Is e-learning ready for prime time?

The concept of e-learning is almost as old as the commercial computer industry. Early systems were first introduced in the 1970s, with lessons delivered over slow dedicated networks or programmed onto special computers. Systems were slow, simplistic, and expensive. Take-up was low.

The emergence of the PC changed this (especially when processing powers enabled the use of CD-ROMs), with huge numbers of software packages introduced to teach skills such as typing, programming or knowledge of mechanical systems. These systems were effective, but limited. Lessons were best suited to simple subjects and there was little flexibility, monitoring or variety.

With the arrival of the Internet in the 1990s, e-learning moved up a gear. As bandwidth speeds rose, it became possible to introduce interactive, flexible programmes to large numbers of people without the need for special software or hardware. Courses and trainees could be centrally managed in real time.

There was huge interest and huge hype. Business schools adopted electronic courseware, companies re-engineered their training departments and new start-ups were formed.

But inevitably, e-learning failed to live up to expectations. Ambitious projects such as the UK’s e-University and the e-learning pioneer Hungry Minds failed spectacularly and expensively. Many other initiatives were quietly closed down.

In the last few years, however, e-learning has come into its own – with businesses and educational establishments serving up courseware over fast intranet and Internet connections that provide effective training at a fraction of the cost and with more flexibility than face-to-face classes.


E-learning by numbers

The e-learning management market is difficult to size, largely because of problems of definition. Some suppliers build the learning management systems that underpin the activity; some supply course content; and others, such as software companies, provide online guides to help customers use their products.

Some figures are available though: The core learning management system market will grow from an estimated $450 million in 2003 to $1 billion in 2007, according to analysts at Forrester Research – a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22%.

The education sector will play a key role. In a recent report, Datamonitor found that the global e-learning market for higher education will grow by a CAGR of 12% to $1,891 million by 2008.

So far, success has been patchy. Forrester found that only 15% of respondents who had implemented an e-learning system were satisfied with it. However, three-quarters still planned to increase their use of the technology.




The tools behind e-learning

E-learning systems are not complicated, which is one of the reasons take-up is hard to measure. Many companies simply build their own, based on office tools and pre-installed networks. An e-learning system will typically consist of:

° A learning management system (LMS), which allows users to register, to be monitored, to step through stages, to undertake testing, and so on. It replicates the ‘administration’ role that a teacher or a college administrator might undertake. The system can assess students’ learning and control which content is delivered.

° Learning content or courseware. The content may reside in a Learning Content Management System (LCMS), which structures and links all the different types of content (texts, tests, videos, graphics and so on), rather like a web content management system. The LCMS will often incorporate a basic workflow system that forces students to complete material before moving on.

° Administrator/monitoring tools and capabilities. This function provides a tutor-side view of the content and of the students progress, and enables feedback and marking to take place, in conjunction with automated tools.

° Tools for building courseware. These tools may vary widely. One of the most commonly used tools is Microsoft’s PowerPoint; others are much more sophisticated, and include wizards for building lessons and tests.




Why do it?

° Training can be tailored to meet a range of learning needs, from those of individuals to those of entire companies.

° E-learning is cheaper than classroom training. Energy services company Halliburton estimates savings of £1.8 million in travel costs because it implemented online training to support a major SAP upgrade.

° Faster learning – employees are able to pick up and train in new skills and become competent in them more quickly. ° Greater customer retention where employees learn improved support skills.

° Flexible study time – individuals do not have to give up their jobs or take time off to attend college.

° Self-paced learning – individuals learn at their own pace and fit studying into existing schedules.

° Student performance can be consistently monitored using management tools and problems quickly brought to manager attention.




Dot-com disaster

Expectations around e-learning have sometimes been too high, with over-investment, and over-ambitious growth targets. Sometimes, this has resulted in catastrophic failure.

One example was the UK’s publicly funded e-learning university, the UKeU, or e-University, which was scrapped in May 2004 at a cost to the public of £62 million.

The government’s plan was that the UKeU would market courses created by academic and commercial partners, including 12 leading universities, to mostly overseas students. But after a year, it had attracted just 900 students, at a cost of £44,000 per student.

Barry Sheerman, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, described the venture as a dot-com dream which only failed so slowly because it was in the public sector.

One problem was that, in order to take full advantage of the courses, students needed fast Internet access. However, most of the target group live in countries where this is not widely available.




What next?

Experts predict that e-learning will move away from the virtual classroom model and work to its own strengths. These include :

° Varied teaching styles
Courses will not only supply the relevant material, but will vary teaching methods to suit individuals. Some, such as visual learners can learn more effectively through visual methods such as diagrams and animation; auditory learners may prefer spoken explanations; others may opt for a more interactive approach.

° Student-centred learning
Individuals will be able to design their own syllabus choosing objects from a repository. This puts them at the centre of their own education system, rather than at the periphery of a fixed education programme. This means they can more efficiently target their skills gaps.

° Contextual learning
Increasingly popular in corporate learning, this profile sthe learner according to their work context and the educational materials they have chosen so far, and suggest further learning based on their individual requirements.


The main e-learning suppliers:

° Universities and business schools.
This group supplies training to both individuals (for example, MBAs) and companies (for example,management training). Such organisations often build their own systems using fairly basic products such as groupware, workflow and office tools.

° Specialist e-learning vendors.
These divide into two camps: Learning management system (LMS) software and services vendors such as THINQ, Plateau Systems and Pathlore, which are primarily technology companies; and suite vendors such as Thomson NETg, Saba, Docent and Click2Learn, which sell LMS functionality, content, consultancy and more. The market is consolidating, but these suppliers’ expertise and experience results in a more sophisticated product than the large technology companies usually offer.

° Mainstream technology companies, such as IBM, Oracle and PeopleSoft. These companies have added an LMS application to existing products. They do not currently offer the experience and focus of the niche players, but they soon will, say Forrester Research analysts.



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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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