many businesses invested in e-learning simply because they saw everyone else doing so, or they felt it could save them money from their training budget. Others were taken in by the excitement of the new technology, admits Steve Dineen, chief executive of e-learning provider, Wide Learning. Organisations frequently made the mistake of blowing most of their budget, sometimes millions of pounds, on the technology, forgetting that the quality of the courses they put up there was just as important.

“A lot of e-learning companies raised a lot of money from that time and, yes, there was a backlash. The concept was right but the implementation of it was wrong. Now nobody is going to buy anything unless they can verify they are going to get a business benefit from it,” he says.

A survey of HR professionals by e-learning consultancy ICUS, for instance, found 45% felt the money they'd invested in e-learning had not been a success, with one in three arguing there were too few good quality courses on offer. Just as important, there has been a backlash from employees.

In the ICUS survey, a quarter of the 275 people polled said learning in isolation, often the case with e-learning, meant there was a high drop-out rate among staff.

Similarly, because learning could now be done at the desk, staff resented the fact that, where once you booked out of the office to go on a course, now you were expected to slot your learning in around your normal work or, even worse, in your own time. Where firms bought in off-the-shelf courses, workers disliked the American accents that inevitably came with them or found the scenarios and content simply irrelevant to them, suggests Mr Sloman.

Often, too, there was not enough support and training given to managers about what this new technology was, how it worked and why they and their employees should use it.

Yet this backlash does not mean organisations have stopped going down the e-learning route. A CIPD survey last year found a third of training managers were now involved in e-learning to some degree. A similar study this year reported this figure had risen to half those polled.

“What has happened is that organisations are demanding much more customised or tailor-made material. They are also using e-learning in different ways. Some are using it like virtual conferencing, with a tutor actually online with an audience,” says Mr Sloman.

There is a greater recognition that e-learning needs to be part of the training mix, not the whole package. “There is a lot more emphasis on asking how do we get employees into it,” adds Mr Dineen. “We recommend using things such as 30-second animations or emails to give a tease of what's on offer, having training champions in the office and so on.

“We also suggest having the first piece of training in a classroom.”

Employers need to consider how they are going to motivate their staff to go online and learn, perhaps linking training to personal development plans, promotion or even pay, suggests Chris Horseman, managing director of Balance Learning, a firm that specialises in creating training packages that mix traditional and e-learning.

There is a big divide between IT training, which it is almost all now done through e-learning, and “soft skills” training, things like leadership, management and communication, where going online remains less common, he adds.

At the height of the dotcom madness, some forecasters were predicting the e-learning market might be worth as much as £7bn by 2005. The reality will be more like £2bn to £3bn, suggests Mr Horseman. This, though, is a sizeable market and demand is still growing. Just last month, Jobs & Money reported how the NHS is embracing e-learning to encourage its 500,000 staff to become more computer literate. Walk into most big name organisations and you’ll probably find some sort of e-learning offering. In many areas, e-learning does have an edge over conventional training. Its flexibility, if managed right, can be an advantage. The fact you can test yourself and assess what you are learning as you go, and then go back to update your learning regularly, are other plus points.

E-learning can also be useful in offering initial training ahead of a conventional class, so employees come better primed and prepared.

For instance, when independent financial adviser Tenet, which employs 2,500 IFAs around the country, decided last November it needed to put in place some training on money laundering, e-learning was the most efficient answer.

“In the past we would have had to get people to travel to a regional centre which would have meant two to three hours travelling for an hour’s training then the same time home again,” says training and development manager Ken Young. “Using e-learning people could sit down and do it 40 to 50 minutes and we could monitor the whole thing, who had done the tests, centrally.

“The feedback we got was very positive.”

The key was that the company identified its business need and then got the training in, rather than the other way round, he suggests.

However, for many businesses, this sort of lesson, and the understanding that e-learning has both advantages and serious limitations, has come too late.

“There are a number of organisations that undoubtedly have had their fingers burnt because they bought whole catalogues of material, put them up on their intranets and then sat back and hoped people would look at them,” says Mr Sloman.

This story first appeared in Guardian Jobs & Money, August 30, 2003