Technology-based learning comes of age

E-learning shifts to user interactions, multi-vendor solutions

Cynthia Prelle of Scotiabank is proud of the e-learning system that she and her team has set up for the IT department in the four years she has been with the organization.

Back when she started, not all desktop computers had an Internet connection. Prelle, project delivery manager with Scotiabank’s strategic human resources group, said this made launching e-learning a little challenging. Now, the department’s online learning library, consisting of 150 titles, reaches beyond the usual IT skills to include courses on project management, business and professional skills development. Of the 1,200 IT staff served by the e-learning system, 63 per cent log on regularly, which Prelle takes as a sign that the library is relevant and useful to the department.

“The numbers aren’t as high as we’d like, but the support from the senior leadership team has helped increase the usage year over year.”

Last summer, Prelle and the department’s online learning advisory committee took another look at the market to see if there are other offerings the bank should sign on to. They did their homework, creating a detailed scorecard that spelled out what they needed, as aligned with the bank’s business objectives, and attributed a precise value to every requirement.

Many vendors responded to their request for proposal, but in the end, “there was nothing that really stood out and said to us, ‘This is what we have to have,’” said Prelle. “The vendors pretty much had similar products to offer.”

Prelle and the advisory committee decided against getting anything new and instead, renewed the existing contract.

What Prelle was hoping to see from the wares she reviewed was something that supported more human interaction, more collaborative group learning and more participation for mentors.

“I’m a self-directed learner, but I still like to interact with others. I still want something that allows me to contact someone and say, ‘Have I understood this correctly?’ E-learning can make you feel isolated because it is so individualized. That’s not the traditional learning environment most of us were raised in.”

Prelle’s comment on the alienating nature of most e-learning products is one of several themes reaching the ear of consultants and vendors. Bewilderment at the vast array of choices is another oft-heard sentiment, as the number of delivery platforms and software seem to multiply at hyper-speed. And quick on the heel of this bewilderment is a general mistrust of vendors.

Communities of learners

E-learning is still an immature industry, and as a consequence, errors on both the vendor’s and the buyer’s part are to be expected. For a training manager at an organization’s HR department, however, the costs of error include more than just time and money. “There’s goodwill that you would have spent,” said Linda Harasim, an educational theory expert and president of eLearningSolutions Inc. in Vancouver.

“It makes it difficult for you to go back to the staff and say, ‘Sorry, we made a mistake on the system. Here’s a better one.’ In each case, you’re asking people to change their way of working.”

Harasim suggested that decision-makers should tap into the vast body of research in online and distance-learning that has accumulated in the academic world. Canada’s universities are considered world leaders in technology-based training, she said, and although the learning objectives of the workplace might be wholly different from those of a tertiary institution, some of the lessons in effective learning approaches apply to both streams.

One of those lessons, said Harasim, is people don’t learn well by themselves.

“What the (workplace e-learning) market is being flooded with right now is individualized courseware, or what some would call ‘electronic page-turning.’ There’s a high drop-out rate with these approaches. People learn well with others. It doesn’t mean that everything has to be done in groups, but intellectually and socially, the group interaction is really key to learning.”

To respond to that need, Harasim said organizations should encourage the development of learning communities. This approach is particularly important for training in knowledge work, where the learning objectives have less to do with the ability to repeat processes but the ability to solve problems, think on one’s feet and invent.

The idea of learning communities, said Harasim, falls along the same line of thinking that takes the teacher from the front of the room to the back of the room. “Today, most of the successful online programs or classrooms use some form of collaboration. Whereas the traditional teacher takes up 80 per cent of the air time, because we lecture, in successful online programs, students take up most of the volume of the discourse.”

But that’s not to say that e-learning takes the instructor out of the equation, as is the popular conception. “A very big mistake people make is to think of the computer as the teacher. Industry thinks that it’s a cheaper way of doing things. Well, simply doing multiple choice tests doesn’t constitute competence. It doesn’t mean that once you face a real emergency, and bells are ringing, that you will be able to problem-solve. Multiple choice is multiple choice.”

At Red River College in Manitoba, instructor George Siemens agreed that a community of learners is a concept that’s critical to e-learning because “one of the biggest drawbacks that learners often cite is a feeling of isolation. Quite often, if learners are in a course where they feel some kind of obligations, then yes, they’ll stick with the course, because they form bonds.”

But he cautioned that organizations can do little more than create the conditions for communities of learning to foster. “Typically a community takes some time to develop, and it takes a shared focus, a shared commitment. And I don’t know if it can be managed, because a community evolves quite organically,” said Siemens, author of elearnspace, an e-learning resources Web site for practitioners.

A wide variety of technologies are available to allow learners to interact, from one-to-one formats like e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms to many-to-many formats like discussion boards, listservs and desktop teleconferencing. When the learning envisioned begins to look more like collaboration, organizations can turn to whiteboards, collaboration software, Web presentation software, and so on.

But it doesn’t take much more than “simple social technology” to allow for a community of learners to foster, said Siemens. “That could be a Web log, that could be e-mail, listservs or discussion boards. Any tool that allows people to communicate and share ideas and concepts could be a component of a learning community. But a learning community is primarily comprised of people with a similar interest. Why are they getting together? And once they have a reason for being, technology is an enabler in the process.”

But while this community concept has gained acceptance in the academic world — to the point where certain master’s programs require students to register with listservs, said Siemens — “in the corporate training that I’ve developed, the idea doesn’t even come up at all.”

Acknowledging that training managers are often overwhelmed by the variety of choices, Siemens said one trend he’s seeing is the increasing role of learning consultants. These would be people “who look at an organization, and before they do anything, they begin by assessing what is the state of an organization. Because a full e-learning solution isn’t going to work in every organization.

“They’ll strategize, make a business plan, and create a model that would work. And then they take that plan and literally go through the buffet of e-learning options. They’ll go to one vendor and look at the technology it has, and they go to other vendors and look at the content there.”

Justin Ferrabee, executive director of ACERRA said over the past three years, “the vendor community has done itself and its customers a bit of a disservice primarily because the business model of the vendor has driven the nature of the solution. Selling an e-learning title is a very alluring business model. Once you’ve built it, you sell it, and it’s all profit-margin once you’ve gotten over a certain threshold.

“So they’ve been very aggressive in trying to hook up companies with libraries of online products. And there’s certainly a case to be made that there are times when that’s very relevant and appropriate, but I think it was oversold, and a lot of companies ended up with these big libraries with nobody using them.”

New vending models

Echoing Siemens, Ferrabee said he’s seeing a new approach in which vendors first assess an organization’s needs, then undertake the risks and assemble different components of e-learning technology and content.

“Vendors are also starting to recognize that there’s not a single delivery method. A lot of the times vendors are organized around a method of delivery, so you’d have an online learning vendor and a classroom vendor,” said Ferrabee. But more “customers are saying, even organized around a subject matter like interviewing skills, ‘I might want my employees to spend two hours online learning about the theory of it, then I want them in a classroom to role-play for a while, then when they’re done that, I want them to be part of a chat room so they can talk to their colleagues about what’s working and what’s not working.’”

As a result, vendors have to retool their businesses so that they’re delivering blended solutions rather than any one delivery method, Ferrabee said.

Having an intermediary to help filter through the different options is becoming more and more important, agreed Lyndsay Green, consultant at Lyndsay Green Associates, adding that this is where communities of practice can come in.

More and more, sector-based training communities are being developed to “aggregate the learning and training needs for distinct sectors” to help direct trainers at organizations to material that is relevant and appropriate for their employees. A number of sector councils — in textiles, construction, and logistics, in particular — have been developing and aggregating e-learning material for their industries, she said.

These intermediary bodies would also help small and medium businesses adopt e-learning strategies, because smaller companies don’t have the resources to customize their own training material, said Green.

“What’s been happening at a lot of organizations is the closer they can bring learning to the actual problem, the more they can connect learning to the real day-to-day issues, the more people will use it. That can be addressed in a number of ways; one is through smaller and smaller learning chunks that you can access immediately.”

Green said she was once at a bank’s training session, one which made use of satellite videoconferencing. “The learners were talking through the headquarter’s delivery, even though it was done in very high quality. Then there was a portion for participation, with audio feed from rural branches, and although the audio was really really hard to hear, everybody stopped to listen.

“That was because people felt the experiences being discussed were identical to their own, and those were the people they could learn from.”

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