eLearning: It’s Time for a Reboot

The following post was featured in Wired Magazine on June 24, 2013.

eLearning rebootIt’s been 10 years since eLearning emerged as a new category, and the market is now massive and growing: ASTD estimates that U.S. organizations spent approximately $156.2 billion on employee learning and development in 2011. And Certifyme.net estimates that eLearning is a $56.2 billion business — roughly 30% of the total L&D market.

Since Jay Cross of Internet Time Group coined the term eLearning in 2004, it’s undergone a rapid evolution. Many businesses and institutions rushed to migrate their classroom training online, while others created entirely new content suited to eLearning. I remember the first online learning course I had to take – wow! I could do it on my own time, as long as I got it done within the week. And when I hadn’t watched the video by Wednesday I got a reminder. Fantastic! It seemed like a no-brainer to me.

Putting content online and making it accessible outside a classroom was a fresh idea a decade ago. But ten years later the reality of how we learn, and how other media have become integral to the fabric of our lives, have exposed the fact that most eLearning solutions simply replicated the problems mass employee training has always faced. Content is boring. Attention spans are short. Employees experience learning fatigue even if they aren’t sitting in a classroom. They forget more than they learn. Many don’t even apply their learning to the job – either they’re not motivated, or don’t remember critical information.

In fact, some research suggests that people perform only modestly better with online learning than with traditional instructor-led learning. That online learning course I mentioned above? Well, being completely honest, just before the week was up I let the video run in the background for half an hour while I worked on something else. And when I had to answer 20 questions at the end to prove my “learning” I used common sense instead of anything I heard with one ear. I’ll take an educated guess and say most people do the same thing.

With all that current technology has to offer, surely it’s time we re-set the bar and gave eLearning a serious re-boot. After all, there is supposed to be “learning” involved. Is there a training and development or HR person out there who can argue with that? I don’t think so.

LMS systems vendors, eLearning content creators, and especially businesses implementing eLearning all need to ask, not “what are we doing?” or even “why we’re doing this?” but “how are we doing it?”

The fundamental problem plaguing employee training is how to convert learning to performance. How do you train in such a way that real learning is transferred – and retained? How do you deliver specifically what an employee needs to know, and then have them apply it effectively on the job? And how do you know that it’s happening?

Current eLearning solutions are not designed to provide this information easily. Learning – whether in the classroom or online – is still treated as a one-time event, with little or no reinforcement after the fact to ensure the learning sticks for the long term. And often the only time we figure out that learning didn’t happen is when something goes wrong. The question is, how do we change that? Fortunately, there are some new and exciting developments that can transform the eLearning landscape.

eLearning - time to rebootWhen we combine the latest technology (e.g. cloud, Saas, bring your own device) and trends (social, gamification, adaptive learning) with leading edge research on how our brains actually work to improve memory and cognition, there are many great ways that eLearning can be modified or augmented to deliver true capabilities and performance improvement to business. Here are some developments that I think will take eLearning into the new millenium:

  • Break learning into smaller, bite-sized segments, and deliver them more frequently. Our brains are really good at processing 4 – 5 bits of information at a time. We’ll avoid learning fatigue and retain more of the knowledge.
  • Provide ongoing reinforcement of critical learning points through spaced repetition (aka interval reinforcement) and repeated retrieval (aka testing), which will give employees enough time and exposure to imprint the knowledge more effectively. There are many studies proving that repeated questioning of core knowledge in short bursts is far more effective at driving knowledge acquisition than one-time, lengthy learning sessions.
  • Measure knowledge, attitudes, and application more frequently. How successful are employees at answering the questions? Measurement helps direct ongoing training, and allows the correlation of application of knowledge to business performance (i.e. ROE or ROI).
  • Personalize the learning, so that every employee learns what’s needed for their job and then deliver training to specifically fill knowledge gaps, in a way best suited to his or her learning style.
  • Incorporate elements of social networking, gamification and recognition to the learning process. They are here to stay and are often the way many of us now get information. Get rid of boring! These techniques are proving to increase employee engagement, driving learning and retention.
  • Add mobile learning to the mix, allowing employees to learn when it’s convenient, where it’s convenient and to access just-in-time learning while on the job.

Without a doubt, eLearning will eclipse classroom-based training and be the dominant training medium before we know it. But simply replicating the classroom experience online isn’t going to solve the problem of achieving real knowledge transfer and translating that to business results. Seriously, does anyone watch a video and remember anything?

The evolution of technology and brain science allow us to drive real, measurable business value through the learning process, and after a decade as a category it’s time eLearning solutions moved into the next generation. What do you think?

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