The honest answer is, for the vendor, elearning as it is currently constituted is a potentially profitable risk. For the learner, it depends on who you are, what you need to learn, and how best you do learn.
The vendor standpoint, first. Existing vendors who run face-to-face courses across the finance spectrum are still concerned about the impact elearning might have on attendance.
Despite elearning having been around for well over a decade, training vendors lack comprehensive, credible evidence as to the extent of cannibalisation, or alternatively, synergies between face-to-face and elearning or even evidence as to which provides a better ROI.
What is certain is that any conventional elearning provision requires investment by the vendor, most probably in an elearning platform, often described as the combination of a Learning Management System (LMS), a Learning Content Management System (LCMS) and a set of tools for distributing training contents and for providing interaction.
The LMS, in particular, must fulfil a multitude of perceived tasks – managing user profiles, authorising access and tracking use, testing, marking and feedback, and creating, developing and reinforcing the branding of the training company. Significant investments in LMS have been made, but returns do not always justify the cost, as several training companies have belatedly discovered.
Moreover, LMS systems are generally geared to self-study learning at the pace and location of the learner, a market which has now peaked, at least in terms of corporate spend. They are also not always well adapted to blended learning, combining face-to-face and elearning over a period with the aim of maximising the benefits of both.
Significant investments in LMS have been made, but returns do not always justify the cost, as several training companies have belatedly discovered.
There are also possible disadvantages in elearning from the learner’s perspective.
None of them is insurmountable, but they are currently obstacles to improving elearning take-up and positive feedback. One is the frequently cited academic, and anecdotal, evidence that the effectiveness of elearning in the traditional sense (for example with gamification) depends on the age, or more precisely, the generation, of the learner.
Millennials – those born after 1980 is the most popular definition – are always said to be better at assimilating information from visual cues and bite-sized information, in the way that elearning provides, than earlier generations, and less dependent on interaction within groups to achieve sustained learning outcomes. Maybe.
But, major institutions as disparate as HSBC, the Saudi Capital Markets Authority and Deutsche Telekom AG, along with thousands of others of every size and across every industry, have chosen face-to-face training for intensive programmes, and there are plenty of millennials successfully attending face-to-face training courses every day.
Another is the way in which elearning courses sometimes date and even ossify, given the absence of well-structured incentives for them to be updated.
Customising them to an audience, as face-to-face training almost inevitably does as a result of the interactivity between trainer and audience, is also impossible – a forum or email exchange is a poor substitute for dialogue, coaching and immediate explanation.
It also seems, at least for the time being, that certification for e-learning courses is a bigger selling point than for face-to-face courses, introducing another layer of bureaucracy and further delays into the launch, marketing and review process, as well as reducing vendor returns.
Much neglected by training companies, but perhaps just waiting for the imminent ubiquity of fast and reliable multi-person free Skype, is the possibility of bypassing LMS altogether and using international video real-time – not recorded podcasts or webinars which are largely marketing tools – for the delivery of face-to-face training courses. This would bring key advantages for training vendors:
- no up-front investment
- access to clients in multiple time zones – interactivity in a way that LMS cannot provide, including between course delegates, real-time discussion, testing and feedback, and
- the flexibility that only direct, immediate access to a trainer with a suite of materials and experience can possibly deliver.
Here, quite possibly, is at least part of the future of elearning, a potential goldmine for L&D organisations and departments, and not in the expensive, cumbersome and inefficient LMS systems – many of them incompatible with each other, and often only used for the most basic of the many facilities they provide – that are still promoted as an essential ingredient of successful elearning technology.
Millennials would be ideal delegates, with their spontaneous acceptance of video, but from the widespread takeup of Skype itself, there are few who in principle would turn down the opportunity to participate in such a learning format. Perhaps it represents the best of all worlds.
About the author
Julian Roche is course director at Redcliffe Training