Technology no longer the driver

Three experts weigh in on the outlook for e-learning
By Sandra Mingail
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/18/2006

Where is the e-learning market heading? That was the question put to a trio in the know, and their answers suggest that blended learning, simulations and mobile learning are the three promising e-learning formats to keep a close eye on.

The experts consulted for this e-learning industry outlook included Kathryn Barker, president of Vancouver-based FuturEd Consulting and speaker at next month’s Canadian Society for Training and Development 2005 Learning Innovations Symposium; Ramona Materi, president of Vancouver-based e-learning provider Ingenia Training, also a speaker at the 2005 Learning Innovations Symposium; and Tony Mark, research council officer with the E-Learning Research Group at the Institute for Information Technology, an agency funded by the federal government’s National Research Council (NRC).

Their comments focused on key areas of e-learning: blended learning, knowledge management, collaborative learning, collaborative learning and mobile learning or what’s known as m-learning.

On blended learning

A mix of classroom and technology-based learning.

Barker considers blended learning a lifeline for e-learning. “Standalone e-learning doesn’t work,” says Barker. “We should be focused on doing things in a new way. To keep e-learning alive we need to blend.”

Materi also believes in the power of the blend, and that technology is not king. But she is quick to point out that although blended learning works in theory, it brings its own set of baggage. For example, it’s a great idea to design a course where students must complete online work before stepping foot in a classroom. The idea is everyone would be at the same level when it’s time for face-to-face learning. The problem is, online pre-work often has little structure, and many participants just don’t come to class prepared. So if the instructor has built a course based on an integrated blend, it may just fall flat on its face.

According to Mark, the term “blended learning” should disappear, because all learning should be blends. Like e-learning, blended learning still makes some classroom instructors nervous about being replaced by technology, but this alarmist view of blended learning is unwarranted. The natural approach, says Mark, is to always think in terms of blends, and choose the right tools for the learning job at hand. That might take the form of in-person mentoring or online coaching sessions.

Bottom line:

Blended learning is good. But it needs to be carefully crafted as an integrated learning solution with mandatory components, and a support and monitoring system that makes it work.

On knowledge management

The process of capturing organizational knowledge and making it available for sharing.

Ask a dozen people for a definition of knowledge management, and they’ll likely come up with a dozen different answers. But as Mark puts it, what’s important is knowledge management is about people. It’s about mining the valuable information that resides in an organization, and the expertise that lives in people’s heads. There are now many tools to help in that task — tools such as collaborative technologies and database applications. But many organizations get nervous about knowledge management. They think it is complex, or they believe they are not big enough to pull it off.

Materi points out the need to capture know-how from soon-to-retire employees. Expertise goes out the door with those employees. Of course incentives, both financial and non-financial, need to be in place to encourage that sharing and archiving of knowledge.

A growing trend in knowledge management is the use of e-portfolios — a collection of digital artifacts and reflections saved on disks or CDs. An e-portfolio, says Barker, captures what an employee learns as well as evidence of performance improvement. So when an employee’s annual performance review rolls around, an e-portfolio can identify on-the-job competencies and outline patterns of professional growth. E-portfolios can be also be used for quality assurance. For example, a portfolio of a company’s product or service can be created, including details of processes for continuous improvement. This could then be used as a staff orientation training tool, or to impress potential clients.

Still in their infancy, e-portfolios are primarily used in career development and management environments. “I believe that e-portfolios offer the best potential for the whole e-learning movement,” says Barker. “They are synonymous with e-learning”.

Bottom line:

Many people still struggle with the meaning and purpose of knowledge management, and just how it should be implemented in their organization. The cobwebs need to be cleared before there is more full-fledged acceptance of this e-learning offspring.

On collaborative learning

Instructional strategies that incorporate the use of technology in promoting the exchange of information and ideas between groups of people.

“Collaborative learning is one of the fastest growing tool sets,” says Mark. “We’re learning a lot about new ways of communicating with people.”

Both Mark and Materi are quick to point out that many people still do not tap the potential of collaborative tools. Webinars and online presentations often end up being the one-way disseminations of information, rather than a rich tapestry of opinion exchange. Tools need to be tamed, and people need to feel comfortable using these new means of communication. As Mark puts it, “collaborative learning is all about putting people back into the e-learning equation”.

Barker, on the other hand, is a skeptic. “Who has time for collaborative learning and communities of practice?” says Barker. “There are lots of fascinating products out there, but to use them is very tedious.”

Bottom line:

If digital tools can be the conduit that pulls together distant colleagues, and facilitates valuable exchanges of information, then more power to the collaborator. Be sure to spend the time learning how to choreograph these virtual environments, so participants are clear on expectations and are welcomed into the virtual fold.

On simulations

Computer-based learning programs designed to immerse learners in a virtual world and let them practise tasks in environments that simulate the real world.

All three e-learning experts agreed simulations will continue to experience growth. Complex situations that demand consideration of many factors lend themselves particularly well to simulated environments, says Mark. Simulated environments for teaching potentially dangerous skills — such as flying planes or transporting hazardous material — are excellent candidates for this type of online learning. But many areas of leadership and development, particularly in the context of organizational change, also lend themselves well to simulated role plays.

Bottom line:

Simulations can be highly immersive and engaging learning environments. As development costs for this breed of e-learning continue to fall, and reusable templates proliferate, more organizations will discover its potential.

On m-learning

Learning delivered via portable devices such as personal digital assistants and cell phones.

Like knowledge management, mobile learning or m-learning is still evolving. For some, the value of m-learning is the ability to take a quiz at the airport lounge prior to a certification exam. For others, it may be the ability to access the latest sales figures on a personal digital assistant — five minutes before a big presentation.

Still, as our experts concede, it’s a tough task to learn on tiny screens and even tinier keyboards. On the flip side, getting your learning on the go has plenty of advantages.

Bottom line:

Once we conquer the ergonomic and usability barriers of the current crop of personal digital devices, m-learning has the potential to offer the ultimate in personal learning.

Overall predictions

When e-learning splashed on the corporate radar screen a few years back, technology was the lead story. Organizations felt the pressure to invest big bucks in learning management systems, and a companion collection of off-the-shelf courses. But the dot-com bust a few years back forced many to take a reality check.

As Materi says, people were leading with technology. Now, what’s needed is a different stance. Business and learning needs must come first. Integration of technology and learning is the recipe for success.

Federal leadership and marketing savvy is a must to help Canada stay afloat on the international e-learning wave. “I hope nothing stays the same,” says Barker. “The frustration level is high amongst learners and providers. We need to see improvements and systematic development. I see a huge potential for e-learning. But we need a radical transformation of our learning systems first.”

For Mark, the future of e-learning is all about people. “We need to focus on effective communications between people, and look at the range of technology to make that more effective,” says Mark. “Innovation lies with people — in how they work together and how they use these learning technologies.”

Well, folks, buckle up your e-learning seatbelts. The ride’s not over yet.

Sandra Mingail is vice-president of new media at Toronto-based Humansense.com Inc. She is a member of the Canadian Society for Training and Development. She can be reached at
(416) 322-0783 or smingail@humansense.com.

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