In the haste to “get it out there,” organizations are ignoring some basic realities about technology and learning, as well as about today’s learners. This results in e-learning programs that are time-consuming to create, expensive to produce and deploy and don’t change behaviors in a way that “moves the needle” for business results.
So how effective are your e-learning efforts? It’s time to find out. Think of a project your organization has just finished or is working on, then see how it meets these 12 unavoidable truths about e-learning.
Truth No. 1: It’s All About Compelling Content
It’s the question asked more than any other by learning professionals: How do I get people to take this class? Someone needs to tell them in the spirit of helpful feedback, “People vote with their time and attention, and they’re telling you that your content is terrible. If learners clearly benefited from your courses, they would be beating down your doors to sign up.”
Distance learning should not be an inexpensive way to deliver ineffective training. If a course helps someone make money, save time, reduce problems, excel at work, stay healthier, look better, have fun, etc., then learners gladly will complete the course. Providing real benefit is the primary requirement of all learning, regardless of delivery method or clever instructional design.
Truth No. 2: It’s Initial Learning and Refresh Learning
In an emergency, no one wants to get CPR from a person who took the course 10 years ago. (The EMT might push on your face and blow on your chest.) CPR, a life-and-death skill, requires periodic recertification. Yet most business learning professionals operate on this philosophy: They had it once, so they know it forever. Unfortunately, this attitude contradicts all known learning theory.
Most people can’t remember what they had for lunch two weeks ago, much less recall the content of hundreds of text-laden PowerPoint slides they saw in a 2.5-day class 14 months ago. Over time and without reinforcement and use, people forget nearly all of what they learned in any single event. If you want people to truly know how to do something, you must regularly refresh that training.
Truth No. 3: Management Support is a Requirement
Employees sometimes joke that they always stay away from their bosses right after a training class because managers come back with weird ideas. If the subordinates just lie low, the real world beats it out of the boss and everything is back to normal again in a few weeks.
According to a February 2005 article from the BNA HR Library, what happens right after training is critical. If learners attempt a new skill and are shot down for it, they’ll never do it again. And if they do something they learned, and no one seems to care, they’ll realize that it’s unimportant and will soon forget it.
Performance management processes must specify the new behaviors. Management must expect and encourage new behaviors, and employees must see they will be formally and informally rewarded for using the new behaviors. If management isn’t supporting the effort, skip the training and save the money — it isn’t going to work.
Truth No. 4: Focus on the Task Versus Topic
Most curriculum is organized the way trainers want to present it (by topic) rather than the way learners need to use it (by task). For example, trainers create topic-specific classes such as coaching, communications, conflict management, appraisals, etc. While these are often necessary to convey basic skills and concepts, they are difficult to apply. The supervisor with a problem employee has to take all these courses and then figure out how to integrate them when talking with the subordinate. It just won’t happen.
Learners prefer courses that address specific tasks they have to do now. Course titles such as “What to Do When the Job isn’t Getting Done” or “How to Leave Phone Messages that Get Returned” enable learners to quickly apply new skills. The content is already “pre-integrated” for immediate use and doesn’t require workers to figure out how to adapt the learning to their job.
Truth No. 5: It’s Not Blended Learning — It’s Learn/Apply
“Blended learning” is a popular buzzword when talking about distance learning. According to an article in Version 5 of ej4 Briefings from October 2005, blending typically refers to the process of taking content and dividing it up by delivery method. For example, one portion might be taught in the classroom, another portion using e-learning and the remainder taught with supervisor coaching. Blended learning is the wrong way to segment content. The most effective and cost-efficient approach is to use distance learning to “teach” and some type of synchronous learning to “apply” that knowledge to the job.
Truth No. 6: Content Must be Totally Custom
That boring generic sexual harassment online course with those ridiculous examples isn’t changing anyone’s behavior. Generic training programs generate low learner satisfaction. The minute plant workers see an office example, they turn off, and vice versa. As one executive put it, “This one vendor has 1,000 online courses, and none of them applies to me.”
Even with relatively generic content, simply creating custom background graphics, putting the instructor in a logo shirt and customizing a few stories can make all the difference in learner interest and retention. Learners need to be thinking, “They’re talking about my business.”
Truth No. 7: Use the Voice of the Learner
Executives typically want to avoid all negatives and pretend they never happened. The problem is that this creates a sense of disconnect for the learner, who thinks, “They don’t get it,” or worse, “Management is clueless.”
Content can’t be “everything is wonderful” propaganda. If a new product sounds eerily similar to a previous failure, then that issue must be candidly addressed. Whatever the situation, the learner should be thinking, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’d ask in a meeting … if I had the guts.”
Truth No. 8: It’s a TV Workforce
A lot of online training is not only needlessly expensive — it is often not even appealing. Learners sneer, “This looks like a video game from about 15 years ago.”
In an online article for “The Sourcebook for Science Teaching,” Norman Herr said, “According to ACNielsen, the average American watches more than four hours of TV each day.” As a result, learners are used to getting information by watching real people integrated with special effects, i.e. interacting with the content a la the evening news’ weather forecaster. There are no cartoonish animations, text-only slides or disembodied talking heads set beside a static visual.
Today, people should consider digital streaming video with special characteristics and instructional design as an ideal teaching medium. In “2004 E-Learning Research Year in Review: Predictions for 2005,” an annual year-end review, analyst Josh Bersin wrote, “One of the biggest challenges in self-study e-learning continues to be the problem of engaging the learner. Recently, we have run across some very compelling and exciting uses of Flash-based video. It is now possible to take a fantastic instructor or celebrity and put them online.”
Truth No. 9: Shorter is Better
According to an article in The New York Times Magazine from Oct. 16, 2005, a University of California-Irvine study found the average time between interruptions at work is 11 minutes. It’s a fantasy to think 21st-century workers can sit through a 60- or 90-minute online course and maintain their train of thought. Everyone has had the experience of signing on to an e-learning course and groaning when the first page says “Slide 1 of 122.” These programs are like throwing a bucket of water on a kitchen sponge — there’s just too much information to be absorbed and retained, and there is no single time window available to do it.
Learners require just-as-needed content: short programs delivered right before they undertake a task. Complex topics must be divided up into shorter segments. For example, it’s always better to have five 10-minute programs than a one-hour course. This drives stronger retention by providing more occurrences of short learning times, the ideal approach to studying and retention.
Truth No. 10: Engagement = Interaction
Many instructional designers start with the false assumption that physical interaction is a requirement for effective distance learning. As a result, organizations create custom-programmed courses with fancy animations and mouse clicks — all for the sake of interaction. These are no longer needed, and they are costing organizations millions of dollars in unnecessary expense. What is required from a distance learning course is mental “engagement.”
This is the basic premise behind “Jeopardy,” a game show during which TV viewers mentally compete along with the contestants. When done similarly in a distance learning course, this mental “button pushing” creates the same learning effect as actual physical interactions. What this means is that a passive medium such as streaming video can have the same learning benefit as expensive e-learning programs.
Truth No. 11: Deliver Where Needed
While 130 million to 140 million PCs were shipped worldwide last year, more than 1 billion Java-enabled handsets (mobile phones) were shipped, according to the May 8 issue of Newsweek. People can now learn at any time, in any place. Organizations must start delivering training in nontraditional locations (e.g. home, car, gym, airplane) and in nontraditional ways, including mobile computers, phones, PDAs, route handhelds, iPods/Zunes, etc.
Truth No. 12: Create Once, Deploy Many
Organizations need to take compelling content and deliver it for the variety of uses required to maximize learning, retention and application. The mistake that most instructional designers make is trying to develop a version of the training for each primary use. This “create many, deploy once” approach is time-consuming and enormously costly. What is needed is a “create once, deploy many” approach — a form of “multipurposed learning.”
For example, designers can create a single video that can then be deployed on the Web and accessed in a linear or nonlinear fashion, whenever and wherever needed. According to a Bersin & Associates white paper from December 2004, the same video can be used five different ways for initial learning, refresh learning, team meetings, one-on-one coaching sessions and performance support on the job. And it also can be delivered on the “three screens”: TV, PC and handhelds.
So how did you do?
At the Learning 2005 Conference in Orlando, Fla., about 250 learning executives heard a presentation on the 12 truths, and they were asked to share how their selected “thought project” compared. Very few attendees addressed more than five of the truths. The takeaway was clear: There were real opportunities to improve their e-learning.
The benefit of building these concepts into e-learning is the fulfillment of the promise of rapid-deployment distance learning — training and communications that are more compelling and engaging, that people actually take, that leaders can leverage, that cost a mere fraction of traditional methods and that get better business results.
How do your current e-learning projects measure up?
Kenneth Carlton Cooper is a founding partner of ej4 LLC, a St. Louis-based rapid-deployment distance learning firm. He is the author of “Effective Competency Modeling and Reporting” and “The Relational Enterprise.” He can be reached at email@example.com.