E-Learning – What’s it all about?

Is this the era of e-learning? If so, why? Why use it? What benefits can it deliver? And anyway, what is e-learning?

If these are your secret or even shared thoughts then welcome to the vast number of people – H.R. professionals, line managers, and employees – who are equally bewildered, and perhaps curious, about e-learning.

The fact is that e-learning is rapidly becoming established as part of any truly blended solution, aimed at achieving the most effective learning experience in the most cost effective way.

But it wasn’t always so. When first launched, there were many that regarded it as the training solution that would replace all others. Thankfully that view has been tempered over the years and a much more responsible stance is emerging.

So what is e-learning?

What is E-Learning?

E-Learning is quite simply the delivery of learning content via all electronic means. These include the public internet, intranets, local area networks, satellite broadcasts, interactive T.V., digital audio and video devices.

Today e-learning programs include practically every conceivable area of knowledge, process and skill. If a topic has been researched, written-up, trained and tested it can be delivered using e-learning, whether completion of an e-learning program leads to a formal qualification, or is part of an individual’s ongoing personal development, it is recognised that e-learning is capable of delivering a number of specific benefits.

The benefits of E-Learning

For an organisation, e-learning can deliver flexible, cost effective and powerful learning solutions which can be simply managed and measured. Using today’s technologies, levels of knowledge, applications of skills and usage of processes can all be measured, and the effect on the individual’s performance measured. No longer need training inputs and impact on the job be disconnected.

For the manager, e-learning can provide a very efficient on the job training tool, as well as an extremely effective learning resource for his or her people. Learning inputs can be acquired individually, remotely, and in small units of time (typically 15 to 20 minutes at a time). Learners can do this at work, at home or whilst travelling. It is now not always necessary to release people for training programs or free them up for long periods of time in internal, instructor led training sessions.

For the individual, the opportunity to learn anywhere and any-time, coupled with a less intimidating, self-paced, and well-structured learning environment, can act as a powerful catalyst for self-development and personal growth.

All in all, the benefits of e-learning, as part of an overall training and development solution, vastly outweigh the two most commonly identified obstacles to it – the ability of the organisation to support it, and the motivation of the individual to undertake it.

In the information age, in which we all currently live, e-learning is a vital component in adding to the intellectual capital of an organisation. It is also a vital contributor to the development of employees to underpin ongoing corporate success in today’s turbulent and challenging business environment.

What, therefore, are the different levels of e-learning available?

Levels of E-Learning

In my view, there are three broad levels:

Level One

Information:

The provision of performance support through the use of knowledge-based e-learning courses, online guides, reference materials, webinars, e-books, videos and written or audio blogs. These are all designed for the consumption of the individual learner working on their own.

At this level the learner is simply acquiring knowledge and information on their own.

Level Two

Interaction:

The provision of interactive learning in an a-synchronous environment. The content consists of e-learning inputs as in Level One but these include engaging interactive exercises, games, simulations, online self-assessments and other self-discovery activities. The learner is not forced to take a linear route through the contents but can choose their own discovery journey.

At this level the learner is engaged in an interactive learning process. S/he examines it, tries it and plays with it.

Level Three

Collaboration:

The provision of collaborative learning. The content includes live, synchronous, virtual classrooms, collaborative ‘group’ sessions online, live conferences and the use of virtual learning environments ( VLEs ).

At this level the learner interacts live with the trainer/facilitator, as well as other learners,in an environment which reproduces face to face training sessions with media rich, highly interactive, and very participative , real time learning experiences online. Learners can participate individually, in teams or as a whole group. Often their task is to work with others on a project or work-related problem. VLEs are increasingly being used for assessment purposes. The expression ‘Immersive Learning Experience’ is frequently used to describe VLEs.

 

All three approaches can be used in conjunction with conventional instructor led training in which there is a face to face interaction with the trainer and fellow trainees in the same location. Or, they can of course be stand-alone offerings.

Also, all three approaches can be attached to attainment of a qualification.

So where does e-learning fit into the larger, people development picture?

Fit of E-Learning

The following diagram summarises the issues which contribute to the success of e-learning.

Corporate Objectives E-Learning must be aligned to corporate objectives. As a resource it must deliver results in a more efficient and effective way.
Personal Development Framework E-Learning supports performance management, training and development plans, competency frameworks and succession planning, which in turn are shaped by the ongoing development of the organisation.
Learning Resources E-Learning is one of many learning resources available to deliver different levels of learning. It can be delivered as a stand along resource, or part of a blended solution incorporating instructor led training and other training activities (e.g. coaching)
Management & Measurement E-Learning must be capable of being managed and measured. This involves the use of Learning Management Systems or similar systems to track the learner’s progress, collate results and create a learning and development profile for individuals.
Culture, Motivation & Environment E-Learning depends for its success on the learning culture created, the motivation for individuals to undertake it, and the rewards they will gain from it.

How then do organisations go about introducing e-learning?

Introduction of E-Learning

Follow these five steps:

  1. Identify existing material you can convert to on-line delivery

It is essential to start with training material you already have, which is tried and tested, and which works!

Identify those parts of the material the learner can do alone; those which benefit from online interaction; and those which lend themselves to online group participation.

  1. Design the blended solution

Create a learning design that includes both online and instructor-led, face to face classroom delivery. Use the same instructional design principles you would use for face to face classroom training, but consider also the following:

  • How will learners get access to the materials?
  • How will you track use and completion of online components?
  • How will you format and deliver online components?
  • What course content is mandatory and what is for ‘individual enrichment?’
  • What tracking, support and encouragement will you need to provide to make sure that people complete the mandatory learning modules?
  • What needs to happen in the face-to-face session to add to what people learned online? For example people may have acquired all the necessary knowledge online to then use the face to face training to practise the use of knowledge and skills in role-plays and other exercises. This means the classroom becomes more of a workshop in which to gain competence and confidence in the use of knowledge gained online.
  • How will people use what they learned on-line in the face-to-face session? To practise the use of knowledge and skills acquired online; to work in groups to share their knowledge and skills; to add to the knowledge gained online?
  • How will you help people apply what they learn online and in the classroom to the job? e.g. Through the use of project groups, individual action plans, and inclusion in performance objectives/KPIs and/or inclusion in personal development plans.
  • What access do learners need to additional or ‘follow on’ content? What type of Learning Resource Centre do you need to provide?
  • Do you plan to make the online course content available as job aids that learners can use after the course? If so where and how do they access the content?
  1. Have the online content, costed, created and hosted

Have the online content created according to your design specification. These days there are many types of e-learning software which can make the design and creation of online courses and programs a faster and more cost-effective exercise than was the case years ago.  Also, the hosting of e-learning and other online content, and the ease of access by learners, is much easier to achieve with most e-learning these days being internet based. However, some Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) need some form of integration with an organisation’s own IT systems. The message is ‘check out in advance of the design and creation step’ the ease and cost of hosting. One more point to bear in mind is that I have found that there is little consistency in how external suppliers of e-learning, and related online learning and development resources, price their products and services. This sometimes makes it difficult to make comparisons between different supplier offerings.

You can take one of four approaches to hosting depending on the type of e-learning you want. These are:

  • Deliver the content using an external supplier’s e-learning platform or Learning Management System (LMS). You may have to do this if the supplier also owns the e-learning courses/programs.
  • Deliver the content using your own in-house LMS. If you have designed and created your own e-learning content this should be your natural choice.
  • Pay on demand for internet-based programs hosted externally.
  • Join a group of similar users to yourself (an online community/university who want to use e-learning/online learning in a similar way to yourself and in the same specialist areas (e.g. pharmaceutical, banking, IT, retail etc.) and who want to share best practices and dialogue around problems they face and have created an online learning portal to do this. The group or community provides the hosting. Your employees can participate using BYOD (‘Bring your own device’) i.e. they can use their PCs, Laptops, Tablets and Mobile Phones/Devices.

Work with both internal and external IT specialists to ensure selection of the best option and to check that your organisation’s security needs are addressed.

  1. Test the design

Before offering the new blended solution to your learners, run a thorough pilot programme. Try to have people ‘break’ the links and the design. Ask the ‘what if?’ questions, including ‘what if people show up for classroom training without having done any of the online pre-work?’ ‘What if people have problems signing on?’ What if there are unexpected failures in the actual, physical digital environment? ’Test the environment, the access to it, and connection instructions thoroughly. Revise and refine the solution.

If the platform being used is fairly sophisticated you should have your people trained in the use of the platform BEFORE doing their first session. This should be a separate online session in which people actually use the platform and get used to how it works. This is vital if the launch of a new program and the pilot is to go well.

  1. Publicize and run the program

Produce instructions to your learners on how to enrol and get access to the material. Market the benefits of the course to learners, their managers, and the people who fund the training, the budget owners. Make help readily available for people who have problems in using the system. Also, be aware of your organisation’s readiness for e-learning and help people set reasonable expectations. It takes some time to get used to this way of learning, if people have been accustomed to getting only classroom based or on-the-job training in the past.

All of the above seems very sensible and straightforward, but many e-learning initiatives flounder and fail because potential barriers are not identified and overcome. What are these barriers?

Barriers to E-Learning

The introduction of e-learning involves both technology and cultural challenges.

The technology challenges normally involve:

  • Avoiding out of date approaches to e-learning. Do this by bringing yourself and your colleagues up to date with all the best practices and future developments in the use of e-learning technology.
  • Choosing a wrong supplier. This means investigating tried and tested external e-learning suppliers/specialists for their systems reliability, consistency and use of best in class thinking and associated technology. Educating yourself on the market.
  • Overcoming internal resistance to the use of certain technologies. To do this find out how similar organisations to yours overcame these blockages and how you might use similar approaches perhaps with their help.

Having designed and created your e-learning solution the challenge is then to ensure its usage with maximum effect. This can be quite another matter and will involve influencing the internal culture to increase people’s motivation to complete e-learning programs and related activities.

Here are some steps to follow:

  • Identify your success criteria for the introduction of e-learning
  • Analyze the current situation

What are the driving and resisting forces (force field analysis) impacting the successful move towards the use of e-learning as part of a blended mix of learning solutions? How can you remove or lessen the resisting forces?

  • What is your strategy for the introduction of e-learning? E.g.
  • Start with pre-course / post-course delivery of content.
  • Make e-learning a part of instructor led course delivery i.e include an e-learning session on a course as part of the learning experience.
  • Convert existing training material into an e-learning format (eg Induction Material).
  • Focus on instructional manuals/operating procedures and convert them into e-learning modules.
  • Turn product guides into e-learning opportunities for sales and sales support people.
  • Use external regulations to drive the process particularly where compliance is strict and you need to prove that your people have the necessary knowledge to be compliant.
  • It is better to start with small steps and show proof.
  • Run a pilot. Prove that it works.
  • The best place to start is where your organisation sees the greatest risk/reward, and also the greatest cost/benefit
  • Identify your internal champions/sponsors who will support you in overcoming resistance/internal barriers? What’s the win in it for these key stakeholders?
  • How can you build stakeholder support (e.g. through networking effectively to build relationships)?
  • This is a management of change exercise, so what is your change management plan? Whom will you need to involve in its execution?
  • What will be your internal sales/marketing campaign? Who is best to create and deliver it for maximum buy-in from managers and employees?

Summary

So there you have it – the reasons to introduce e-learning, the fit of e-learning into the broader training and development picture, how to introduce it, and the obstacles you may face.

In reality, your first foray into e-learning may appear, and feel, a little torturous, but can you afford not to be a part of this learning revolution? Probably not. And if you need a partner to help you, you know where to find me!

To find out more about this topic contact me or join me at Jeremy Francis HR
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