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What Counts as e-Learning?

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

 by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

This is a frustrating field to be in. In most areas of production and consumption, the consumers of a product can exert influence on the product by the choices they make.  But there are some arenas where the decision makers are not ultimately the ones to gain or lose whether the product is any good or not, and thus decisions get oddly distorted.  For example, the college textbook market is a good example.  Publishers make their money by selling books to college students who have no voice in the actual purchasing decision.  The professor who makes the decision is driven by different factors than those that matter to the learner. Thus, publishers implement features that are of benefit to the professor (like pre-built PowerPoint slides, pre-written tests, suggested lesson plans, etc.) at the cost of features that might deliver more  significant benefits to the student (like readability, effective layout, a lower price, etc.)  If students chose their books based on what would help them learn most effectively, I bet textbooks would look a lot different than they do now.

Rapid Online Information Access

e-Learning is a victim of this same sort of problem.  A lot of the money that exchanges hands in e-learning (and that's what drives products and development) is spent on authoring software and LMS system purchases.  Ultimately, these software companies succeed or fail not so much on whether their products provide value to the learner, but rather whether they satisfy the needs of the instructional designers and developers and the larger organizations that use them.  It's remarkable to notice how much of the marketing of e-learning products is focused almost entirely on cost, ease of converting existing slides, and speed of development, none of which equal "learning."  I'm not suggesting that these are factors to be ignored, but if we take our responsibility as trainers seriously, those factors certainly need to rank a little lower in priority than a basic question of whether the tool provides capabilities necessary for creating effective instruction. Based on a sampling of product marketing, it appears that the ability to import a PowerPoint deck and coordinate it with narration is THE essential characteristic of an e-learning authoring system.  I even remember several years ago when that was lauded as a worthy enhancement to Authorware! But I would hazard a guess that  if you polled actual learners about what they benefit from in e-Learning programs, being able to page through or listen to narrated PowerPoint presentations are unlikely to rank very high.

Unfortunately, this has serious implications for what monopolizes the dialog in this field.  Several years ago, the concept of "Rapid e-Learning" was introduced.  Rapid e-Learning was a response to the changing dynamics in the workplace.  It calls for very fast transfer of information to learners; it occurs in small accessible chunks instead of long, extended curricula; it has significant impact on end-performance; and it can be developed quickly and at low cost . These are all ideas of significant merit.  The first three primarily impact the learner; the fourth impacts the organization.  But guess what?  Now, several years later, when you hear the someone talk about Rapid e-Learning, in almost all instances, it means "e-learning developed quickly and at low cost." Period.

And ultimately this just devalues the amazing transformative impact that e-learning can have.  I'm not arguing that cost and time aren't important factors.  But e-learning requires more than just being online.  It implies that a learner is engaged in a productive, active process.  It implies a larger plan that content is meaningfully linked to the real world. It implies some assurance that meaningful behavior change will result.  If our criteria for e-learning success are limited to "Did you build it fast?" and "Did you build it cheap?" then we're no longer doing e-learning.  We may be doing Rapid Online Information Access Development or Rapid Document Conversion, or maybe something else of value.  It's important that even while we juggle the administrative aspects of e-learning design (such as timeline, budget, content scope, etc.) we never lose sight of the essential requirement of e-learning to be a vehicle through which we create change in learners' performance.