I was recently talking with a colleague about how blurred the definition of e-learning has become. For many organizations, it means an online tutorial or Web-based training. For others, it involves different modalities, such as synchronous technologies. And for others, it includes Web communities driven by threaded message boards, blogs or wikis. The point here is that e-learning has expanded tremendously, and you seem to need a scorecard to know the players.
After debating the modalities with my colleague, the conversation finally came around to application: Just how effective are any of these methods? We couldn’t help but lament about the just-in-time (JIT) promise (or myth, depending on your point of view). My colleague put it this way: “If I launch the e-tool and it starts with ‘In this lesson you will,’ it’s not JIT and I shut it down.” His point was that just-in-time learning implies solving a problem at the point of impact. Clicking through five pages of learning objectives and examples isn’t just-in-time learning—it’s formal instruction.
Just-in-time learning promised a short and focused learning intervention, not a 10- to 40-minute lesson that includes extraneous information typically way beyond the scope of the problem that learners are trying to solve.
Enter e-reference. While this creates yet another category, it also helps to weed through some of the clutter. E-learning implies instruction—the classic kind, which should include a learning objective, examples, practice, assessment and all the other elements learners have come to expect when attending formal learning. E-reference has a whole different meaning. I never expected to learn creative writing or phonetics from a dictionary, but it sure was helpful when I needed just-in-time support with spelling or comprehending a word.
E-reference has emerged in the same area, and many organizations are starting to look at it in a whole different way. There are a number of emerging technologies and solutions out there that are coming to the forefront to help occupy this space. The most common tool found in this category is online books that are fully searchable and can be bookmarked and shared. Some even provide the option for learners to create their own chapters. These make sifting through the libraries of books most organizations have bought a breeze, and it takes learners right to the page and topic they need.
Electronic performance support systems (EPSS) also are getting better. Many have matured far beyond the days of pressing the F1 key to bring up the generic help menu. EPSSs now allow learners to create their own custom help systems, which involve every form of media from text to streaming video. They can be intelligent enough to follow along with learners as they navigate a system and pop up when they do something wrong, or ask if they need help in the middle of a process. If a quick reference is not enough, the EPSS can escalate the learning, providing access to varying degrees of formal instruction, including tutorials, FAQs and even live conversations with a subject-matter expert or peer. It’s all in the learner’s control and scalable based on the need.
The best aspect of these tools is that they start at the problem and work backward, as opposed to assuming the learner knows nothing and needs instruction to get to the point of intervention. It’s not that this type of instruction is invalid or unhelpful. It’s just that when it comes to just-in-time learning, the goal is more about solving a specific problem in the context of doing real-world work, and that involves a different type of support.
For many organizations, it’s going to come down to the discussion that launched this article: How do you view learning? Your employees encounter learning at many different levels, from the initial stage that involves a high degree of formal instruction, time and support to situations that are more remedial, requiring immediate, short and relevant forms of instruction. Many are using the same e-tools for both situations—and failing. The tool that’s appropriate for formal instruction is often not the one needed when remediation is called for. An overall e-learning strategy needs to be equipped with tools and approaches that can deal with both.
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning and has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.