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