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When will e-learning reach a tipping point?

By Lisa Neal / August 2004

TYPE: OPINION
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Malcolm Gladwell spoke recently at the Harvard Faculty Club about his book, The Tipping Point. The tipping point, a term coined by epidemiologists and popularized by Gladwell, refers to the "moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass." A social epidemic is when something other than an infectious disease—an idea, behavior, or product—behaves like a virus, spreading through a population. I don't question if e-learning will reach a tipping point, but what I found myself pondering is when e-learning will reach a tipping point and become a social epidemic.

Analysts often predict industry growth, and this is used to determine how to invest, where to look for jobs, or in which fields to seek training. Predictions for e-learning growth have generally been more optimistic than reality. The best data I could find about e-learning's penetration is from the Pew Internet Project, which found in June 2003 that 10% of Internet users have taken a class online for credit and 8% have taken any other class online. Saul Carliner (see Q&A above) reports that e-learning accounts for between 15% and 20% of the total amount of training that organizations provide. While many people haven't taken online courses, most are aware of e-learning.

Gladwell points out that small changes often start a contagious movement, and a time, place, and set of conditions may be ripe for a social epidemic. The growth of e-learning to date can be attributed to many technological and economic changes. A tipping point seems to have been reached in the acceptance, if not the adoption, of e-learning.

What could increase adoption? Certainly e-learning has been more prominent in the media recently, both through the increasingly common spam and banner ads announcing online programs and recent news items. There are currently well-publicized scandals where US government workers earned higher salaries after acquiring higher degrees from so-called diploma mills. To add insult to injury, these degrees were paid for by the government! Will the impact of this publicity be to raise people's awareness of e-learning, even if the context is negative, or will it smear people's impressions of e-learning and decrease their acceptance? (Our local scandal in Boston—as described in a previous column—was short-lived).

I asked Malcolm Gladwell for his impressions of this type of publicity after his talk. He said that it may reframe the whole e-learning field, and that the ultimate question is how the industry responds. The existence of these non-accredited diploma mills isn't the problem—in fact, many high quality products are imitated and sold cheaply—it's the seemingly common inability many people have to distinguish program quality. Far more important than reputation, cost, or any other factor is accreditation.

I was curious if schools promote their accreditation. I checked out the University of Phoenix Web site and found nothing on the home page. Capella University didn't have any either. Then, again, neither did Harvard's home page. I had to go down three levels of pages to find out that Harvard is accredited, only two levels for Capella, and only one level for the University of Phoenix, though it required another level to find out the accrediting agency. In contrast, Nova Southeastern University had an accreditation link on its home page, which brought me to a list of the accreditations they've received. The page said it was revised in July, 2003, so it clearly was not put up in response to the recent government scandal.

And then I received a job announcement by email that required a "Bachelor or Master's degree from an accredited college or university." Perhaps this is the response that Gladwell referred to: not that the e-learning industry or the institutions themselves will change, but that employers will be more conscious of accreditation both in hiring and in reimbursing educational expenses. This increased awareness of accreditation could lead to a better understanding of quality as well as more promotion of their accreditation status by schools. Perhaps these are the changes that are needed to bring e-learning to the tipping point.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. "Spot Learning"
  2. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  3. "Deep" thoughts
  4. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  5. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  6. Learner on the Orient Express
  7. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  8. How to get students to show up and learn
  9. Blended conferences
  10. Predictions for 2002
  11. Learning from e-learning
  12. Q&A with Don Norman
  13. In search of simplicity
  14. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  15. Want better courses?
  16. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  17. Just "DO IT"
  18. Senior service
  19. Formative evaluation
  20. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  21. Predictions for 2007
  22. Not all the world's a stage
  23. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  24. Do distance and location matter in e-learning?
  25. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  26. Degrees by mail
  27. The Value of Voice
  28. Predictions for 2006
  29. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  30. Five questions...
  31. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  32. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  33. Music lessons
  34. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  35. Advertising or education?
  36. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  37. Predictions for 2008
  38. Serious games for serious topics
  39. Back to the future
  40. Predictions For 2003
  41. Q&A
  42. Storytelling at a distance
  43. Talk to me
  44. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  45. Online learning and fun
  46. Everything in moderation
  47. eLearning and fun
  48. The basics of e-learning
  49. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  50. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  51. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  52. My life as a Wikipedian
  53. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  54. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  55. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  56. Do it yourself
  57. Predictions for 2004