Why e-Learning Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Why am I saying this?

It’s simple, really. I run a training company that has 20 years’ experience in training business clients, with a mission to provide the best quality we can at great prices. We are therefore looking for trends, for new ideas all the time, and implement what we think are relevant.

And the “big one” is e-learning. Isn’t it the new way? Doesn’t it hand you control of your learning?  Won’t it change the way we all improve our skills? Well, my answer is that it has its place, but it will not replace classroom training in the way that some of its evangelists are saying.


Who agrees with me?

Well, like-minded opinions have been around for years, so I’m not saying that my views are part of a new revolution in thinking. But this article might help to add a bit of perspective to what’s currently out there.

Take this from Verity Gough of Training Zone who outlined the shortcomings of training without personal involvement back in 2010, or this from BCS who identified the shortcomings of training in non-technical subjects even further back in 2009. Now look at what’s on offer today and you’ll see that these reservations are still valid.

And if you want a short, personal view, read this from last year (2014) by Ruth Moody on FarScape, who talks about how she wants to learn in a “human” way. And how about this post, just a few weeks old (November 2015), from Mike Morrison on the RapidBI website, where he gives a great run-down of why “ticking boxes” isn’t enough.

What’s the evidence?

Most surveys I read tend to commentate on their findings, defining methodology and reeling off percentages, but failing to draw conclusions. Which is a shame. Many actually identify shortcomings without actually saying that they are a serious problem. Here are a few:
  • The need for high self-motivation from delegates
  • An inability to explain difficult concepts
  • The need for “real world” human follow-up
  • Too much focus on technology at the expense of useful content
  • A focus on passing multiple choice questions instead of learning

A couple of examples of surveys that are very informative but, in my opinion, pull their punches a bit, include those by Cedefop and IRRODL. Research by the CIPD says that just 31% of organisations that use e-learning reported that most employees completed the course.  Wow, there’s a waste.

An article by Lokesh Sapre on LinkedIn says that e-learning usually needs a significant change in thinking, and additional resources, in order to work.

So e-learning isn’t a matter of “plug and play” for instant results; in fact, if you don’t put in the infrastructure, it can be a case, as with the early innovators in PC technology, of “plug and pray”.

It can’t all be bad

Advantages of eLearning
Of course not: here are a few great benefits:
  • It’s cheap, so the accountants will love it
    But beware of letting any accountant run your business
  • It’s flexible and convenient: you can study any time you like
    But your attention span will wane after a short while
  • Learning by game playing is fun
    Well, yes, but for anyone out of primary school, is it the best way of learning?
  • More people now have access to training
    There’s no argument here: e-learning has opened up the world in this respect.

I’ve put in the caveats so you can see them right away, but fully acknowledge that in some situations e-learning is the best option. It is easy to argue (and I agree) that learning about, say, circular references in Excel is accomplished better by watching a two-minute online video than booking a day-long training course, but if you want to upskill across a broad range of topics, being glued to a computer screen for a day with no guidance is probably enough to send any of us out of our minds.

(Note: if you do actually try this, remember to pause the videos and take copious notes, because if you don’t, after a few hours of study, you are unlikely to actually remember much of it at all.)

A couple of examples to think about

OK, a big corporation needs to get people certified in First Aid at locations all around the world. It can send them on conventional classes, or it can enrol them on to online courses.This is massively efficient, it costs very little, it has minimal disruption to business, and it gets the people qualified.

But if I have a heart attack at work (fingers crossed…), would I want to be given CPR by someone who learned it online, or someone who’d actually practised it on the floor of a classroom? Or if I want to upskill my sales team, would I send them online? Are you kidding?

It’s a better world, but not a new one – what about Kindle?

Didn’t we hear how the Kindle and similar e-readers were going to destroy the conventional book market? All kinds of scenarios were thrown up about the way we’d change our habits (and help the environment) as we ditched books and “went digital”.

Well, this didn’t happen, did it? I’ve got a Kindle and I enjoy using it. But like many others, staring at an e-reader screen after a day when I’ve worked for hours at a PC screen, means that I don’t read as much as I used to. And although I’ve bought some books for my Kindle, I have ignored them and actually started to read a few “paper” books that I hadn’t got around to before. I didn’t realise this until I thought about it after reading a few weeks ago that Waterstones had removed Kindle from its shelves because sales were now “pitiful” (their word) and they have returned the space to paperback and hardback books.

This wasn’t a surprise because it had been pretty well on the cards since January when Foyles, as well as Waterstones, expressed doubts.

The reason is that despite its convenience and low cost, the experience of buying and reading a Kindle book is pretty soulless. You can of course buy a book online, but going into a bookshop is a whole different thing: you can pick up the books, and search the shelves in a much more satisfying way. Why, a lot of shops now even serve coffee (but don’t spill it on the books…). And owning and reading a book is a million miles from the world of the e-reader.

I’m not advocating either here: we all make our own choices, but it’s worth noting that the different experience offered by traditional books is, to many people, much more satisfying and complete.  So is the case with classroom training.

So what’s the conclusion?

Well, we saw the “coming” of CD-based training which failed because of the lack of interaction: it just gets boring, like going to the gym on your own. Conventional classroom training gives you a completely different experience, allowing you to feed off other delegates in a class, and even in a one-to-one session you can ask questions of an experienced tutor who will often illustrate their answer with examples that really bring the message home.

If an organisation wants to roll out e-learning then it needs to invest – not just in the provision of adequate courseware, and the IT infrastructure to support it (or are you going to ask people to train at their desks?), but in the human follow-up to ensure understanding, and even attendance.  Anything less is likely to fall short of expectations.

If you are looking to take up e-learning for yourself, it’s a great idea, but for anything longer than short tutorials, you need some kind of human intervention. And think to yourself: does it offer anything more than you can find in a book?

It’s abundantly clear that e-learning has created great opportunities that didn’t exist before, not only in flexibility and low cost, but in accessibility to huge numbers of people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to take part. But it’s not a panacea, and in the business markets that we serve, it’s a useful addition, but it doesn’t come near the effectiveness of getting people together with a damn good trainer who will take them to a higher skill level altogether.

Improve Skills
With Activia, we are committed to providing what you need online. For example, our blog has hundreds of articles on all kinds of subjects, along with a series of free eBooks on sales, time management, assertiveness and more. We have just started to roll out free online resources where you can view video tutorials and download templates: the first one is for Excel with others coming soon. We have also put our entire offering into a great eDirectory.

But on the matter of training, you cannot improve on the classroom experience, so we will maintain our commitment to this offering, though many of our courses now have free e-learning revision as a great backup.

So there we are. I hope you find this useful, in the flood of “one-way thinking” that dominates the landscape at the moment, as another view to consider.

Whatever your choice of solution, as always, I wish you well in what you do.

And, if you'd like to read more about e-learning vs instructor-led training, I talked about them in more detail in my previous articles, Online Training: What Are the Choices? and Online Training: Skills Improvement or Just Ticking Boxes?.