5 things to watch in e-learning

As functionality improves, massive changes still to come

Over the last decade, technology has helped e-learning explode into the corporate scene. Encompassing techniques and approaches such as performance support, informal learning, mobile learning, online learning and hybrid learning, the development of e-learning has made significant improvements in corporations.

But all the changes will pale in comparison to what’s looming on the horizon. Five important future trends in e-learning are:

• mobile technologies

• distributed workforces

• collaborative technologies

• virtual worlds, games, simulations

• multimedia.

Mobile technologies

Mobile technologies are growing in influence in training and development. The release of smart phones, such as the BlackBerry and iPhone, present many new opportunities. In November 2007, Reuters reported more than 50 per cent of the world had access to mobile phones. The prominence of mobile devices raises the value of their use in learning. Short videos, instant messaging, podcasts and e-mail are features available on smart phones.

Why are mobile phones so significant for learning? These personal devices form a central part of the communication habits of virtually all elements of society. Their prevalence and familiarity make phones a useful learning tool. Obviously certain types of learning are not well suited to mobile use but, even five years ago, the prospect of using a phone to watch videos or as a mini-GPS device would have seemed ridiculous. Today, both of these are common uses.

The future will bring continued innovation in the functionality and features of mobile computing. As functionality increases, options for training and development will increase as well.

Distributed workforces

Workforces are increasingly distributed. The growth of global workforces requires greater attention to training and development that builds the skills and capacities of employees so they can participate in collaborative work with individuals from around the world. Expertise is no longer centred in one geographical location.

Global workforces add an additional layer of complexity to learning. Instead of focusing on the content of learning, the focus is now on the skill sets of working in a distributed manner. In many cases, employees work from home as the Internet has freed knowledge workers from the physical office space. How do HR and training departments meet the needs of these professionals? How are training needs defined? How is performance measured? Delivering training to distributed workforces is a critical challenge facing organizations.

Collaborative technologies

Collaborative technologies are linked to the growth of distributed workforces. Through the use of blogs, wikis, social network services and almost daily new offerings in this field, training departments are faced with numerous challenges. Collaboration is critical in any type of work. Yet collaboration raises concerns of privacy and security. Should employees participate in public social networking sites, such as LinkedIn or Facebook? Or should employees connect internally with profiles only available to other corporate employees?

The same network used for collaborating around work-related projects can also serve as a network for training and development. Corporations, however, with existing policies that reflect a more traditional approach to training will find the first critical task is to clarify participation in collaborative technologies.

The opportunities for collaboration with employees, suppliers and peers are enormous. The growth of collaboration in the workforce will have a significant and transformative impact on organizations, says Don Tapscott, in his book Wikinomics. Training departments need to be aware of the issues surrounding collaboration as well as tools and options.

Virtual worlds, games and simulations

The initial rush to create a corporate presence in virtual worlds such as Second Life has slowed. TechCrunch, a blog about Web 2.0 products and companies, has reported a large-scale exodus from Second Life by many corporations that had initially embraced the site enthusiastically. This correction in hype overlooks the more substantial and sustained use of games and simulations for training and development.

Case-based or problem-based learning approaches are well documented by MBA schools. The value of simulation-based training can’t be disputed in pilot training or military procedures. Increasingly research is suggesting games boost “scientific habits of the mind” in players. And, as the next generation of learners enters the workforce — a generation with significant experience with games and simulations — expectations for engaging methods of learning will likely rise.


Over the last five years, the Internet has shifted from text to multimedia. Podcasts, videos and online games mean training offerings are no longer confined to text. Interactive applications, teleconferences and video-based training are only a small subset of the many different media tools HR and training departments need to be aware of. The “click and advance” e-learning courses of early 2000 are now far more engaging and interactive. In the process, development costs have sometimes increased, but so has the effectiveness and impact of the learning experience.

Seemingly endless advances in technology have left many overwhelmed. Professionals in the field of e-learning are certainly no different. The last several years of social media tools, multimedia options and distributed workforce needs have created a climate of perpetual catch up. The skills required by employees are continually changing and the potential exists for deeper levels of learning than previously achieved in classroom models.

For training professionals, it’s an exciting time. Some of the initial confusion of new technologies has given way to sustained trends, such as the five presented here. Based on these trends, an emerging image of the future of e-learning can be seen — a future defined by innovation, opportunity and effective learning.

George Siemens is the owner of e-learning consultancy Complexive Systems in Winnipeg. He can be reached at (204) 312-0466 or [email protected].

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