Electronic learning—or e-learning for short—is still in its infancy, though it continues to grow and evolve.
I am sure that for many of you, e-learning means different things. E-learning is a common term yet lacks a common definition. The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) published a report in 2001 that offered an expanded definition of e-learning. They wrote that e-learning is, "... instructional content or learning experiences delivered or enabled by electronic technology...that is designed to increase workers’ knowledge and skills so they can be more productive, find and keep high quality jobs, advance in their careers, and have a positive impact on the success of their employees, their families and their communities."
E-learning has been in the mainstream since the mid 90s and like the dot com boom, was caught up in the exuberance of the day. At that time, the industry touted it as the new paradigm in the delivery of training, and predicted that it would eclipse all other forms of training. The promise that it held was limitless. However, the anecdotal evidence since those days suggests otherwise. E-learning has proven disappointing so far, and perhaps some of that can be attributed to the sacrifice in quality as players rushed to cash-in on this multi-billion dollar a year industry.
I am sure many of you have participated in e-learning in some form or another, and perhaps have found the experience to be less than rewarding. I can speak from personal experience and can attest to the poor quality of some of these offerings. In one e-learning experience of mine, the course was no more than a repackaged assortment of textbooks and handbooks presented in a web-based format. I was motivated to learn the subject but with lack of peer interaction and synchronous communication with an instructor, I felt isolated and bored, and were it not for the fact that I really needed to learn the subject, I would have easily dropped the course and moved on. My experience was no different that many participants in e-learning; in fact, studies have shown that the attrition rates are extremely high, nearing 80%.
This is not to say that all e-learning is ineffective; indeed, there are many well-designed and developed e-learning experiences that engages the learner with a rich interactive experience. I just wish there were more of them.
Future of E-Learning
Despite where things stand today, e-learning is here to stay. Conventions in e-learning design and delivery will evolve, and conditions will improve. Many very talented people are involved in the research and delivery of e-learning, the result of which will be an overall improvement in e-learning.
The next step in the evolution of e-learning may involve a change in venue. The buzz these days in the training industry is how e-learning will evolve by moving out of the classroom and into the workplace. The trend is definitely away from removing people from the workplace for extended periods of time for training.
In the future, training will actually be embedded in the workflow of our daily work routines; the enabler of this will be technology. The universe of available tools to help us achieve this is expanding. Mobile devices with converged technology (i.e. telephone, PDA, MP3 player, etc) will evolve, and the organizations that learn to harness them for use in e-learning will reap the rewards. These tools will facilitate the ability to deliver training on demand, allowing people to learn only what is needed, and at the precise moment of need. This approach will reap far higher returns on investment than the classical models.
The traditional approach to training—instructor-led classroom training—is still one of the most effective ways of teaching. It is a method that has been in place for millennia, and not surprisingly, studies have shown that instructor-led training routinely outperforms other methods. Unfortunately, instructor-led training for the workplace has some practical limitations. Those limitations include higher costs such as employee downtime, travel expenses, and training facility costs.
Another drawback to this mode of instruction is the limited number of people that can be trained simultaneously. It is easy to see the drawback to this model when a workplace deems it necessary to train many of its staff in a short period of time. To address these needs, the training industry has developed a blend of both e-learning with traditional learning, and appropriately refers to it as blended learning.
Blended learning theory acknowledges that learning takes place over time and is a process rather than a one-time event. In the continuum of learning, learners move from a passive acceptance of facts to the active application of them. In this process, learners move through phases of acquiring information, practicing what they have learned on the job, and eventually moving to more complex applications of knowledge through feedback mechanisms such as mentoring and peer review.
I am optimistic about the future of e-learning and its variants. These are exciting times indeed, as I eagerly watch the evolution of this industry unfold.