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Corporate Training & Development

An In-Depth Look At Why Workforce E-learning Is So Slow To Change

POSTED 06/23/2014
By A.J. O'Connell

Fourteen years after the recession that made e-learning a standard tool in many workforce training strategies, little has changed: most online courses tend to mirror training conducted in a classroom, many businesses still prefer face-to-face training and much e-learning is of doubtful quality. Still, e-learning appears to be on the rise, and new players in the marketplace are forcing them to up their game.

Because edtech is booming, it’s tempting to think that online education became a workforce development trend in the last five years as a response to the last recession. But according to many professionals, it was not the most recent recession that drove companies to embrace e-learning, but the one that hit more than a decade ago after the dot-com bust and the 9-11 attacks.

Tracking changes in e-learning is difficult when it comes to workforce training. It’s a large field running the gamut from simple PowerPoint presentations and videos to more fully developed courses with assessments.

Industry reports show that, despite businesses’ continued reliance on in-person training, more and more companies are gradually turning to e-learning for budgetary reasons. There have been some changes in the marketplace as companies are using innovations in technology to create non-traditional training material for employees. Still, some in the e-learning community say the industry isn’t changing quickly enough.

The birth of e-learning and workforce development

“Really it was the 2000-2001 recession” that created a growth in e-learning, says consultant Clark Quinn, “because we had e-learning capabilities then. People were desperately looking for efficiencies. Plane travel was difficult then too. They were looking for things that precluded having to get on a plane.”

Mark Lamkin, vice president of development for Market Motive, which provides marketing courses to both businesses and individuals, began working in e-learning at about that time and says, “when we first started we had to convince people that online learning could be as good as classroom learning.”

Despite some reticence to accept e-learning as a delivery system for workforce training, distance learning isn’t new. One of the Department of Education’s approved accrediting agencies is the Distance Education and Training Council, founded in1926 as the National Home Study Council to evaluate correspondence courses. And the Sloan Foundation first started investing in demonstration projects for online college courses in 1992.

“Distance education has been around for a long, long time,” says Lamkin, but recently, it has been accepted on a wider scale, thanks to the wide use of the internet and better, broader online offerings. “The quality of those courses has really, really improved.”

Nicholas Fernando, head of content at Filtered, which uses an algorithm to let companies personalize the courses in their portfolio for individual users, also became involved with e-learning in 2001. He was working as a trainer with Sodexo and desperate to avoid teaching the same courses over and over. Staff were getting fatigued with courses covering information they already knew.

Sodexho was desperate to avoid teaching the same courses over and over to staff fatigued with courses covering information they already knew.

At the time, he read a white paper by Adobe predicting e-learning would be a $2 billion industry in the next few years. It seemed incredible to Fernando at the time. “That just sounded so impressive,” he says, but “we’re well over that now It’s probably 20 times that as the industry is now $40 billion.”

Advantages and disadvantages

E-learning was a fix for the challenges facing large corporations: employees of multinational corporations would get the same training no matter where they worked, and companies didn’t have to worry about the costs of travel to conferences and face-to-face training. “There is a big cost for every event that you run face to face,” says Fernando. “With e-learning we get a package that runs online. Staff can access it over a period of time. It equates to a smaller slice of time away from the desk.

Companies also don’t have to worry about whether the trainers had a bad day. The training provided via e-learning packages is always consistent, but “then that whole fixedness and being packaged up creates other kinds of issues as well,” says Fernando.

For example, e-learners lose the classroom dynamic, a good trainer who differentiates instruction and the energy in a room when people are actively engaged in learning as a group.

“Those things are slightly more difficult to have, and in the case of the majority of e-learning they are completely absent,” says Fernando. “To save on the costs, you’re trading away the benefits of really good training.”

Post-recession figures for corporate training

If you’re looking for government numbers on the e-learning industry in the United States, you’re out of luck: the United States Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics lists no data on employer-provided training later than 1995. Happily, organizations devoted to workforce training are picking up that slack.

According to Kristen Fyfe of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), the total spending of U.S. businesses on training has been steadily climbing in the past couple of years, despite dips in spending in 2008 and 2010. ASTD publishes an annual State of the Industry report based on data submitted by member organizations and others in the Fortune Global 500. The most recent version, with figures for 2012 from 475 businesses, show that training budgets for the U.S. were reported at $164.2 billion, up from $156.2 billion in 2011.

“We did not see a wholesale elimination of training though, which shows that organizations knew that to position themselves for recovery and growth that they needed to invest in their employees,” says Fyfe.

However, a March 2014 report by Docebo, a cloud-based LMS vendor, challenges that assertion, saying that, since 2010, corporate spending on training and the amount spent per employee has been on the decline. Docebo reports that the education industry as a whole experienced a low point in 2009 and 2010 and projects a growth in the e-learning market to $51.5 billion in revenues worldwide by 2016.

Training is often on the budgetary chopping block, says Lamkin, so it’s no surprise that the recession had an impact in this area especially.

“There’s always been pressure on workforce training. It’s the piece of the budget that seems to be the first thing that companies will cut when there’s pressure on a business,” he says. “That’s an ongoing thing that impacts companies.”

Training is often on the budgetary chopping block, says Lamkin, so it’s no surprise that the recession had an impact in this area especially.

Slow adoption of e-learning

Still, despite the lower cost of e-learning, many businesses still rely on face-to-face instruction: according to the ASTD’s annual report, the most popular method of corporate training is still classroom learning. In 2012, 54 percent in the survey said their workforce training was delivered by an instructor in a classroom, while 27 percent of that training was completed online.

The numbers for online instruction are ticking upward: 2012’s 27 percent is up from 23 percent in 2006 (and classroom instruction is down from 65 percent in 2006) but businesses, or at least those who submitted data for the ATSD’s report, still favor in-person instruction over e-learning.

This can particularly be a problem with small and medium-sized companies, which may not consider online learning as an option, says Ross Cranwell, business development manager for GetCourse, an online course building platform.

“Large companies understand the importance of investing in online training infrastructure,” he says. “Subway restaurants, for example, has its own Subway University for its staff, and the idea of universities in [multi-national corporations] is becoming more commonplace. The difficulty is finding the business case for small and medium-size enterprises to transition to online training resources.”

Such small companies, he says, don’t always look to online learning as an option, preferring face-to-face instruction, or sometimes nothing, he says: “There are many companies and organizations looking to that market, including us here at GetCourse. The key is to provide something that is affordable and simple to use, in contrast to complex and clunky e-learning systems that are more suited to large multinationals.”

“The difficulty is finding the business case for small and medium-size enterprises to transition to online training resources.” -Ross Cranwell

Current trends in e-learning

Streamlining those older e-learning systems is a current trend in the market, according to Cranwell, who says, “Clean and easy-to-use interfaces are becoming more popular, as we move from the e-learning companies of the late ‘90s. Many traditional e-learning companies created heavy and hard-to-use systems that required a huge investment of time to just learn how to operate. As learning products move online, training managers are looking for easy-to-use systems that are aesthetically pleasing and that don’t require a large initial learning curve.”

Whoever makes an interface that will make life easier for training managers has a shot at leading the e-learning market. Similarly, Cranwell believes the company that is able to make training materials easily accessible to consumers — on mobile devices, for example, will be at an advantage in the market.

The danger there, as with any trend, says Fernando, is that some companies will offer mobile content just for the sake of offering mobile content, without tailoring that content to a tablet or a smartphone. “We’re not sure how many people want to do a course on a mobile, but because the big thing is mobile, let’s do a mobile course,” he jokes.

Whoever makes an interface that will make life easier for training managers has a shot at leading the e-learning market.

Similarly, he says, though some organizations do great work with the higher demand for video content, some will simply add video without much thought.

The other big trend to watch in the e-learning market, according to Cranwell, is improved analytics. “Tracking is huge and allows for detailed analytics on users and students,” he says. “Companies want to understand how engaged their staff members are in the material and whether they comprehend the course content. With strong analytics at hand, managers get a clear ROI on their training.”

A “sad state of affairs” in corporate learning

Clark Quinn, the e-learning consultant, feels strongly it’s time for a change in the e-learning industry because it hasn’t changed since the early days of 2000 and 2001. Traditional corporate training involved an expert presenting information and a test to see if learners could remember that information. Much e-learning, he says, is still based on old models of instruction. “There is a real sad state of affairs in corporate learning right now,” he says.

Typical e-learning follows one of two models: asynchronous (where a learner logs into a program, pages through a presentation online and is quizzed to see if he or she can retain the information in the presentation) and synchronous (where an expert conducts a presentation over the internet.)

“It’s easy to do — familiar to the people who designed stand-up training — but it’s still bad,” he says.

“It’s easy to do — familiar to the people who designed stand-up training — but it’s still bad.” -Alan Quinn

Upending e-learning

Therefore, Quinn and three colleagues developed and published the Serious E-Learning Manifesto earlier this year. Along with Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen and Will Thalheimer, he decries “typical” e-learning as content-focused, attendance-driven and one-size-fits-all when it should instead be performance-focused, engagement-driven and individualized.

He and the other authors of the manifesto would like to see that change, arguing for principles intended to improve e-learning such as “Do not assume learning is the answer” and “Tie learning to performance goals.”

So what would an ideal corporate training program look like? Quinn advocates for involving more than just a formal curriculum and including social learning exercises. “Realize it’s more of an performance ecosystem,” he says. “You are trying to do your job and all the tools are to hand.”

He’s also a fan of games, such as one that taught engineers about project management and why project managers are necessary. Engineers play the role of project managers who are terraforming planets in a fantastic world.

A sales training game he favors is integrated into the learners’ lives. In this alternate reality game, the learner receives an email from a potential customer. If the learner gives the correct answer, the fictional customer leaves a phone message. The game isn’t contained in a set block of time during a day, however, because it takes a day or two for the fictional customer to call back, so “the game is being spread out over your life,” says Quinn.

The drags on change in e-learning

It may not always be so easy, however, to move from typical e-learning to a training program that incorporates games. Cranwell at GetCourse, says that it can be difficult to provide engaging training while meeting compliance: “A lot of the learning content in this space is poor and is not engaging for learners.”

Why? Funding, says Fernando of Filtered. Not every firm can afford to develop a brand new training program that uses a game to deliver content tailored to its employees. Many companies are working with a smaller budget, and may feel that money is better spent on a pre-existing course from a vendor’s portfolio.

“The reality is that cost is a significant factor. It is good to have a really great, effective personalized e-learning product, but there’s this cost factor involved, and not all organizations can afford to pay for that in terms of the range of training they need to give to staff,” says Fernando.

The other problem, he says, is awareness by learning and development administrators.

“One of the issues is that if you don’t now that there’s something better out there or that there is a different way of doing things, you don’t know,” he says.

Both Fernando and Quinn agree that since the e-learning market is driven by the consumers of e-learning, who may not be aware of new developments in e-learning or who may not have the money to pay for those new developments, the market may not be all that quick to change.

“The buyers remember what school is like and think anything that feels like school is effective,” says Quinn. “They forget they didn’t learn anything in school.”

“The buyers think that anything that feels like school is effective,” says Quinn. “They forget they didn’t learn anything in school.”

A crowded market

The e-learning marketplace is a busy, crowded place these days, because “Ed tech has become such a trendy thing in the last couple of years,” says Fernando. “There are loads and loads of new start-ups with lots of different ideas and different takes on how to do e-learning right. There is a sort of wave of innovation.”

Start-ups and existing organizations like Udemy aren’t the only ones offering online education to businesses. It’s never been easier for individuals to create and offer courses. In fact, when asked about some of the market pressures, Cranwell of GetCourse pointed to the number of courses available online.

“It is a very crowded market,” he says. “Competitors range from traditional face-to-face, to simple PowerPoints. The tools have become more extensive and they are easier to use. It’s made it easier for people to produce courses.”

A crowded market can mean some good news for businesses that want to integrate more online learning into their workforce training programs. For example, “Prices are coming down for companies looking to purchase an e-learning solution,” says Cranwell.

On the other hand, an abundance of competition can also mean a confusion about choices. Lamkin of Market Motive says, “The amount of training that’s available these days is really, really significant. It’s hard for most of us to determine what’s good and what’s not.”

Looking ahead

Lamkin feels the next step in the evolution of the marketplace will be the emergence of trusted third-party organizations that can provide unbiased evaluations of online course offerings.

Fernando says it’s hard to tell what the future of training will look like, because the younger generation uses technology differently than users who are in the working world now, and “the way information is designed and learned will have to adapt.”

Other possibilities for the future of online training may include virtual or augmented reality, which is something that may happen as tools such as Google Glass become more widespread.

Mostly, Fernando believes that education will, to paraphrase communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, head toward the future by looking in the rearview mirror, continuing to do the same tasks using new tools. That’s not necessarily a positive, because “we cannot truly innovate if we let the past influence us so much.”

Jagged Edge Media JAcom Consultants