Pollard E, Hillage J
Report 376, Institute for Employment Studies, May 2001
a study supported by the IES Research Networks
The guide is a product of the Institute’s Research Club project to explore the world of e-learning. It is not an attempt to evaluate the many claims for e-learning, the veracity of which only time will tell. Nor does it investigate the technical aspects of e-learning or provide a comprehensive map of e-learning provision. Rather, it summarises current research and commentary on the provision of all forms of online learning, supplemented by information drawn from discussions with the Institute’s member organisations.
On this basis, it provides practical pointers to:
- what e-learning is all about
- the benefits that are claimed for e-learning
- the potential pitfalls of learning online, and
- some of the issues organisations need to consider when developing an e-learning strategy.
What is e-learning?
e-Learning is not new and has been around in some form or other for the past ten years. However, interest is rapidly growing. A quarter of all learning is expected to take place electronically in five years time.
e-Learning involves the delivery and administration of learning opportunities and support via computer, networked and web-based technology, to help individual performance and development.
In its broadest form, e-learning encompasses:
- the provision of information via information or communication technologies in a very accessible and immediate way that can enable individuals to refresh or extend their knowledge and improve their performance
- the provision of interactive learning materials and packages designed to facilitate skills or wider personal development. The actual courses currently provided via e-learning mainly focus on IT skills and, to a lesser extent, on softer skills (people-to-people training) such as general management skills, or more specific aspects of management such as interviewing, negotiation, conducting meetings etc.
- at the third level, e-learning is multi-dimensional and embraces both the first two levels into a wider performance support framework. This is coupled with processes to administer and monitor learning provision and outcomes, and to provide learners with various forms of support from experts and peers. On administration, e-learning can provide access to learning resources including previews, registration and tracking of use. This can be done to a greater or lesser extent either through passive portals (eg BlueU) or more active learning management systems (such as Lotus Learning Space, or BT’s Solstra).
Advantages of e-learning
Benefits claimed for e-learning include that it can be:
- 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 customised to suit learner needs
- cost effective - with 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 that 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 and/or any socio-cultural bias from personal contact
- consistent - everyone gets the same standardised message from e-learning, which is valued by some organisations
- interactive and collaborative - and therefore more fun
- easy to track - as the administrative functions facilitate learner registration, monitoring of learner progress, testing and record-keeping, without the need to develop additional systems
- empowering - as it increases people’s IT skills.
Potential drawbacks are that e-learning can be:
- technology dependent - and learners need access to appropriate hardware and software to fully benefit. Bandwidth is a particular problem.
- sometimes incompatible with other systems and materials, although the development of standards may minimise the potential fragmentation or confusion
- 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 follow-up.
- 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’
- somewhat less interactive than it is cracked up to be - some e-learning programs are no more than ‘photocopied pages on the Web’ (although quality is improving), and some e-learners have reported difficulties getting to grips with programmes, the absence of feedback, and other aspects learner support
- expensive to set up - both in terms of providing the infrastructure (although this may be in place already, intranets etc. 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.
- still dependent on human support - both to help people use the software and also to support their learning.
Issues to consider
The guide identifies half a dozen issues for organisations to consider in developing their approach to e-learning:
Do you need a bit of both?
Most organisations 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
- customising externally-developed content or finding an external contractor to develop materials from scratch - on the up at the moment, but expensive
- 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 follow-up to particular learning activities and/or as some form of closed (or open) learning set or community. Either form may or may not need facilitating
- 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 and throughputs of learning provision but also outputs. This can both help individuals manage their own learning and organisations manage their overall provision.
Getting 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 bespoke 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/video, programming of software, authoring of materials, and testing
- implementation: promoting the programme, collecting management information, and appointing skilled mentors
- evaluation: reviewing the performance of the programme against its objectives, in terms of take up, efficiency, effectiveness, and return on investment (ROI).
Exploring e-Learning, Pollard E, Hillage J. Report 376, Institute for Employment Studies, 2001.
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