Is e-learning a temporary phenomenon?
There has recently been a huge increase in interest surrounding e-learning. This has got training providers rushing to convert their classroom material to e-learning formats.
The interest is obviously understandable whilst social distancing is or has been a feature of daily life. It also fits the bill when many organisations are supporting home working for their staff.
But once the pandemic is over, won’t everyone be returning to real training?
Can e-learning ever be as good as classroom based learning?
Plus points for live training
- Immediate access to the trainer.
- The trainer is an expert in their subject and is trained in the best techniques to get their expertise into the minds of the learner.
- The classroom can be optimally designed and fully equipped with the latest presentation technology
- Learners can meet other learners, establish contacts and get 'linked in'.
- There is a fixed timetable so the trainer can ensure that all learning content is covered and all objectives are achieved.
Is what you just read always true?
Thinking back to training courses that you’ve attended, have you ever experienced any of the following?
- A seemingly endless flow of ‘busy’ PowerPoint slides riddled with bullets?
- Trainers reading from the slides or their notes?
- Handouts consisting of nothing but a copy of the slides?
- Too many attendees?
- You got a seat in the back far corner and couldn't get a clear view of the trainer’s screen?
- Lecture delivery too fast or too slow?
- Twiddling your thumbs whilst everyone waits for the slowest person to catch up with an exercise?
- The room was too hot or too cold or too stuffy?
Trainer skill and knowledge
Still thinking back to training courses that you’ve been on,
- Was every trainer really as knowledgeable as you would have expected and as engaging as you would have liked?
- Did you have all your questions answered?
- By the time you’d worked out how to express your question, had the class moved on?
Obviously, there can be a big gap between the best and the ‘not so good’ in classroom training but how rare are the situations I’ve just described?
How much time do you actually get with the trainer?
The timetable for a 3 day course with an exam on the last afternoon will typically look something like this:
- Day one
- Administration, self introductions, and an overview of the course
- Three quarters of a day for learning?
- Day two:
- Full day of training?
- Day three:
- Full morning of training?
- Time for a lecture just after lunch?
- Brief revision time?
- Exam starting at say 3.30?
- Course wrap up and course evaluation sheet
- About two and a half days of actual training?
What about the ‘best’ classroom learning?
In the best classroom teaching you will have :
- An inspiring and knowledgeable trainer, capable of making the trickiest topics seem easy
- Great handouts with ‘long term’ value
- Low number of fellow learners
- Well-equipped, air-conditioned rooms with comfortable furniture
- Well designed exercises and well run exercise sessions
Of course, even with the best classroom training, the time constraints are inevitable. Gone are the days when employers were prepared to pay for (and lose their staff for) a training course spread over a week, or even two weeks.
Can e-learning do things any better?
Let’s first look at what we might understand by ‘e-learning’.
What is e-learning?
At its most basic, e-learning is training that’s delivered online, i.e. to a computer of some sort, desktop, tablet or smartphone. It’s learning delivered ‘in a box’.
E-learning may come in many forms. For example:
- Learner accesses:
- Training provider’s website
- A training app on their smartphone, e.g. Google Primer
- Learning management system (LMS)
- Virtual classroom
- Zoom sessions
Let’s consider two broad categories of e-learning.
- Accessing a training provider’s web site
- Accessing a learning management system (LMS)
Training accessible from a website
With this option, a ‘training provider’ sets up their courses on a computer server and makes them accessible via a web site.
The learner always sees the latest version of the course.
Apart from any apps or documents that the learner is able to download from the provider’s web site, they don’t need to store anything on their own device.
Training via a web site can be the most economical option although prices vary widely. Some prices may be aimed at the corporate rather than at the private market.
‘Training supermarkets’ such as Teachable, Udemy and Lynda provide a platform that make it easy for anyone to set up and sell a course.
Some of the content on YouTube and similar sites might be regarded as e-learning.
Just as with classroom training, there’s a big gap between the really good and the not so good.
Who uses this option?
This is typically the option for someone who is paying for their own training.
Corporate’s can also find this an attractive option, minimising the amount of money and effort that they have to put into providing the training.
Training accessible from an LMS (Learning Management System)
A learning management system (LMS) supports the management and delivery of computer-based training courses.
An LMS typically allows a learner’s progress and test results to be tracked.
Who uses this option?
An LMS will typically be used by an organisation to provide training for their employees.
The organisation might install their own LMS or use one provided by a 3rd party.
An LMS can be an economical solution for an organisation, particularly one with large numbers of employees to train.
It can be very attractive for areas such as ‘compliance training’.
Using specialist tools, training modules for the LMS can be developed by an organisation’s own staff or by third party e-learning consultants.
Isn’t e-learning just an online PowerPoint presentation?
The better e-learning courses are designed and produced by full-time professionals with specialist knowledge.
There’s a large amount of evidence based information available on how to design e-learning courses that teach in an effective and captivating, even entertaining, manner.
E-learning designers and producers can take advantage of many learning technologies. E-learning is increasingly becoming something of a ‘science’ or discipline as well as an art.
The training provider and e-learning designers will typically seek to fully engage the learner in the course. To that end the course content can be delivered in a variety of imaginative and attention grabbing ways to stimulate the learner. For example:
- Video including interactive video
- Interactive situations, e.g. selecting items and then dragging and dropping them onto the correct place
- Images, including ‘labelled images’, where images appear on ‘mousing over’ a label
- Games (‘Gamification’)
- Scenarios in which the learner is routed through the course according to decisions that they make
- Quizzes in various forms, relatively passive as well as being fully interactive
The above can be backed up with:
- Links to further online information
- Downloadable PDFs for additional information, summaries and revision
Are e-learning courses fixed length?
Courses may or may not be fixed length but the important point is that with e-learning the learner can be in control.
Obviously, if the e-learning is being provided by a person’s employer there are still likely to be some time constraints.
In general, the learner can:
- Select days of the week and times of day that suits them and their work and lifestyle
- Repeat lessons as often as required
- Do the exercises and check the answers at their own pace
- Repeat the exercise as often as needed
- Take an associated exam when ready; exams are expensive and so are resits
What about health and safety issues?
It is certainly true that prolonged sitting and use of a computer can have undesirable side effects. But this is also true of many classroom courses, for example, when learning a programming language or an office application.
There is now a lot of advice available online concerning health and safety for people working for extended periods on a computer in their own home. Important health and safety concerns and recommendations include:
- Take frequent breaks and regular exercise such as walking
- Use a desk of appropriate height
- Use seating that can be adjusted, recline and provide lumbar support
- Look away, ideally into the distance, at frequent intervals to avoid eyestrain
- If an audio transcript is provided, listen to that rather than looking at a computer.
Ergonomically sophisticated furniture can be very expensive. On the other hand,
- Did you find that all the above guidelines were followed in classrooms that you have experienced?
- Did all training venues provide expensive seating?
Can the feeling of isolation be an issue for e-learners?
This is a potential issue, for some more than for others.
Many providers of e-learning employ a number of techniques to get over the problem of isolation.
- Virtual classrooms
- Forums, Slack groups, Zoom sessions, and private Facebook groups for course members
- Providing a means for direct correspondence with a live trainer
- Member only forums
Do people find motivation difficult to sustain in an e-learning course?
This can be challenge, particularly if the training extends over a number of days or weeks. There are plenty of guidelines available to get over this hurdle.
- Have a preferred place for your study.
- Not many of us have a study equipped like the office of a senior executive in a large company, but consider that all you need to study is a computer, tablet or a smartphone and perhaps a (paper) notepad and pen
- You can make any space your own
- If you have family members, get them to respect it
- You can of course study when it suits you
- But for most people, it’s probably a good idea to have a fixed time when they do their serious study
- Try to get family members to respect your preferred time
- Try other study places by way of a change, for example, listening to audio whilst walking or travelling, or whilst other members of your household are watching the television.
What if the learner gets stuck?
- Most people will probably get stuck at least once in a challenging course. It’s important that the e-learning provider offers ways to get over this. For example:
- Include a member only contact form
- Permit direct correspondence with a live trainer, e.g. by phone, Zoom, Slack or similar
- Assign a trainer to a learner
- Introduce live webinar style sessions
Can e-training be tailored to an individual learner?
E-learning can reflect multiple learning styles in a way that is generally not possible for standard classroom based teaching. This is demonstrated with the examples I have already given.
Freedom from many of the usual time constraints makes it easier to offer learners a variety of approaches.
Learners can start, pause, replay, take a break, and end their session whenever they like. They are in control. It's their place – their pace.
Aside from taking advantage of the fact that people are working at home anyway and the social distancing is largely being complied with, is there any compelling reason to choose e-learning over standard classroom training?
Is it horses for courses? Are there any downsides? Let’s examine this.
Advantages of e-learning
Some obvious advantages are:
- Travel: Cost and time
- Price: This is typically lower for e-learning courses than for classroom based training
- Flexibility and convenience
- Accessible from anywhere, more or less
- Individual work and lifestyles can be catered for
- Multiple styles of learning can be supported
- Easily repeatable
- Interactive training styles can keep the learning directly involved
What about the disadvantages?
I’ve already mentioned some possible challenges to effective learning, for example:
- Risk of isolation
- Difficulties with motivation
- Finding a suitable place to do the training
Some people just prefer to have a live trainer, be in a classroom and interact in person with fellow learners.
Some learning tasks are better suited to live training. I don’t think I’d want to be operated on by a surgeon who had qualified after a series of e-learning courses or fly with a pilot who had never actually flown with an instructor.
Perhaps a hybrid training plan is what is needed.
Mixing e-learning with live training
E-learning will be an increasingly viable and popular option in the foreseeable future. But live training, in a classroom or other appropriate environment, will surely continue to be in demand once the pandemic is over.
E-learning can be the ideal choice in many situations, for example:
- Preparing for multi-choice exams
- Compliance and standards training
- Learning the theory of something – Even things like sales skills
- Certain types of ‘Just in time’ training
Thanks to simulations and scenarios, e-learning can also be applicable to learning certain types of skills: for example, handling management situations, sales skills, counselling, and so on.
Classroom learning can be the ideal choice for many practical skills where immediate feedback on a physical activity is required. As well as surgery and flying, this will include skills such as giving presentations, interviewing.
A comprehensive training plan will typically need to include both e-learning and live training, playing to the strengths of each.
Capiro and e-learning
At Capiro we’ve been developing e-learning courses for about five years.
We specialise in business analysis.
We are currently offering and developing a series of online courses to support business analysts wishing to self study and take online exams for the British Computer Society, BCS, certificates in business analysis.
If you would like to follow up this article with further reading, you may be interested in reading
from the Journal of Educational Technology Systems.