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