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E-Learning in 2009: Are We Winning the Battle but Losing the War?

By Jane Bozarth / March 2009

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As the news about the economy grows ever bleaker, organizations are finally forced to take a hard look at travel and other expenses associated with traditional classroom training. I predict this will bring several changes to the e-learning horizon—some good, some perhaps not.

First, we may finally have reached the do-or-die moment for those classroom trainers who have resisted alternative approaches to delivering instruction. While there are myriad reasons for the resistance (need for control; need to be seen as "expert;" need to cling to instructor-focused practices; lack of trust in and respect for learners, their time, and their needs), the continued resistance is, ultimately, a management failure. Now managers may be forced to help the resistant trainers move along, either toward the light or away from their jobs.

Second, the intensified focus on money will increasingly lead to training decisions made on cost rather than quality. I have already seen instances where cost is forcing the shift in training delivery methods, with HR and training departments left behind as other decision makers (IT, the C-suite) make decisions for them, based only on economics. I know of two recent instances, for example, in which senior management, influenced by IT, purchased and launched commercial catalogs of e-learning courses without involving HR or training, with the business going to the cheapest bidder. Training departments, take note: If the trend continues, you may find yourselves under the purview of your IT departments. Training will become another product, amounting to little more than the distribution of software.

While I welcome the move to increased use of e-learning (as I never did understand how the traditional classroom came to be held in such exalted esteem), this shift isn't necessarily good. It reinforces the belief that any presentation of content equals "training." It breeds the "convert-a-classroom-course-to-online" mentality, rather than focus on transforming instruction. The trend toward buying or building whatever is the cheapest instruction is a move away from thoughtful instructional design, with meaningful intent ignored in favor of easier, crank 'em out approaches. Alas, though, it may be the best push forward e-learning will get.

So, it may be that those of us who are advocates of alternative methods for delivering instruction are winning the battle but losing the war. The point was never to "do e-learning" but to provide alternative, at least equally effective means of providing instruction, maximizing learner time, and delivering just-in-time, just-for-me solutions. E-learning was supposed to make training better, not just cheaper.

But there's another, concurrent trend, and I offer it as much a hope as a prediction: The increasing use of social media may create the perfect storm for learners to start taking charge of training offerings and let-me-get-it-myself content. One of my young Twitter followers recently said, "I've been online a long time. I really don't know what the traditional classroom looks like anymore." She and her friends will be coming to a training session of yours soon, and their needs may finally take the steering wheel away from simple economics or the politics of the HR-Training-IT-C-suite players.

About the Author
Jane Bozarth, Ed.D., is the e-learning coordinator for the State of North Carolina's Office of State Personnel. She is the author of Better than Bullet Points: Creating Engaging E-Learning with PowerPoint; E-Learning Solutions on a Shoestring, and From Analysis to Evaluation: Tools, Tips, and Techniques for Trainers. She lives in Durham, NC, and can be reached via her website

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  • Sat, 28 Nov 2009
    Post by Rick Reynolds

    I know exactly what you mean, Jane; I have been going through the same thing, myself.

    I just got the opportunity to develop an online school and course, but without much of a budget. So I'm going though all the possible ways to implement it, and unfortunately speed and cost need to be leading factors in what I choose. I won't settle for anything that isn't really good, but pulling that off on a tight budget will be a challenge. If you or anyone else has ideas, feel free to chime in! :)

    Thanks, Rick

  • Tue, 13 Oct 2009
    Post by Milton Bulian

    Here's another sign of the times: Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) building e-learning modules using an authoring tool and a templated approach. In technical training fields, they generally have less education than a degreed instructional designer, so they work for less. However, they also generally have less experience with learning theory and principles of education in general. Without proper front-end analysis and strong objectives on which to base instruction, much of the courseware is a testament to their knowledge of the subject and little more. One approach by an entrepreneurial ID consultant is to offer on-site training in instructional design principles specifically geared for SMEs.

  • Wed, 03 Jun 2009
    Post by Elizabeth Lair

    I think Jane has made a very good point that there is a move away from thoughtful instructional design to make way for rapid eLearning development. Too many elearning developers are attempting to take a classroom training or a policy and drop it into an eLearning module. The power of interactive and engaging training must be embedded in on-line learning or we will miss the mark.

  • Mon, 30 Mar 2009
    Post by Bob Smtih

    Outstanding brief article. I might add that gaming is the next iteration. However, we''re not even close to harnassing the learning potential of social networking.

  • Sun, 22 Mar 2009
    Post by Mary

    I see this happening in my govt agency too. Higher ups are more interested in putting a power point slide show (without any Bozarth enhancements) in the LMS and calling it training than investing in training classroom trainers to become elearning developers. The idea is that if you read it, you were trained ... sign here to document you were trained. I am hopeful that training evaluation and performance management may demonstrate the error of these ways.

  • Tue, 10 Mar 2009
    Post by Gary Woodill

    The question of "how the traditional classroom came to be held in such exalted esteem" is an interesting one. I would suggest that the elevation of the classroom is connected to the need for "standardization" of educational outcomes in terms of both knowledge and behaviors. This was demanded by the developing industrialization of the 18th century, culminating in the "monitorial education" and compulsory schooling of the late 19th century. The times and economic system demanded conformity and common knowledge for a stable capitalism to work. The present "post-industrial" era requires much more creativity and problem solving, and therefore a lack of conformity. That has helped to create the opening for the use of technologies that move us away from the stifling technology of the classroom.