The corporate world made e-learning popular in the 2000s, but the concept has been around since the early and mid-20th century thanks to inventions like the teaching machine created by psychologist Sidney L. Pressey and refined by behaviorist and psychologist B.F. Skinner. For Skinner, the in-person classroom experience was flawed; students learn at different rates, and they need reinforcement, which can be hard to provide on an individual basis.
Skinner’s GLIDER was the beginning of an answer to this; the mechanical device housed a set of questions that learners could view and answer one at a time through a small window. Later came the first computer-based training program, and toward the end of the 20th century, the introduction of the computer and internet set the stage for e-learning to manifest in a vibrant and voluminous market that now transforms along with technology.
E-learning also has changed and adapted in response to the demands of a rapidly changing global business environment with high levels of connectivity, interactivity, speed and agility. Today, e-learning’s flexibility to reach learners wherever they are, to connect them with information and with each other, and ultimately deliver results continues to drive its adoption. The PDFs, slideshows and online test forms that once drove the e-learning story have become more dynamic with the advent of videos, webinars and discussion forums.
Further, even more nimble, user-centric and accessible digital products offer experiences like microlearning that are giving older, less agile software and legacy e-learning systems a run for their money. While wading through e-learning delivery options to identify what will effectively meet their company’s needs, learning leaders must navigate the waters with a clear objective in mind to zero in on how to accomplish it.
Don’t Be Fooled by the Shiny and New
In its “eLearning Market Trends and Forecast 2017-2021,” cloud-based LMS company Docebo estimated the global e-learning market — worth more than $165 billion in 2015 — would grow by 5 percent between 2016 and 2023. The number of products and services available is great, but learning leaders should focus more on learners’ user experience than on absorbing an increasingly packed and growing market. The abundance of choices has created many diverse opportunities to reach, engage and help transform workers. But with more options there are also more opportunities to get it wrong, to spend wrong and pay the price for a misinformed investment.
Learning leaders have to consider how to keep e-learning relevant and current, and determine how best to meet workforce development as well as broader organizational goals. These answers likely won’t be found by simply grabbing the shiniest, most innovative new tool on the market. In fact, CLOs should resist that temptation, said Demetra Anagnostopoulos, chief strategy officer for the cloud-based, intelligent learning, performance and hiring products company SurePeople. “Be diligent instead of being seduced by sexy silver bullets.”
With any technology, there are good e-learning products, and there are e-learning products that are very good but not used as their effectiveness lies in application and use. Effectiveness is also tied to having a clear strategy, Anagnostopoulos said. Without it, an e-learning program could be rolled out with great anticipation but not generate the desired behavior change. It could be the program was boring, badly designed or it wasn’t embedded in the overall learning strategy the right way. Whatever the reason, this scenario doesn’t bode well for the learning department.
People don’t want the go-slow-to-go-fast learning strategy to make a demonstrable impact on people and the business, Anagnostopoulos said. Instead, it’s about first drilling down to areas of concern business leaders have identified, assessing related learning needs, identifying stakeholders and setting objectives that align with broader business outcomes. All of that must be done before learning leaders can choose the right e-learning solution and deliver results with it. Otherwise, “you’re just spending money on stuff that’s cool but not sustainable.” Once that foundation has been laid, learning leaders can allow themselves to drool a bit over what looks cool.
Don’t Forget the Human Touch
Bells and whistles aside, today’s learner expects engaging, deeply immersive learning experiences, said Apratim Purakayastha, chief technology officer for global e-learning company Skillsoft. Learners want metadata in content that is easy to find, along with contextual knowledge, the ability to pick a topic and learn as much as they can about it as quickly as possible.
This is particularly true for millennials. In 2015, Fast Company reported in “Millennials Surpass Gen Xers as the Largest Generation in U.S. Labor Force” that this cohort would comprise 75 percent of the global workforce by 2025. They’re adept at adopting new technology and are inclined to seek out information as-needed. They’re also used to customer-centric experiences in their lives outside of work and expect them from their employer, as well.
With this in mind, Skillsoft introduced a new learning content platform this year, as well as new content to deepen its corporate learner engagement. Called Percipio, the cloud-based platform allows learners to track their goals, engage with recommended content, and includes customized, curated channels that can be adapted to learner’s specific needs, among other features. Platform administrators can manage and create groups of learners, assign goals and track them accordingly. Purakayastha said Skillsoft’s new content was designed to reach the modern learner in a way past content may not have. For instance, new business and leadership skills courses are shorter in length and focus on scenario-based learning complete with actors.
Companies that make the foray into e-learning or advance their journey into the field do so for two reasons, said Nikhil Sinha, chief business officer for MOOC provider Coursera: to help the business and to promote a learning culture, which is imperative to drive organizational success.
In recent years, leaders at Coursera have consulted with learning executives and other corporate learning experts to understand how best to match their development offerings with what companies need and what will attract employees. Sinha said individual employees often seek learning opportunities outside of work, so “companies believe that in order to recruit competitively and to be able to retain their best talent, they have to provide their employees the ability to continue to progress their career. And if they don’t, employees will find other opportunities and places where those investments are taking place.”
Learners are also helping to guide the future of learning and development at SurePeople, with the help of big data. Analytics inform the talent and learning organization, wrote CEO Niko Drakoulis via email. Through a comprehensive psychometric algorithm called the Prism, the company receives a portrait of an employee’s emotional, relational and team intelligence by measuring 58 traits and attributes across seven modules, including: personality (primary and under pressure), processing, motivation, conflict management, fundamental needs, decision-making and learning style. “Then, our technology automatically uses their personal data to deliver a personalized development plan and multimedia curriculum that focuses on their growth opportunities, like giving and receiving feedback, managing emotions and flexibility to name a few potential areas for growth,” he wrote.
Data is also important at the University of Miami, but in a different way. Organizational development retreats strengthen employees as individuals and as a team. Data from these in-person engagements, submitted by employees about their work preferences and traits, accelerates the relationship building so critical to the program’s success. This type of e-learning provides the engagement with an extra lift to help drive it forward, but in a defined place and with a defined purpose. “In the work that we do, we never discount the human touch piece,” said Greg Brenner, executive director of talent and organizational development at the university.
To sift through the growing expanse of tools and services available, learning leaders will need to be thoughtful and strategic when choosing solutions to meet identified business needs. Then, with an e-learning solution dialed directly into company objectives, learning leaders will be free to focus on the work technology can amplify but not replace. “You leave the learning professionals and the leaders the opportunity to spend time on those one-on-ones, coaching moments and discussions that are rich in mentorship,” Brenner said.
Bravetta Hassell is a former Chief Learning Officer associate editor. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com. Comment below, or email editor@CLOmedia.com.