How powerful is e-learning in addressing training needs?

Written by
Changeboard Team

15 May 2010

15 May 2010 • by Changeboard Team

Advances in technology

Little has impacted the world of staff development in the last two decades as much as the advent of sophisticated virtual learning environments. Leaps and bounds in the availability of high speed internet connections and software blending a combination of media have made organisations reassess the way they train their staff.

Numerous software companies have developed authoring programmes that allow real-time collaboration between participants and facilitators. It’s also good to know that most of these programmes don’t require a PHD to operate - with a little bit of know-how development professionals can create visually impressive and impactful learning programmes that are highly customised to the needs of an organisation.

The benefits of e-learning

E-learning offers a plethora of benefits. It allows a group of people to interact in a single training irrespective of where in the world individuals may be located. Costs associated with travel are completely negated and time away from work is cut to a minimum.  

Additionally there is an economy in scale when using e-learning as the initial cost of development of a programme and installing the necessary hardware may be pricey but thereafter the cost of each additional new student reduces the cost per head.

Although we have explored some of the Benefits of e-learning there are also a number of potential pitfalls which organisations would do well to consider before undertaking any e-learning initiative. In many instances standard face-face training is still the best approach.

What follows are a few considerations which should help you to determine whether e-learning, or classroom based training, is the right approach to meet your learning objectives. 

What's your budget?

Although we mentioned previously that there can be a scale of economy when using e-learning, it's easy to overlook the hidden costs behind developing a successful programme. These include:

  • time spent planning
  • necessary infrastructure
  • installation
  • bandwidth
  • system integration
  • ongoing marketing to ensure that the system is being used

These are factors which can often be overlooked when budgeting for an e-learning programme and can result in running heavily over budget. A detailed pricing assessment for each of the above will make sure that your development initiative doesn’t end up in the red. Depending on the size of the target audience, you may find that classroom based training is still the most economical way to go.

What learning do you want to facilitate?

Are you doing technical training, or dealing with soft-skills training such as communication skills? E-learning can be incredibly useful for breaking up technical content into bite-sized chunks which the learner can process at their own speed.

But it’s worth remembering that human beings are social learners and really benefit from face-to-face interaction particularly when grappling with sensitive subject matter, or communication-based training. Negotiation skills, customer service training, team building and change management are just a few courses where allowing people to converse as a group frequently yields better Results.

The large majority of our communication when relating attitudes and feelings is non-verbal (approximately 93% according to communication pioneer Professor Albert Mehrabian) and so being in the presence of the participants when dealing with ‘softer’ subject matter is invaluable.

The ability to detect resistance, uncertainty and the level of engagement allows a facilitator to take an individual approach which cannot be as well catered for in e-learning. This possibly explains why 68% of leadership development training is still classroom based ( 

What direction do you want to go in?

One of the most powerful advantages of e-learning is the fact that learning is self-directed, allowing the learner flexibility regarding when and where they learn. This means that people can build their development around their schedules. They are not limited by the availability of an instructor and a rigid timetable.

Conversely, there are drawbacks to self-directed learning - one of the most notable being that the completion rate of programmes is often very low. Pete Weaver, vice president of DDI notes that 50-90% of web-based training courses are never completed. For this reason it's critical that the development consultant integrates ways of managing the completion rate of their e-learning programmes and builds in fail-safes for important areas of learning.

One possible tactic is informing participants ahead of the training that they may be asked to provide detailed feedback on their learning experience for development purposes. This heightens attentiveness and allows you to really measure the success of specific areas of the programme.

Attention to application

The ultimate success of most development initiatives lies in the application. Simply learning content is not necessarily indicative of the fact that the new material will be integrated by participants into thought processes or actual behaviour.

People generally assimilate new ideas or techniques through execution and practice.  Factoring in a way for participants to ‘have a go’ will often be the deciding factor in determining whether the programme’s information sticks.

E-learning does not always compel participants to try out what they have learnt, while a good trainer will often make sure that participants try out their new skills within the workshop which can offer a risk-free environment to practice.

Where does the IT department fit in?

A frequent failure of e-learning initiatives is often traced back to the development team not collaborating sufficiently with the organisation's IT department.

Not only does the expertise of the IT department allow for the development of a realistic time frame for implementation, but they are also integral to diagnosing whether the organisation’s infrastructure is capable of supporting the type of undertaking planned. Compatibility of software, as well as installation, are all areas which the IT department will need to assess before anything is designed or purchased.

There are ample stories of development initiatives which have had to be shelved or expensive upgrades that have had to be undertaken simply because there was no direct contact with the IT function until too late in project.

It's all about efficiency

The Benefits of e-learning cannot be overstated. However, e-learning is not simply interchangeable with conventional classroom learning. It has a specific application and there are many variables which need to be carefully considered before committing to a development project. Failure to address these could result in costly mistakes and training programmes which lack efficacy or simply never get off the ground.

Placing yourself in the shoes of the participant and trying to assess which option would be the most powerful and efficient way to acquire new information, and then balancing this against the availability of resources is a useful way of determining the right approach.

Bill Gates probably said it best with the astute lines

"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency."