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The eLearning Diet – A Dissenting View

February 19, 2009

“The elearning diet: Not recommended for long term results

Recently there was an article by this name posted to the Training Zone, an online pub about training and elearning.  In this article, Rob Chapman, CEO of Firebrand Training, basically suggested that elearning is a fad, and that people actually learn better from ILT.  The flack he has gotten for this view is pretty crazy.  Some is justified; some not so much.

Before I defend him, let me first note where he is wrong.  eLearning is manifestly not a fad; it’s growing and is predicted to continue growing — even if you don’t include web 2.0 technologies.  This comes through in all sorts of research from Gartner to IDC to Bersin.  He’s also wrong about instructor led training being more effective — there are lots of studies that show students learn better with electronic instruction, if for no other reason than their ability to refresh their learning at a time of need.

As just one anecdote regarding this, several years ago, one of our historical clients, Washington Mutual once compared the acquisition of software skills between a group trained in a classroom and a group trained with Firefly, our software simulation tool, and found that six weeks after the training, the Firefly group was over 30% more effective in completing their software tasks.  So much for the ILT is better argument…

Ok, so all that said, Rob does have a point.  And let me state it bluntly:  most elearning content out there today just sucks.  There I said it.  Yes I went there.  What’s more, some of the same people who are saying “oh noes, Rob is bat-shit crazy” are the same elearning “experts” who have been on Captivate and Articulate’s bandwagons as “leading” content development tools for years now.  Seriously, it’s time for a hard look in the mirror guys.

Back in the early 2000’s, I led a software development effort that resulted in Firefly, a leading software simulation tool.  For years, we were the only tool that captured real menus including sub-menus, drop-down lists, list boxes, radio buttons, check boxes, tab order.  We were the shiznaz (and still are).  But what did the market buy?  RoboDemo and then eventually Captivate.  Why?  Honestly, I have no clue.  The only thing I can think of is that the majority of buyers in this space aren’t so bright and most of the so-called “experts” aren’t.  Yeah, I went there too.  On the one hand, we had a tool that accurately simulated nearly all aspects of the software, on the other we had a tool that captured a single field and a hot area.  Sure, one was way more expensive, but it also resulted in real learning and serious business impact that we documented and measured with our clients.  How many studies have you read about Captivate ROI?  Yeah, exactly.  We, on the other hand, have dozens and dozens about Firefly.

Here’s one example:  Fairchild Semiconductor was using Captivate to train on PeopleSoft, but realized it wouldn’t work when they went global with their deployment.  So they switched to Firefly.  By doing so, they saved more money than Firefly cost by not having to ship a training server to South Korea.  Then, to their surprise, they found that PeopleSoft data entry errors went down by 80%.  yes, you read that right – 80%.  Why?  The only reason they could point was a change in the way training was delivered — from crappy training to good training.  Crazy, I know.  But wait, there’s more.  Because of the reduction in data entry errors, they were able to reassign two full time equivalents to new, higher value work.  So, let’s recap, Captivate cost less but apparently did very little to impact performance.  Firefly cost more, but impacted performance so much that Fairchild was able to reassign job duties.  So which really cost more?

Despite dozens of these sorts of stories like these, we continued to lose market share to a ridiculously inferior tool.  We still sell Firefly and invest in it, and it’s still as kick-ass as it ever was (maybe more so), but when people think simulation, they think Captivate.  And most of the major industry thought leaders and pundits who are bashing Rob now are the same ones who think Captivate is a great training tool.  It’s painful.

And let’s not even get started on Articulate wiht it’s  “I know, let’s make it easier to turn PPT’s into learning…” argument.  Really, there are times when I think I should become an accountant; it would be less painful than trying to explain to learning professionals why instructional design is important.

Ok, so obviously, I have passion in this regard.  Suffice to say that I don’t think we are anywhere near realizing the potential of elearning given the tools we have chosen to standardize on.  That’s just reality.  And I think it’s pretty damn hypocritical for experts in this space to accept the market dominance of some pretty crap-ass tools and then say “elearning is the greatest thing under the sun.”

So one final point and then I will get off my soapbox.  Some of Rob’s point hit pretty close to home.  I think many learning professionals are ignoring some hard truths about elearning.  Did we save money in this  transition?  Yes.  Did we ensure greater consistency in messaging?  Yes.  Did we enable people to have better access to time of need information and learning?  Yes.  Better accountability and assessment?  Yes.

But, did we also lose the diversity of perspective that happens in instructor-led training?  Yes.  Did we lose debrief and sharing of ideas and context?  Yes.  Did we depersonalize training to more of a one-size fits all model?  Yes.  Did we reduce the amount of informal social networking that happened within organizations as a result of instructor-led experiences?  Yes.

I’ve been on the opinion for some time that in the transition to elearning, we saved a lot of money, but sacrificed the overall quality of instruction.  I think the only thing that saved us was time of need access to information.  Even if the content was crap, the ability to access and use it at a time of need trumped the quality.

The good news is that many of the deficiencies can now be addressed by web 2.0 technologies, and in our case, we are once again leading the charge by integrating these web 2.0 technologies inside our courseware authoring tool (Mzinga Publisher) and inside our core LMS.  Will the industry take advantage of this round of innovation?  I hope so.  I also think that new content authoring tools have emerged to make the formal content a little better:  Lectora, Firefly, Mzinga Publisher, SimWriter to name a few.  And we now have an option to move away from just “formal” elearning to social “elearning” through blogs, wikis, discussions, social networking, and the like which provides even greater opportunities to reintroduce “social learning” back into the equation.

I sincerely hope that we all move in this direction.  We need to.  And we need to listen to dissenting voices like Rob’s.  I don’t think we should go back to ILT-dominant models, but I do think we need to get real about incorporating ILT-like experiences into our distance learning.  Is the industry ready for this?  I sincerely hope so.  The alternative is an accounting job for me, and to be honest, I kind of suck at math.

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