E-learning: business myth or business necessity?

If you think back to the top of the dotcom bubble, the future looked very different then. Visionaries went around making bullish predictions about e-learning such as this one from Cisco CEO John Chambers: “Education over the internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.”

A few years later we are left to wonder if this was wildly overoptimistic or if e-learning will at some stage profoundly change the way we approach education and business in the UK.

On first impressions, the business case for effective e-learning is compelling. By using Web and computer-based technology, staff can learn on demand, so it’s relevant to their current challenges, allowing users to access 15 minutes of pertinent material rather than sit through other irrelevant topics during a full day of training from their own desks (or at home), so there’s no need to pay expensive travel & accommodation and a smaller opportunity cost at their own pace, so the participant can speed up or repeat sections without having to conform to the speed at which the rest of the class is learning consistently, so the firm’s intended messages are not diluted by any patchiness in the quality of trainers.

By interacting with each other, so that peer experience is shared (either simultaneously or asynchronously through chat rooms and bulletin boards). Despite these benefits, the take-up of e-learning has been slower than predicted. One fundamental principle which considerably pre-dates the dot com era is that: “adults must want to learn before effective learning can occur”.

Several of the pioneering e-learning companies neglected this principle and are no longer with us. Successful e-learning involves achieving a culture where people want to use the technology to learn; it is not enough to build the technology and assume that people will flock to use it.

Three of the most common factors behind people’s reluctance to use e-learning tend to be:

IT skills gaps; the less familiar and competent that people are at using computers, the less attractive e-learning will seem

Reward; many people are wedded to the fun and sociability involved with going on a residential training courses

Work culture; the fear that working on e-learning at your desk won’t be seen as constructive work and that your bosses could interrupt you at any point with more pressing demands

None of these factors are insurmountable. With good project management and buy-in from top management e-learning can be highly successful. Within the accountancy profession e-learning is becoming more prevalent, for instance Deloitte & Touche have recently rolled out an excellent series of e-learning modules covering International Accounting Standards.

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