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Review: 'The E-Learning Handbook: Past Promises, Present Challenges,' by Saul Carliner and Patti Shank

By Karl M. Kapp / March 2010

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The E-Learning Handbook cover "On the one hand, online learning is real, it's happening, and its use is increasing. On the other hand, online learning isn't being adopted as quickly or as quickly as some of the enthusiastic analysts have predicted." —The E-Learning Handbook

Online learning has had a rather checkered past, including overblown claims of eliminating all classroom training to irrational hopes of failed online universities. These horror stories are contrasted with rich examples of proven return-on-investment for online learning and documented behavioral change as a result of well constructed online programs.

The E-Learning Handbook covers the good, the bad, and the ugly of e-learning and provides a glimpse into the industry's future. The Handbook provides a broad look at the past expectations of e-learning and then follows up those expectations with myriad instructions, ideas, and concepts to carry the industry forward.

Goals of the Book
The e-learning industry is multifaceted. There are synchronous and asynchronous solutions, an academic and corporate market place, and literally thousands of companies producing some type of e-learning product or solution. The different layers and aspects of the industry translate into a rather difficult task when attempting to provide an overview of the field as well as a path forward. More conversation and analysis is needed to help move e-learning forward.

To that end, co-editor Patti Shank mentions in her opening chapter "the goal of this book—to initiate deep conversations about e-learning and propose real, do-able and sustainable uses of e-learning that are valuable to all stakeholders."

To provide this value, Shank and her co-editor Saul Carliner (disclaimer: Carliner is on the advisory board of this web site, as is the author of this review), assembled a top notch team to provide the necessary insight and perspectives to create "do-able and sustainable uses of e-learning." The team adeptly captures current industry needs, from new design models to "real" standards to figuring out how to develop research-backed online solutions. Then they provide examples of how you can avoid past mistakes and create e-learning that works.

Contents of the Book
The book is divided into six parts. The first part consists of only one chapter, "The Context for E-Learning." In this section, Shank lays the foundation for the rest of the book and provides a lens through which the reader can view the remaining chapters. She reveals the pitfalls with e-learning and lightly mentions some of the opportunities for e-learning explored in subsequent chapters of the book.

The second part consists of several chapters all based on the topic of the reality of e-learning versus the hype. The chapters cover both corporate experiences with e-learning as well as describing e-learning concerns and trends within colleges and universities. This section of the book ends with the resurrection of the idea of "Knowledge Management" in a chapter written by William Horton.

The third part focuses on the dreaded "Technology Issues." E-Learning is nothing without technology issues and this section does a good job exploring them and describing learning objects, infrastructure requirements, standards issues, as well as a look at some Web 2.0 technologies and their potential impact on e-learning.

"Design Issues" are discussed in the fourth part. This section contains an interesting chapter by M. David Merrill, who discusses the need to create efficient, effective, and engaging learning. Merrill describes how to apply these principles in his description of a course from St. John Ambulance Australia titled Australian First Aid. He provided great storyboards to illustrate how to apply the principles he discussed within the chapter. My only disappointment was I really wanted to see screen captures of the product to augment the excellent description. Otherwise, it was a complete and valuable discussion.

Section five covers issues of "Theory and Research." The authors provide compelling arguments for re-thinking our current approaches, which have not yield much useful or actionable information. The first step of the recommended approach is to work closely with a practitioner to define important outcomes of e-learning. The next step is to create a prototype to address the outcomes. The third step is to test and refine the learning until the outcomes are reached. Finally is a process of reflection to extract reusable design principles. This approach makes a lot of sense and seems a practical method of creating actionable research. The challenge for researchers will be to place their findings and extracted principles into a location that can be easily accessed by practitioners. Too often any type of research is written and produced in such a way as to make it difficult to access and difficult to decipherer into practice, design research might be a method that can make the findings more accessible to the field.

The sixth and final section of the book focuses on "Economic Issues and Moving Forward." This section has two chapters. One discusses the economic viability of e-learning. The author of the chapter, Patrick Lambe, provides a decision tree for assessing the business impact of investing in e-learning that can be a handy guide when building a business case for investing in e-learning.

The last chapter is written by Carliner, who begins his discussion with a thought, which I have to admit, was in the back of my mind after reading the pervious chapters: "Ouch! After reading that summary, one might conclude that e-learning is a failure." Of course e-learning is not a failure, as Carliner eloquently explains while outlining three directions he sees for e-learning. Yes, e-learning came on the scene with a lot of hype (fueled in part by the simultaneous "irrational exuberance" of the then-nascent worldwide web). But, as Carliner rightly points out, with more modest expectations, e-learning will be successful and become a way of life within many organizations.

A great way to approach this book is as a topographical map overlaying both the history and future of e-learning. The careful explanations of where the field has been provide insights into where the field is going. If you are a student, faculty member of practitioner who needs to gain an understanding of the field, this book is an excellent resource.

About the Author
Karl M. Kapp, Ed.D., is a professor of instructional technology at Bloomsburg University, and an expert on the convergence of learning, technology, and business operations. He is author of four books including, Gadgets, Games and Gizmos for Learning, and Learning in 3D: Adding a New Dimension to Enterprise Learning and Collaboration (2010). He is also on the eLearn Magazine (this web site) advisory board.

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