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What's So Funny About e-Learning?


by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist


I was watching television the other night and noticed a new advertisement for an online university. It was an institution of which I had never heard before (and I still don’t exactly remember the name) and it shall remain nameless here. 

The gist of the spot, though, was to encourage potential students to enroll by highlighting how non-demanding online learning can be. One student was shown studying on her tablet while volleying tennis balls; another student was working on his degree while absent-mindedly washing his car.

On first glance, these images seem like just another example of advertising through irony—the type of advertising that the collective national obsession with the Super Bowl-style commercials has nurtured. Isn’t it funny to think about how learning using technology is both tedious and insignificant?  We in the industry talk about this all the time—bemoaning the prevalence of terrible e-learning yet somehow continuing to create it (“My organization doesn’t give enough time to do anything else,” “We’re stuck with tools that don’t do anything else.” “It’s just compliance training, anyway.”). 

One saving grace in my mind has always been that when I talk to most users, they see right through the terrible e-learning modules. It’s rare that I meet someone who has taken an online learning course who doesn’t mainly complain about it. Many proudly boast of the way they have worked to circumvent the system. As long as the learners are dissatisfied, there will always remain some pressure on organizations and training departments to improve what they offer. 

As long as the learners are dissatisfied, there will always remain some pressure on organizations and training departments to improve what they offer. 

But as this same commercial aired repeatedly during the program I was watching, I realized how sad this is for us in the industry. Humor is always based on some level of commonly accepted truth. And in presenting this message with a knowing wink, this commercial makes official the admission that online learning is not about learning or engagement or relevance. It is simply about jumping through the hoops to get a checkbox on a personal development chart. Has online learning truly become just the basis for a not very funny joke?

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this single incident. Frankly, I hope I am. But I do think it is a worrisome result of the practice that has been common in the e-learning world since its inception: to deliver modules and programs that clearly are misguided, yet justified because we don’t take the effort needed to do something better.

It isn’t good enough to excuse nonsensical training efforts online by claiming that we’re still experimenting with new technology. The idea that dumping PowerPoint slides into a presentation with arbitrary trivia questions should somehow count as learning has to be abandoned. That Subject Matter Experts (whose expertise is generally not in learning) insist on dumping content on learners can’t be used as an excuse.

e-Learning and online study programs must be reconceived, to:

  • always actively engage the learner through relevance and interest
  • challenge the learner to master new achievements
  • facilitate the learner undertaking meaningful activities that will transfer to the performance environment
  • use the media and connection made possible through technology to deliver information and support.

I’m looking forward to the day when the joke we see on TV is the one that laughs at the idea that anyone would take something as serious as professional development and treat it as something so insignificant.

Want to share this post? Here are some ready made tweets:

Click to Tweet: Has #onlinelearning truly become the basis for a not very funny joke? Hear what Ethan Edwards thinks in this blog.  http://hubs.ly/y0zG6N0

Click to Tweet: The idea that dumping slides into a presentation with questions as #learning has to be abandoned. -@EthanAEdwards http://hubs.ly/y0zG6N0

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