Getting e-ducated

The good news about e-learning is that many Canadian businesses are realizing it is part of the answer to their training needs. The even better news is that phrase: “part of the answer.”

Toronto-based research firm International Data Corp. (Canada) Ltd. estimates Canada’s corporate e-learning market at $360 million in 2002, still very small according to Julie Kaufman, IDC’s manager of skills development research. IDC’s growth forecast is bullish, though: a bit better than 45 per cent annually from 2001 to 2006 despite a mild slowdown in the past few months.

Interest in e-learning is largely based on cost savings. “The number one benefit is reduced cost,” says Richard Gordon, Ottawa-based vice-president of Cary, N.C.-based Global Knowledge Network Inc., “because you can offer training to people without them having to travel.” But while strong growth is projected, the current market size contradicts some extravagant forecasts made for e-learning in the past. “It hasn’t grown the way people said it would grow,” says Brooke Broadbent, an Ottawa-based e-learning consultant. “There was a lot of hype.”

Blended Learning

Many early attempts at e-learning, or computer-based training as it was often called in the past, were simply “page-turners” – systems that walked students through screens of static information.

“E-learning has a huge potential,” Broadbent says. “I don’t think it’s been realized yet.” To realize the potential, providers of e-learning must find ways to make materials more engaging and adapt them to the learning styles of different students. They must also realize e-learning is no panacea. While electronic course materials and delivery systems have major advantages, there are times when a personal touch is necessary. Hence the e-learning buzzword of 2002: blended learning.

Exactly how blending works varies a good deal, but the idea is simple: rather than relying purely on electronic delivery, combine methods depending on the material, the students, or both.

Jim L’Allier, chief learning officer and vice-president of research and development for e-learning provider NetG, a unit of Thomson Corp. in Naperville, Ill., cites evidence that blended learning is best. NetG did a study with 128 participants of varying backgrounds divided into three groups. One group received what NetG refers to as traditional e-learning – learning units presented on a computer screen, followed by self-assessment at the end of each unit, with access to frequently asked questions, other support material and mentors. The second got blended learning, with scenario-based exercises, early use of live software and access to live mentors during online training. The third group got no training.

After the training, all participants were asked to complete a set of tasks. The group that had gone through traditional e-learning performed almost 100 per cent better than the group with no training at all, but the blended learning group performed 30 per cent better than those who went through the traditional e-learning program, or nearly 160 per cent better than the untrained control group.

The conclusion, L’Allier says, is that e-learning works and blended learning works even better.

The blended learning in this study did not include actual classes led by an instructor, whether in a physical classroom or via distance learning. NetG plans a follow-up study in which a fourth group will receive some instructor-led training. For some, blended learning implies mixing one or more forms of e-learning with a teacher standing in front of a classroom.

Global Knowledge offers corporate training courses to large organizations using three different approaches: self-paced e-learning, virtual classrooms where participants listen to a live instructor and ask questions over an Internet connection in real-time, and traditional classroom instruction.

Gordon says everyone learns differently. Some people must hear information to absorb it, others learn better by reading and some learn best by performing the tasks to be learned. And some are more comfortable with technology than others. He says Global Knowledge’s blended approach lets customers and their employees choose the approaches that work best for them.

Blending can mean many different things. “It’s still very experimental,” Kaufman says. “People are trying to figure out which mix works for which content…. It’s going to differ according to the content, it’s going to differ according to the audience you have.”

Broadbent adds that some personal contact is usually desirable. Even in a course on distributed learning that he teaches for Royal Roads University, students spend some time together in a classroom in the first couple of weeks. And Bruce Stewart, president and chief executive of e-learning provider Serebra Learning Corp. in Surrey, B.C., says Serebra recommends classroom instruction when students have no previous exposure to the subject matter.

Tracy Deline, principal in learning services at IBM Canada Ltd., says e-learning used to be seen as a poor way to teach soft skills such as leadership and management. That is less true today, thanks in part to technology advances such as widespread networking that allows more interaction. “What worked in the classroom, there’s a reason why that worked,” Deline says, “because you had the interaction. So we try to have as much interaction as possible.” Even so, she adds, some classroom time is still desirable for role-playing, practice and feedback.

Across the Globe

Of course, learning styles aren’t the only factors that determine which model is best. When a number of people who need a particular training course quickly are scattered across a wide geographic area, the traditional classroom approach may be hard to use. A virtual classroom can deliver instructor-led training quickly to people in a number of different locations. “Sometimes e-learning can be a way to get training out much faster than through the classroom,” says Gordon.

Take SaskTel. The Regina-based telephone company has learning centres in Saskatchewan’s two major cities, explains Lorne Kirzinger, human resources development director for learning technology, but it is hard for employees in rural areas to attend classes in Regina and Saskatoon because of the time lost from their regular work. E-learning makes it easier for employees in rural offices to get training, Kirzinger says. “What we’re trying to do is make things a little more equal for all employees, no matter where you work for us.”

That could apply on a larger scale, too. “If you’re a multinational company,” says L’Allier at NetG, “you can train your entire organization throughout the world with a uniformity that would almost be impossible with other forms of learning.”

Some students have busy schedules and find it hard to block off time for instruction at specific times. With self-paced e-learning, “you don’t necessarily have to take a whole week off from work to learn, you don’t have to take a course on the weekend,” Kaufman notes.

On the other hand, e-learning works better for some topics than others. Of the subjects that business courses usually cover, Kirzinger says, technology skills are easiest to teach electronically. “IT is certainly the largest content focus for e-learning right now,” Kaufman says, “but we are seeing a move toward business skills.” Some companies are using e-learning to explain internal processes, such as how to fill out expense forms or book vacations, to their employees.

While some material now taught by the traditional instructor-led model can be converted to e-learning, Kirzinger concludes, “there’s always going to be that holdout, maybe 20 per cent or 40 per cent that won’t make it.”

And at least for some time to come, there will be individuals who are not comfortable doing lessons at a computer. Recognizing this, SaskTel lets managers choose the traditional classroom when they think it will work better. “If they think the individual employee’s learning style isn’t suited, they can send that person to the instructor-led course,” Kirzinger notes.

A Different Course

Individual employees’ receptiveness to e-learning is a matter not only of learning style but of experience with technology. “The IT community and people with computers on their desks is the bulk of the business,” says Stewart. Yet that, too, is constantly changing. “As people get better at working virtually, they get better at learning that way, too,” observes Georgia Curtis, senior consultant for enterprise learning at BCE Corp. in Toronto. “Ten years from now, we’re going to be e-learning in a whole different way than we are now.”

BCE’s recent experience suggests there is lots of interest in e-learning. Recently the company secured high-level funding to purchase e-learning materials from NetG. Whereas e-learning courses previously available to BCE employees from another supplier were charged back to departments at about $100 per course, the new arrangement carries no chargebacks and consequently employees don’t need approval from their supervisors to sign up for courses. Enrolment has skyrocketed, with 9,000 out of 45,000 employees signing up for e-learning courses in 12 weeks, Curtis says. There has been strong interest in project management and general business courses, she notes, with some employees also pursuing technical certifications.

Curtis admits that not all those who start courses finish them, and with the recent surge in enrolment, the completion rate has declined. She notes that this is probably due in part to employees completing only as much of a course as it takes to find out what they want to know or to learn to perform a certain task. “What some people see as dropout, other people see as learning just in time,” she says.

In fact, this idea of just-in-time learning, in which people can review small units of material when they need them, is so appealing that Kirzinger wonders “how long will a course be a course?” He suggests the time may be coming when e-learning will be organized in tidbits of knowledge.

But there is also still the question of e-learning’s ability to keep students’ attention. “You need to spend a lot of time on the instructional design to have good, engaging self-paced material,” Broadbent says. E-learning has improved from the days of the static “page-turner” computer-based training, but there is still work to do.

Buckler is a Kingston, Ont.-based freelance writer and editor who has covered computing and telecommunications for more than 20 years.