Online conferencing is popular, but e-learning is not always the best learning

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E-learning has its merits, but, argues Mark Walsh, it isn't a cure-all and should be used with other forms of learning.

E-learning is increasingly popular but there’s a problem: It’s not really learning and it doesn’t really work. What! How can I say that? It’s all modern and uses computers and everything! I’m being somewhat flippant but here’s my point – e-learning is good at certain things and rubbish at others.

First, I should explain my own perspective as I’m not an impartial observer. I’m a specialist in experiential, interactive and embodied training. I use this approach both because it fits my values and because I’ve found that it’s what’s most effective. I would be equally happy writing an article called "Why traditional classroom learning is a total waste of time" too. I am also no technophobe enjoying Twitter, blogging, and my iPhone.

What is learning?

The majority of people in the western world now have close to the sum total of human knowledge at their fingertips via the Internet. To be more precise, they have information, and e-learning is a part of this boom. Information isn’t however wisdom as almost any viral Internet phenomena will prove! Like the Web, e-learning is great for learning about things. Like most people, I use Google and Wikipedia to find out about things, and e-learning makes this more efficient by collecting relevant data in one place, but this is not the way to learn to do things.

Think about driving – yes, the theory test is useful, but there is no substitute for lessons. Learning any skill, whether it be driving, speaking French, or leadership skills, takes real-world practice and bespoke human support. E-learning often misses these two critical points. However, I would add that the growing use of video, customer support, and real-time synchronous e-learning is making online learning more effective - the irony is, all of this is making e-learning more effective by making it more like traditional training!

The human touch


Being able to see delegates, resonate with them emotionally, pick up on subtle nuances of communication, and respond appropriately is the very essence of education. I believe passionately that training and coaching are not about getting something from one head to another, but are an intimate dance that transforms both parties. We are not computers, and if we treat people as such they will rightly resist and rebel.

I highly recommend the film "Up in The Air" starring George Clooney. In the movie, a company that makes people redundant tries to switch from face-to-face firing to video conferencing. The film explores the issue of removing this vital human touch. I use this fictitious example to protect the guilty in the real world. I would regard some e-learning solutions I have seen applied to human issues (and this definitely includes stress management and leadership training) as not only ineffective but dehumanizing and ethically dubious.

Retention of knowledge

Tell me by e-mail, and I forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve all of me (and not just by clicking through a few games), and I really learn.

Second order learning

A whole level of learning that Wikipedia doesn’t touch is when the learners themselves change. This second order or ontological learning is what is required for lasting behavioral change and therefore impacts on bottom-line results. Take stress and time management training, for example. I’ve seen bad e-learning programs which are just like Power Bore slides telling people about stress and time management. This in no way helps with people’s actual stress or time management. More advanced interactive e-learning programs may encourage people to set goals and establish practices like regular deep-breathing or list-making to support behavioral change in these areas.

This is a bit better. I have never yet however seen an e-learning program which works effectively at the level at being. What do I mean by this? For example - does a person have a set of beliefs about his workload that means he will always be overwhelmed? Is there an embodied tendency to say "Yes"? What is a person’s unique emotional pay-off for consistently being overwhelmed? Unless this level of highly individual learning is accessed, 'tricks and tips/tick-box e-learning' won’t be effective, and any money spent will be wasted.

This applies to other areas too, from leadership, which I hope is very obviously not learned from an iPad, to health and safety. Can a person really safely learn manual handling without being given feedback targeted to his specific body and tasks? Traditional classroom learning (which itself can be non-interactive and cookie cutter in its approach) often fails to shift lasting habits – much like those few slides which may or may not even be read.

But what about...


What about all the advantages of e-learning? It's cheap right? Yes, so is the clock I bought from Poundland that doesn't work either. If not effective at producing behavioral change (and therefore better results), e-learning is hardly good value. Likewise, it can be standardised but this is not usually a good thing for learners and therefore outcomes.

Much of what I have said is also not fair to all e-learning providers so feel free to “yeah but...” this article and advertise quality wares that address the issues I raise. My sense is that e-learning is definitely improving (I know of some great companies!). I also don’t think that the e-learning train is likely to stop, I do however hope it picks up the essence of what learning is all about along the way.

The future

Perhaps blended learning solutions are the future - bringing together the best of e-learning and traditional training. Getting some factual learning across electronically before an interactive course and having good e-follow-up for example can make better use of contact time. I also think e-learning is a good challenge to stagnant traditional trainers as now they have to offer something that Wikipedia cannot. A concern I have is that increasing demand for e-learning will replace subject-matter experts who know their material and know how to work with people deeply, with tech wizards and companies large enough to afford the outlay of e-learning design. Time will tell, and ultimately what works will prosper.

About the author:

Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer of embodied training. Based in Brighton, Sussex, he heads Integration Training - business training providers specialising in management and leadership training, team building, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit histraining blog.

Reprinted from our sister site, TrainingZone.


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