eLearning is not the answer

eLearning is not a big cost-cutter

bullCorporations are flocking to eLearning for all the wrong reasons. It’s cheaper: no travel, no facilities cost, no instructor salaries. This sort of fanciful thinking tripped up eLearning ten years ago.

In that first wave of eLearning, venture capitalists and the learning industry saw fortunes to be made by replacing instructors with computers. It didn’t work. Clive Shepard wrote about this a few months back. Here’s what I was blogging five years ago:

When I began writing about eLearning in 1998, some of us felt the training industry had struck gold! We were going to change the world and pick up some dot-com riches while we did it. Irrational exuberance? We didn’t think so at the time. eLearning was going to make email look like a rounding error. It reminded me of the spirit of Woodstock. People in the business exchanged knowing smiles. “We must be in heaven, man!”

What happened? We fumbled the implementation. We naively expected workers to flock to the glowing screens. We thought we could take the instructors out of the learning process and let workers gobble up self-paced (i.e., “don’t expect help from us”) lessons on their own. We were wrong. First-generation eLearning was a flop. Companies licensed “libraries” of content no one paid attention to. PowerPoint became the authoring language of choice. (Personally, I get more content from a Jackson Pollock drip painting than from someone else’s PowerPoint slides.) Dropout rates were horrendous. After-the-fact finger pointing is not productive. I don’t use the term eLearning much these days.

If you want outcomes that are comparable or better than what you were getting from instructor-led workshops, you have to do more than just throw things online. You have to support electronic offerings with mentors, guides, help desks, FAQs, reinforcement, and organizational support. eLearning is not a free lunch.

Poorly implemented eLearning is a more expensive alternative to doing nothing at all, and often the results would be the same.

Well-executed eLearning makes learning more accessible but it’s rarely going to double or triple one’s return on investment. eLearning is an incremental improvement, not a game-changer.

Natural (“pull”) learning has the real profit potential

Corporations can make the learning function many times more effective by shifting their orientation from push learning to pull learning.


Concepts at work in pull learning include:

  • Learning on demand, immediate reinforcement
  • Learning while working, not separate from working
  • Self-service, flexible delivery, convenience
  • Peer learning, communities of practice, collaboration
  • Small chunks, links for further discovery
  • Holistic, process orientation

Facilitating pull learning requires building learning ecosystems that bind workers together instead of developing courses and events. Replacing instructor-led events with living networks yields astounding gains in productivity.

Pull learning is not always appropriate; its application calls for judgment. For example regulations specify push learning for compliance training. Highly structured learning is appropriate for learning some technical skills. Face-to-face is unparalleled for changing behavior and rallying emotions. Simulations fall into a space somewhere between push and pull. Virtual Princeton will never be the same as being there in person. Nonetheless, most corporate learning is informal; improving the channels for pull learning makes it more effective.

Origins of term eLearning

The eLearning Museum

One thought on “eLearning is not the answer”

  1. E-Learning and Early learning:
    The author has admirably captured some of the deficiencies of conventional E-Learning approaches. Reading his critique, and his assessment of how e-learning must adapt to be more effective, made me think about my training in early learning. E-learning developers would have done well to examine what 2 decades of empirical, student-focused research has discovered about how learning best occurs in the simplest, earliest forms: among young preschoolers.
    The preponderance of research over the last 25 years demonstrates that the internalization of knowledge takes place best when it’s connected to children’s needs and interests (“pull” not “push”); that it is an active rather than passive process which is more effective if the learner engages actively with the material; that it involves little or no negative consequences; that it takes place best where the learner approaches skills and information in the context of relationships with others, such as co-learners and mentors rather than in isolation (even if part of the process is private experimentation and internalization); that emotions play a role because learning happens best when the learner feels secure, appreciated, supported; that assistance from a teacher or mentor must be part of the process; that the learning is adaptable to the varying learning modalities of the students; that knowledge and skills are constructed by the learners internally rather than simply presented and imbibed; that knowledge is fluid and adaptable; and that learning which is revisited after short intervals is more likely to be retained and expanded.
    While learning at older ages involves material which is more abstract and complex, this is all to say that the processes of learning are very similar whether one is 4 or 40. On reading the article I found myself, as an early childhood educator, repeatedly thinking “These critiques of e-learning all mirror discoveries about effective early education made since the “push” model of early academic content failed so spectacularly and inexplicably—as it was not backed by reliable teacher research. Solitary, forced and passive absorption of a static body of information and skills has never been an effective way to achieve learning, despite what the formal, “back to basics” traditionalists have argued.

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