Reflections of an E-Learning Consultant

for e.learning age magazine, February 2009

Jane Hart, of the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies reflects on the last 15 years of e-learning, and the lessons that we need to learn as we move into troubled times.

In the early 90s the World Wide Web was born, and like many others I immediately saw its potential for learning. However, not everyone fully grasped what it had to offer. For instance, my Head of Department in the university where I was working at the time, actually called the Web “a load of old hype”. I learnt very quickly, that as with all innovation, it can take time for some people to fully appreciate it.

But this didn’t deter me from “spreading the word”, and over the next few years I spent a lot of time helping other universities and businesses understand the potential of the Web, and in 1997 I decided to set up my own consultancy practice to work full-time as an online learning consultant.

My early contracts involved helping organisations dip their toes into these new waters. I spent the first year helping one multi-national organisation set up and operate a global Online Learning Centre, underpinned by a very early learning management system. During that year I encountered many problems and issues with creating, delivering and managing online learning, but I also identified solutions as how to address many of them. I really find it sad to hear, 10 years on, that people are still having to find out the hard way by working through the very same problems; we all need to share our experiences more widely.

In late 1999, the term “e-learning” was coined, and I, alongside my colleagues, promoted its benefits – in particular the anytime, anywhere access to learning it enabled, as well as the opportunity to learn at your own pace.

Corporate e-learning became big business. We saw the production of off-the-shelf libraries of generic courses, businesses offering bespoke development of interactive, multimedia online courses, and the growth of vendors selling corporate learning management systems.

Although companies took some time to “warm” to e-learning, unfortunately quite a few who did, simply saw it as an opportunity to cut costs and deliver their training entirely online to the desktop. So it wasn’t long before disillusionment set in; e-learning wasn’t delivering on its promises and in particular large scale investments in learning management systems just weren’t paying off.

There were a number of good reasons for this. Employees often considered e-learning inferior to traditional classroom-based learning. They weren’t that enthusiastic about being compelled to sit at their computers and plough their way through hours of online course materials – however well designed or developed. They wanted a teacher to add value to the whole process and they wanted to learn alongside other students.

To address this need for socialising within learning, we saw the emergence of two new trends:

  1. Face-to-face elements were now reintroduced and combined with online elements to create blended learning solutions.
  2. And for situations where face-to-face was not possible, i.e. where employees were remotely distributed, systems began to be used to bring people together online at the same time, for live or synchronous learning.

But now with the emergence of Web 2.0 technologies we are seeing a completely new phase of e-learning, often referred to as E-Learning 2.0, which supports a more social and collaborative approach to learning, and hence is also known as Social Learning.

Whereas early e-learning was all about delivering content, primarily in the form of online courses, produced by experts and managed via learning management systems, Social Learning is about creating and sharing information and knowledge with other people using (often free) social media tools that support a collaborative approach to learning.

Social Learning is fast becoming recognised as a valuable way of supporting formal learning and enabling informal learning within an organisation (something that has been overlooked for far too long). The use of online communities and networks, where employees are encouraged to co-create content, collaborate, share knowledge and fully participate in their own learning, is helping to create far more enduring learning experiences.

As the recession bites, organisations will inevitably be thinking about cutting costs, but it will be important to look back and learn from the lessons of the past; that is, not to revert to a content-centric view of e-learning, but to move forward and embrace the new web tools to create a more collaborative, flexible, social learning environment and, at the same time, do more with less.

To demonstrate my commitment to social learning I changed my own job title from E-Learning Consultant to Social Media & Learning Consultant to reflect this new focus of my work. If you’d like some help with your social learning initiatives, contact me at  [email protected]