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Q&A with Saul Carliner

By Lisa Neal / August 2004

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Few observers are as astute as Saul Carliner, an e-learning veteran who examines data and trends to predict where the industry is going and why. Saul has a foot in multiple worlds: He has extensive industry experience, serves as assistant professor of educational technology at Concordia University in Montréal, Québec, and has authored five books including the forthcoming Advanced Web-based Training: Adapting Real World Strategies in Your Online Learning (with Margaret Driscoll). Saul, a frequent conference presenter, was an invited speaker at E-Learn 2003 on the implications from an annual survey of training directors. Saul and I followed up a conversation at the conference with the e-mail exchange that follows:

LISA: What are some of the most important trends you see now in corporate e-learning?

SAUL: A few observations about the current state of training based on the data I've reviewed:

  • As a percentage of the total training portfolio (that is, the total amount of training that an organization provides), e-learning is still a relatively small part. Depending on the survey, it's somewhere between 15 and 20 percent. It's growing, but not anywhere near the rates that were predicted.
  • There's a high level of dissatisfaction with e-learning courses. According to one study conducted by a private company and presented at last year's ASTD Conference, 75 percent rated effectiveness of e-learning as less than 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. The average rating is 3.9.
  • My own research suggests that some of the decision-makers still lack sufficient knowledge about e-learning and related concepts and technologies to be effective leaders for it within their organizations. And the push toward higher-end services in the various professions that support e-learning just isn't happening in the trenches.

LISA: The last time I heard you give a talk, the person next to me asked what "ROI" stood for, and then, after I said "return on investment," asked me what that meant. Is this a general problem, that terminology is being used without people understanding the meaning? After all, if people can't define a term, how can they justify an investment?

SAUL: Questions about terminology seem to be a problem in this field, and not just de-coding an acronym. For the past four years, I've worked with a team that surveys training directors about their general level of understanding regarding important terms in the field, such as "learning management systems" (LMS) or "knowledge management." Only about a third of training directors felt comfortable using most of the terms with people outside of the profession.

What's interesting about this is that training directors are the people who are supposed to be the advocates for these ideas outside of the training organization. How can people sell ideas if they don't feel comfortable using the words required to describe the ideas?

LISA: You claimed in your talk that Chief Learning Officers (CLOs) are a dying breed. What is that based on and who is making decisions about training?

SAUL: I did? Seriously, came across a study a couple of years ago from a consulting company that tracks the number of organizations with CLOs. The study found that, in the economic downturn, the number of companies with CLOs had dropped from 25 to 20 percent. I have not seen any data since then, but I would imagine that the situation hasn't changed a lot.

LISA: What are the trends in higher education and how is that different from corporate training? What about issues of cost effectiveness? What are the differences between academic and corporate perspectives?

SAUL: I just read an amazing study on the cost-effectiveness of e-learning in higher education. The study, which is preliminary and unpublished, concluded that, in higher education, classroom training may be more cost-effective. What was unusual about this study is that the authors considered all of the component costs, including the costs of tutoring or coaching e-students.

There are reasons why universities often do not see the cost reductions that corporations do. One is that class sizes often do not change when academic courses move online. In contrast, moving corporate courses online often results in a significant change in student-teacher ratios, from between 20:1 and 30:1 to between 100:1 and 1000:1.

LISA: Do you keep track of widely held predictions regarding e-learning trends?

SAUL: I never thought that PDAs were going to become a major learning tool, as some predicted. Even with communications capabilities built in, the tiny screen makes them less than ideal for any long-term learning. Instead, they seem better suited as a playback station for books on tape—or MP3, I guess I should say—and as a great performance support tool, which is where the development focus seems to be now.

I follow predictions about the next big things in online teaching. One guru says games are "it" and that all training must happen through games. Another declares that simulations must become the dominant teaching paradigm online. Although I believe games and simulations will become more prevalent online, I don't expect them to become a dominant part of e-learning. Similarly, I keep hearing that blogs and groupware are the future. Though these technologies makes communication easy, we must remember that there's still just 24 hours in a day. People may not have time to check all these messages if they want to maintain the rest of their lives.


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    Lisa Neal
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