e-Learning aims to combine the speed and worldwide presence of the Internet with classroom and corporate training.
The purported advantages of e-Learning are that students can work at their own pace, companies can tailor e-Learning programs to the individual needs of their staff, it is immediate and convenient, and is a cost-efficient training method.
However, judging by the response to a recent survey we conducted, the truth is that e-Learning might be a boom industry but it is failing to deliver on expectations. e-Learning does offer opportunities, and many companies are adopting it as part of their training process, but it can never replace the traditional teaching methods which are an essential part of the learning process for anyone young or old.
According to a recent report from Merrill Lynch, the web-based training market in the United States is forecast to grow from $US197 million in 1997 to $US5.5 billion by 2002 (Merrill Lynch, April 1999, The Book of Knowledge'.) This represents explosive growth of 95 per cent.
The US remains the leader in e-Learning worldwide but both Australia and New Zealand are among the fastest-growing markets with approximately 10 per cent of corporations in these countries already utilising some form of online staff training.
Additionally, Australia is amongst the most Internet-savvy nations in the world, with 41 per cent of its total population accessing the Internet at May 2000. This puts it ahead of other countries such as the United Kingdom, Taiwan, Korea, Germany, and Japan.
So, how is Australia reacting to e-Learning?
A recent survey by The Leading Edge Market Research Consultants Pty Ltd for Com Tech Education Services proved that e-Learning is a widely used, but not a highly effective, training tool.
The survey captured responses from 57 training man- agers from blue chip companies representing over 80,000 employees.1The survey revealed that although 60 per cent of companies stated they were using some form of online learning, an overwhelming 83 per cent rated online learning as not particularly successful.
And even more alarming, where staff participation and enthusiasm were involved, 44 per cent of training managers surveyed considered online learning to be completely unsuccessful. For gaining skills only 3 per cent found it extremely successful with 30 per cent finding it not very successful.
The fact of the matter is that online learning should be an addition to instructor-led training, but instead it is being used as a replacement, which is a problem.
The human touch
e-Learning is not an acceptable substitute for face-to-face training because humans learn best from other humans. Staff enthusiasm for this type of learning is low because it is mass personalised and a very sterile and artificial form of communication. People are different, yet e-Learning courses are pitched to everyone in the same way.
e-Learning focuses on how streamlined training can become but does not recognise the sacrifices made to achieve it - namely losing human interaction and personalisation. It is all about the learner adapting to the medium instead of the medium adapting to the learner. The emphasis needs to be on learning and the outcomes.
Also, do people really want to spend more time using the Web or do they want to interact with real people? Studies have regularly identified the social consequences of increased Web usage - the emphasis should be on promoting more "real" social interaction, not less. Perhaps the only exception to this rule would be if the participant was unable to communicate in other ways - due to remoteness of location. However, they would still need a computer and an internet connection in order to use e-Learning!
However, there is a paradox associated with e-Learning which is that even though e-Learning is not seen to be terribly effective in real terms, it is seen to be a cost-effective and convenient way of upskilling staff without taking them out of the office.
Companies see e-Learning as a good solution to training their staff and 50 per cent of the respondents to the survey found e-Learning either extremely or very successful, and for reducing the cost of IT training 66 per cent deemed it a success.
However, respondents rated its overall effectiveness fairly low with 29 per cent claiming it was not very successful and 3 per cent saying it was not at all successful.
Online learning is being undertaken for logistical and practical reasons but it is not the solution for effective overall training. Corporates, although well-intentioned, are largely basing their decisions not on the effectiveness or quality of learning, but on the cost. While it is great, in theory, to use e-Learning in bite-size chunks to fulfil immediate information needs, we have to recognise how people actually acquire critical skills and knowledge sets. Learning is an on-going and social process, rather than an event. Learners will use a wide range of inputs and tools, and even technologies. e-Learning should be one of these tools, but not the only one. While it is clear that it is not economically viable for employers to let their employees take a lot of time out of the office to attend training courses, companies should consider implementing a mixture of traditional courses and e-Learning rather than one or the other.
There is a role for e-Learning, but it appears to be best for simpler task-based applications and gaining skills in specific areas. In these terms the best way of using online training would appear to be as a subsequent refresher of course-based skills.e-Learning needs to be used in conjunction with, not instead of, classroom-based teaching in order for it to have any value in the real world.
* Steve Ross is General Manager for Australia's largest technical training company (Com Tech Education Services) and his observations are based on 15 years experience in the field of technical training.
* The survey this year by The Leading Edge Market Research Consultants Pty Ltd centred upon IT Training Managers. It is the first online survey to canvass the opinions and attitudes of Com Tech Education's top clients. The survey was drawn from a random selection of CTES's valued customers who were willing to respond to an e-mail survey. All respondents had authority to plan and instigate training for their organisations' IT staff.
This survey forms an important part of CTES's regular monitoring of opinion within the IT training market and is planned to be repeated.