Pros and cons of e-learning

According to the U.K.-based Institute for Employment Studies (IES), a quarter of all learning in the next five years will be delivered electronically. With that change on the horizon, HR and training professionals need to start improving their e-learning skills and knowledge.

“While the concept of e-learning is often confusing, the growing capability of technology has become too important an issue in developing the skills and abilities of individuals for employers to ignore,” said Richard Pearson, director of the IES.

The following overview comes from the recently released IES report Exploring e-Learning.

What is e-learning?
E-learning is the delivery and administration of learning opportunities and support via computer, networked and Web-based technology, to help individual performance and development. It is more than just “training on a computer” as it encompasses dissemination of information, performance support and knowledge management. It involves not only access to training materials but also offers the management of learning — providing both content and administration.

Advantages of e-learning
Just in time, just enough and just for you: E-learning materials can be accessed at the most convenient time, in short segments and can be customized to suit learner needs.

Cost effective: Significant reductions in delivery costs, reportedly in excess of 50 per cent.

Up-to-date: Content can be easily updated from one central source.

Quick: The time needed to learn a particular topic or skill is reduced or “compressed” as learning is tailored to an individual. Most reports suggest a 50 per cent reduction in learning time.

Retainable: The smaller and more relevant the learning the easier it is to capture.

Risk-free: People can learn in a relatively anonymous environment without the embarrassment of failure or any socio-cultural bias from personal contact.

Consistent: Everyone gets the same standardized training from e-learning courses, regardless of location or timing.

Easy to track: Administrative functions facilitate learner registration, monitoring of learner progress, testing and record keeping, without the need to develop additional systems.

Empowering: Increases people’s IT skills.

Potential drawbacks
In developing an e-learning strategy, the disadvantages also need to be kept in mind. Some of the drawbacks of e-learning include:

•Because it is technology dependent, learners need access to appropriate hardware and software, which may not always be available. Bandwidth is a particular problem.

•Courses and technology may sometimes be incompatible with other systems and materials, although the development of standards may minimize potential fragmentation or confusion.

•Online learning is unsuitable for some types of training, particularly some soft skill development that relies heavily on interpersonal contact such as team building, communication or presentations. However, even in these cases, e-learning can be useful in pre-course preparation or post-course followup.

•Online learning may also be unsuitable for some types of learners. E-learning can be seen as cold and impersonal and is thought to require high levels of self-discipline and self-motivation, as “learning” at a desk may not be seen as a “legitimate activity.”

•Technology-based training is somewhat less interactive than it is thought to be. Some e-learning programs are merely “photocopied pages on the Web” (although quality is improving), and some e-learners have reported difficulties coming to grips with programs, the absence of feedback and other aspects learner support.

•It’s expensive to set up, both in terms of providing the infrastructure (although this may be in place already, intranets and so on will have to be able to carry a lot of traffic) and the cost of developing content. Some studies have pointed to the “hidden costs” of providing learner support.

•E-learning is still dependent on human support, both to help people use the software and also to support learning.

Six issues to consider
The report identifies the following six issues organizations should consider in developing an approach to e-learning:

Do you need a bit of both? Most organizations are working on ways of blending e-learning with traditional classroom approaches to training.

Do you do it yourself? There are three main options for resourcing e-learning materials:

•buying off-the-shelf programs, thought to be a good start, but unlikely to be sufficient;

•customizing externally developed content or finding an external contractor to develop materials from scratch. This is the more popular option recently but is very expensive; and

•developing materials in-house, thought by some to be the way forward.

Do e-learners need support? The provision of support to learners is a key element of a comprehensive e-learning strategy and can take a number of forms:

•automated support: advanced help facilities;

•expert support: synchronous (real time) or asynchronous (post hoc) contact between learners and tutors. The latter is felt to be better for learners with good self-discipline and an erratic schedule, while the former is suited to learners or learning situations needing more structure and immediate feedback;

•peer-to-peer support: contact between learners, either as a followup to particular learning activities or as some form of closed (or open) learning set or community. Either form may or may not need facilitating; and

•mentoring: one-to-one interactions between individuals.

Will the trainers be unhappy? E-learning is likely to change the role and skills of trainers, but not eliminate their role altogether. It can therefore provide a range of opportunities for trainers to develop their role and skills, however some will see a move to e-learning as a threat.

How can you tell if it is working? E-learning generally provides a host of functions to help evaluate not only use of learning provision but also outputs. This can both help individuals manage their own learning and organizations manage their overall provision.

How do you get it right? Five factors are thought to contribute towards successful implementation of e-learning:

•analysis: the identification of training needs, specification of learning objectives, selecting and understanding the audience, and deciding on the methods of learning;

•design: creation of own application by selecting content, media, type of interactivity available to learners, and user interface;

•development: putting the design into action, which involves production of audio and video, programming of software, authoring of materials and testing;

•implementation: promoting the program, collecting management information, and appointing skilled mentors; and

•evaluation: reviewing the performance of the program against its objectives in terms of take up, efficiency, effectiveness and return on investment.

Source: Exploring E-Learning, E. Pollard and J. Hillage. Institute for Employment Studies. For more information visit IES at www.employment-studies.co.uk/.

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