1 E-learning: revolutionary or evolutionary Initial wild enthusiasm for e-learning has given way to more cautious practice.viki Holton and Andrew Ettinger seek out the reality behind the hyperbole and disappointment. Andrew Ettinger is Director of Learning Resources, responsible for Ashridge's unique multi-media Learning Resource Centre By the end of this century s first decade e-learning, or online learning, will probably be an accepted part of most training and development. But, while e-learning is becoming more widespread, growth has been far slower than initially predicted. The impact of e-learning is also proving to be slow and, as yet, hard to assess. E-learning may simply become just another way to provide training. However, another view is that e-learning has the potential to be far more powerful. Indeed, some observers believe e-learning has the power to completely change learning and knowledge management. Ashridge has worked with e-learning for a number of years, most recently launching an on-line MBA module. This prompted a study of how business is implementing e-learning. As an e-learning provider through its Virtual Learning Resource Centre (VLRC) Ashridge was obviously very interested in what the research indicated to suppliers. Over the past six months we have researched some of the key issues surrounding e-learning and conducted in-depth interviews with 16 organisations. Some of the results have confirmed Ashridge s own experience. Other findings were more surprising. Before examining the results of the study it is worth pausing to review e-learning. It is a controversial subject among people closely involved with training. A few confess to feeling indifferent about e-learning but it is more likely to hear opposing, and often quite strongly held, views. There are sceptics and believers. COMPANIES INTERVIEWED INCLUDED: Allied Irish Bank The BBC The British Council Coca-Cola GB Deutsche Bank Electro-components Franz Haniel Akademie Gartmore Investment Management Lloyds TSB Logicom Mercer Human Resource Consulting The Ministry of Defence Norwich Union Life Somerset County Council Volvo Truck Corporation Xerox Europe
2 These, of course, are not the only views expressed about e-learning, but they are useful labels, as they help articulate the pros and cons of e-learning. Sceptic or believer? Sceptics often regard e-learning as a poor approach to training and development. Comments range from simply "it creates a bad environment for the learner", through to the more dogmatic view that, "e-learning can t possibly replace a good training and classroom session". Many sceptics are devotees of the classroom. This isn t the only sceptical group. Others find it hard to see how e-learning, however good it might be, can replace the buzz from good teaching and discussions with a group of colleagues. In some respects the practical difficulties of the early years of e-learning have contributed to such views. A large amount of jargon has been generated. The focus of e-learning on individual learning is also both an advantage and a disadvantage. The good news is that the learner can learn at his or her own pace. The downside is that often learning becomes a solitary, and therefore lonely, process. This is often cited as a reason for the high drop-out rate in many e- learning programmes. It also contrasts badly with the buzz that s experienced at the end of a brilliant day s teaching and discussion. A lot of what s currently on offer, even when e-learning is blended or integrated with other types of training, remains focused on the individual learner. Technological problems have haunted e-learning from the beginning. A constant frustration mentioned by companies, regardless of sector or country, is the short-fall in the promise of technology. One example is the difficulty of matching technology across different departments, different sites and different countries. And, in case you think this problem applies only to companies without sophisticated IT knowledge, it appears to have affected almost all organisations. Technology problems of one sort or another, minor blips or major catastrophes, were mentioned by almost everyone interviewed. Some company teams responsible for developing e-learning consisted only of HR and training professionals but other teams with IT specialists also encountered technology problems. Of course, technology is already far more Viki Holton is a Senior advanced now than in the mid-1990s and so these Researcher, Ashridge Centre problems may be overcome over the next few years. Creating the buzz of classroom training may for Business and Society. also be helped by more interactive software and as trainers gain more experience at blending e-learning with other training approaches. viki.holton Improving technology infrastructures will help to reduce the high development costs of e-learning. In the other camp are the believers. This group is not necessarily the evangelistic convert who thinks e-learning should, or could, replace every other type of learning. This was discussed at one stage quite widely, but most companies interviewed in this study now believe e-learning is complementary, and likely to be one of a number of different training approaches. The believer is likely to be convinced of the benefits of e-learning and often sees the potential of e-learning to deliver training differently. It is no coincidence that companies with a need for compliance training are likely to use e-learning. Such companies report that e-learning replaces what were sometimes cumbersome and time-intensive 23 administrative tasks as well as providing costeffective training for large numbers. Technological problems have haunted e-learning from the beginning.
3 E-learning: revolutionary or evolutionary WEIGHING UP THE PROS AND CONS OF E-LEARNING ADVANTAGES DISADVANTAGES Self-paced learning Solitary Flexible in terms of where and when learning is done Cost effective training (Return on Investment) especially for large numbers of staff Not appropriate for all types of training eg softer skills and leadership High investment costs especially at initial stages of development Can save managers time Technology (has to work) Covers basics, leaving more time for classroom and one-to-one training Can have a negative second-class image 24 What s in a name? In the light of the controversy surrounding e-learning, it is perhaps not surprising to hear that some companies have decided to either re-brand approaches to try and motivate staff to try e-learning. Many companies report that getting staff to take that first step is often the most difficult hurdle. e-learning with another title or take a more extreme approach, such as at Volvo, to drop all reference to e-learning. (Even so, the majority of those Creating the best environment we interviewed have kept e-learning as a banner heading.) What is universally agreed is that e-learning, whether offered as a stand-alone approach or mixed or blended with other training, is difficult to implement. This view cuts across sector, company size, and country of operation or available resources. The Ashridge research indicates that the amount of money invested in e-learning does not correlate to success. It is also clear from the study that where staff suspect e-learning is introduced merely to cut costs and/or reduce the amount of time for training, this creates a negative response. Successful e-learning initiatives in any country Creating the best environment for e-learning is important and many of the key conditions are no different to what s needed for any type of learning. Ian Sellars, manager of education and learning at Xerox Europe, believes communication "is paramount". It is, he says: "the most important aspect of how you sell e-learning across the organisation". The message itself is important but so are creative ways to get the message across. Posters translated in local languages, menu cards, pens, mouse mats, brochures, adverts, autosignatures, inserts in pay-slips, have all been used at Xerox. The point being that like many change are likely to be greatly outnumbered by those initiatives the approach needs to be either disbanded or which produce mixed results. Innumerable articles and reports highlight the barriers to e-learning. Yet, it is interesting to note that not all barriers are negative. Xerox Europe created a system to ensure staff could not book a place on a training programme until certain online training was completed. Others have taken similar eye-catching and simple and this can do more than a sophisticated campaign. Ian Sellars acknowledges that his sales background explains his high regard for communication but he says the Xerox experience supports this: "It is not possible to tell people too much or too often about e-learning. It is still a new approach to training and takes time
4 before it s regarded like any other type of training." Another type of communication that has helped make e-learning more relevant to staff is by involving senior managers, as would be the case in other strategic initiatives. Close links, even to the fine detail of the senior business manager introducing e-learning on-line, are critical. "If e-learning is not delivering what the business wants, you ll find it near to impossible to get people interested in it." Best practice So what does the gold standard look like for e-learning? The study indicates six key issues. It should be emphasised that the list isn t a template, and the detail and design of e-learning must be closely related to the individual organisation. The list may seem to state the obvious but these important principles have often been overlooked, or forgotten, in many e-learning initiatives. It is important sometimes to reflect on what s important in order to get back to the basics of learning. Top of the list is the need to ensure e-learning delivers what the business needs; this will happen wherever e-learning is developed within a strategic framework. Few projects are evaluated properly and if it happens at all it often takes place after the training is finished. It s important to measure progress for learners and for the organisation. It s also important to be sure that what e-learning is delivering is what the business needs. The final ingredient on the gold standard list above is what Peter Senge described as the "learning organisation". Many of those we interviewed admit that e-learning and any training and development intervention struggles to compete against busy, pressured workplaces. People are very focused on the job or task in hand. "I m too busy" or, "My manager won t let me have any time" are frequent reasons people give as to why they haven t completed an e-learning module. When there is little time dedicated to genuine learning and reflection, taking time out for training, especially when colleagues are working under pressure, may seem like wasted time. Of course, this isn t so. Most of us know that a business is only as good as the people who work there and that any business which does not value learning is unlikely to prosper and thrive. However, it is undoubtedly difficult to integrate learning into a busy business environment. But it is far more likely to happen if the learning is seen as relevant which neatly brings us back to what s at the top of the gold standard: the importance of linking e-learning with the needs of the business. Our learning Clearly, the research also offered important lessons for Ashridge. Perhaps the strongest is that customers need help in making decisions about e-learning. We are consequently putting more resource into Customer Relationship Management as well as having a dedicated graphic designer whose role is to work with clients on tailored promotional material. This element of tailoring, either cosmetically or by links to competency frameworks, was highlighted by many as being the way forward. We have recently created tailored portals for United Utilities, the National Probation 25 Service and the British Council, and are currently working on a global portal for ITT. What is universally agreed is that e-learning, whether offered as a stand-alone approach or mixed or blended with other training, is difficult to implement.
5 E-learning: revolutionary or evolutionary The research showed that links to diagnostics, including 360 o feedback, are increasingly becoming relevant to the take-up of e-learning. Ashridge launched a self-assessed questionnaire with 25 generic competences on the VLRC last year and the feedback has been positive. Ashridge s emphasis is not on offering "solutions" nor to add any plug-ins. The VLRC works on lowest common denominator technology. The final message from the research is that good content is not measured by volume. In fact if the product could be seen to save managers time, this would help market and promote it. Indeed the whole philosophy behind the 50+ Learning Guides on the VLRC is that they save managers time. The guides and book reviews, links to recommended websites, and potted overviews of a subject, skill or competency, all save time. There is still much to do, but we are listening to our customers. DEVELOPING A GOLD STANDARD: KEY INGREDIENTS OF E-LEARNING Delivering what the business needs Putting the learner at the heart of e-learning Providing high quality content and technology Gaining support at senior levels for e-learning Providing pro-active support for e-learners (and their managers) through communication, promotion and marketing Creating an organisation that genuinely values learning In order to learn more about e-learning at Ashridge contact Andrew Ettinger, Director, Learning Resources, Tel: +44 (0) , For more information about the report featuring case studies of Xerox Europe and Volvo contact Viki Holton, Senior Researcher, Ashridge Centre for Business and Society, Tel: +44 (0) , 26