E-learning: just training online?

E-learning is currently a growth area in information development. There are numerous vendors of e-learning applications actively seeking clients, and if you believe the hype, finding them, and there is a ‘buzz’ attached to the term. More and more organisations, you would be led to believe, are embracing it.

But just what is it?

E-learning is learning via electronic media. In former times it went under the name of ‘computer based training’ (CBT), and was usually delivered on CD-ROM. CBT was typically expensive to develop, often requiring programmer-level skills in the use of development tools such as Authorware, and was constrained in its delivery by the technology of the desktop PC, which tended to ‘lag behind’ the capacities for interactivity that the CBT tools were capable of.

These days, e-learning (as it is now known), has a wider array of development and delivery technologies as a result of widespread computer networking, the accessibility of the web and the many web development tools. It is because of this that learning via electronic media has been seen as desirable and cost effective.

Is it different to ‘traditional’ learning?

Traditional learning is mediated by a trainer, typically in a classroom setting, and making use of all the learning tools associated with the classroom environment. The presence of a trainer, and fellow trainees, is essentially what e-learning does away with. E-learning is typified by a ‘single person-to-PC interaction’, though relations with trainers and trainees are possible via online communications like email and webcasting. The key interaction between the learner and the learning materials however is ‘online’.

Learning programs, whether delivered via online media, or more traditional methods, still require to be conceived in terms of the desired learning outcomes, and to be based upon the instructional design principles that best support those outcomes.

Benefits of e-learning

There are numerous benefits touted for e-learning. Some of them are just as capable of being realised through traditional means. For example, e-learning is often held up as a means of providing for ‘self-paced’ learning – where the learner governs the speed at which they attempt learning tasks and work through learning programs. However the traditional paper-based correspondence course is an example of self-paced learning that has long been around. What good self-paced learning calls for is related to issues of learning design, where the delivery mechanisms and environment for the learning are considered and used appropriately. In the case of self-paced learning, online technology has provided design benefits which are realised in speed of delivery and automation.

The real benefits of e-learning are technological and are chiefly to be found in the speedier processing of learning interaction, programmable customisation of learning materials and in storage and delivery of information.

What is the technology behind e-learning?

In terms of technology, e-learning can be as simple as an HTML-based online tutorial, which relies on web pages accessed through a browser. At the high end, enterprise level systems can provide for the establishment of entire corporate learning programs, based on detailed competency specifications which allow individuals to follow customised learning pathways for a multitude of learning outcomes. These enterprise systems exploit the capacity for online delivery to present multi-media content (text, sound, video) and complex interactivity (such as real-time feedback and assessment). They provide also for authoring of learning content and delivery of content authored to interoperable standards.

Smaller scale technology:

  • General HTML authoring tools, Javascript
  • Specialist applications for web-delivered learning, including authoring environments, templates for assessment formats, ‘processing’ of submitted information and feedback of results

Big scale technology:

  • Applications which address the whole issue of learning management (defining of competency requirements, individualised learning programs), as well as development and delivery of e-learning across the whole of a large enterprise

Learning management

Learning management is a concept that is applied to the establishment of learning criteria for multiple learning audiences, such as role competencies and individualised programs, and encompasses the administration that goes along with the implementation of learning programs.

It is not new.

High-end e-learning applications however, can offer systems that allow for online content development, learning management and learning delivery, and provide additional technological benefits that can take the concept of organisational learning into the area of knowledge management.

Standards

The standards movement is addressing the technology compatibilities in e-learning. They are yet to have a crack at the content (you may ask an instructional designer why!)

Standards look at permitting “learning objects” to be plugged into any learning management or delivery system (“interoperability”) – the idea being that consistency in how the technology deals with delivering the training information and collecting the training outcome data means that organisations are not tied to specific vendors of e-learning applications, and that developers of learning content can develop for all or any applications.

The key standard is SCORM – shared content object reference model. SCORM is a set of interrelated technical specifications built upon the work of the Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC), IMS Global Learning Consortium (IMS) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to create one unified ‘content model’. These specifications enable the reuse of Web-based learning content across multiple environments and products.

What does it boil down to?

The development of e-learning involves a lot of the traditional instructional design expertise, with an emphasis on the technologies available. The same old learning development tasks apply:

  • learning needs analysis
  • learning program design
  • content design
  • content development
  • delivery

Through the use of technology, e-learning has the capacity to enhance the standardisation, automation, customisation, accessibility and manageability of learning. It can provide many benefits in many organisational settings. E-learning has real potential for cost benefits in its capacity to be delivered to many end users via technological infrastructures that are already in place, and in its doing away with some of traditional learning’s ‘overheads’, such as classrooms and instructors. It can be accessed around the clock, too.

Whatever you decide upon as appropriate for your organisation, however, don’t lose sight of what your actual learning objectives are, or of the importance of good instructional design.

E-learning, after all, is the medium, not the message: it is not a substitute for good analysis and design.