Adding the letter "e" in front of any term triggers an avalanche of
lies. For example: Email has made our organization so much more
productive, or e-commerce will be the end of stores. The letter "e"
brings a dot.com hyper-enthusiasm and hyper-cynicism to any
process. The marketplace starts to lie to itself, as well as to
investors and customers about the readiness and economic model of
the new phenomena. The change-resistant adopter lies about how it
will never work. The sentimentalist weaves lies about the
effectiveness and efficiency of the good old days, and the futurist
lies to audiences about how things will never be the same again. (I
can plead guilty to that one on multiple counts!)
Lies about e-learning follow this pattern perfectly. They are
reflective of both the optimism and naivete of the learning field.
They have enabled large-scale experiments and implementations of
new learning approaches on a worldwide basis. They have moved the
active phrase in our field from training to learning. They have
rapidly pushed early investments in learning management systems
(LMSs). And, they have triggered an enterprisewide view of
Thus, you see my perspective on lies about e-learning. Most are
unintentional. Some have been downright helpful. I even confess to
promulgating a few of them myself, being an early advocate of
Lie 1: E-Learning Is New
Nope, e-learning has been around for a very long time. It started
long before Al Gore or whoever invented the Internet. When Admiral
Grace Hopper, the godmother of mainframe computing, saw her first
system go live in 1944, she predicted that these new machines
called computers would someday help teach sailors how to do their
jobs. But, e-learning started earlier than that when the advent of
commercial radio in the 1920s was accompanied by early experiments
in delivering classroom lessons to the children of farmers in rural
Certainly, the concept of e-learning derived from computer-based
training (CBT). Structured and branched classes were designed and
delivered first on mainframe computers and later on stand-alone
personal computers and video disks. Next, CBT entered the network
arena when shared courses started to be mounted on organizations' F
drives. Finally, with the advent of the Internet, the phrase
"e-learning" was introduced.
I can guess I was one of the first analysts and writers to start
using the term e-learning. In the early 1990s, I used it as a
prediction of the educational use of email and networks such as
CompuServe. The key point is that e-learning was not an invention
of the Internet. It has rich and important roots in decades of
experimentation and deployment of technology to help create,
deliver, inspire, and assess learning. Clearly, e-learning is also
a derivative of the educational and pedagogical approaches of
theorists including Dewey, Skinner, and Gagne.
This lie is important because too much of the dialog about
e-learning has been with a historical basis. Deep research and
practice about how learners process information, how competencies
can be assessed, and how curriculum can be designed effectively are
embedded in this lie. When the dot.com era hit, many folks jumped
onto the e-learning bandwagon without any context or history. In
fact, some of the lies of earlier learning technology rollouts were
- Educational television will make the classroom obsolete.
- Overhead projectors will add excitement to the delivery of
- Computer-based instruction will dramatically lower the cost of
E-learning is a powerful and evolving set of tools and strategies.
But, e-learning has a history and a set of forgotten historical
perspectives. The future of e-learning cannot be invented if the
past of e-learning is not acknowledged and taken into account.
Lie 2: E-Learning Works
This is a lie because there is an acute lack of reliable research
and a large dose of fuzzy thinking about the actual effectiveness
of specific e-learning programs. A large percentage of e-learning
is effective with the right learners in the right situations, but
some e-learning is just a digital page turner that does not result
in knowledge acquisition or transfer. Unfortunately, many
organizations and even suppliers do not fully understand the
pattern of effectiveness of e-learning.
Before determined critics of e-learning start quoting this module
as ammunition against e-learning, ask yourself if this sounds
familiar: Classroom instruction works! It is often impossible to
tell. And, the type of research that would give us greater
confidence in the true effectiveness of a specific form of
instructional delivery has not been invested in.
How and When Does E-Learning Work?
The answer to this question would be a great way of starting the
conversation about its relative effectiveness. This approach
acknowledges the varied effectiveness of different designs, content
levels, learning activities, durations, assessment intensities, and
job aids. A single company or instructional designer would gather
great insight into the effectiveness of e-learning for his or her
situation. Yet, as a field, a mechanism for addressing the ground
truth of the efficacy of varied e-learning approaches is missing.
Why Does Lie 2 Get Promulgated?
Multiple factors are involved in the perseverance of this lie. Here
are several reasons:
- Completion data is a false positive. Large numbers of
e-learning deployments measure the quantity of completions. This is
increasing in the age of compliance, as organizations are turning
to e-learning to create legal coverage against liability or
regulator investigations. "They all took the e-learning!"
- Often, e-learning tests only short-term memory. E-learning
provides an easy way to test for short-term memory and
comprehension. You can teach a screen of information and then
quickly test to see if the learner has gotten it. However, that may
not convert to long-term comprehension or transfer to the
workplace. Yet, the data is collectable and reportable.
- Learning is usually blended. Most learners don't learn
from just the e-learning modules that come across their screen.
They do a personalized version of blended learning. The learner
absorbs information and creates his or her own practice, gets help
from a peer in the workplace, or even takes a follow-up class to
get across the finish line of performance. The e-learning may be a
large or small piece of the formula for learner effectiveness.
- The value is in the offer. In many instances, the
organization is more interested in making the visible offer of the
e-learning resources, rather than clearly measuring the
effectiveness of specific programs.
If someone claims that all e-learning works equally well, he or she
is caught in another bold-faced lie and not one that I actually
hear from the mouths of my learning colleagues. In any collection
of resources, there are variations in value and effectiveness. But,
I defy you to show me how the manager or learner determines the
relative effectiveness of e-learning from a list of courses or
offerings on an organization's learning webpage. It isn't there.
Instead, learning professionals tend to homogenize the appearance
and effectiveness of course offerings.
Here is what learners might find useful and valuable:
- Ratings from peers: Let the learners benefit from one
another's ratings. Give them an opportunity to rate learning
- Ratings from experts: Learners would greatly benefit from
hearing the ratings of specific programs from experts. I still
attend movies that critics have rated a B or even C+.
- Presentation style information: This part of the
description would explain the type of learning experience that the
module offers. The learner would like a better description of the
style of the e-learning (for example, page turner, testing
throughout, simulation, role play, job-aid-centric, performance
- Learning style feedback: Learners would benefit from
instrumentation that would give them feedback on how they are most
effective as learners. Help the learner understand which types of
learning resources tend to be most helpful to them.
On a meta-level, it's time to invest in learning research! Several
studies indicate that there is a correlation in effectiveness
between classroom and online instruction, but that is not enough.
An international effort to create research on the relative
effectiveness and efficiency of diverse e-learning programs in
diverse situations would be enormously beneficial. Too many
doctoral studies are focused on university students and short-term
testing. Workplace-based research on e-learning effectiveness must
Lie 3: E-Learning Is Just an Online Class
Too much e-learning is a poor imitation of a great instructor-led
class. This is predictable, as each innovation tends to use the
metaphor of its predecessor. For example, early television shows
were modeled after radio shows. Even classrooms were modeled after
religious institutions. The lectern looks just like a church's
pulpit. Let's not be constrained by the class metaphor. So what
exactly happens when you "e" classroom instruction?
- Slow starts: E-learning designers use the same slow start
as the classroom instructor. Learning professionals build these
introductory modules that are usually worthless and students often
hate. Why take five minutes to teach someone how to navigate? Learn
from the world of gaming, where it just starts. Teach navigation as
you go and use standard templates so that students develop muscle
memory and instincts for their e-learning.
- Student language: Stop calling the consumer a student or a
learner! Why take them back to the classroom mentality? If you are
deploying e-learning at work, make it feel like work. The classroom
will always feel like a place away from work, but let's make
e-learning look and even smell like the world of work. Don't call
the expert the teacher, and don't call the consumer a student.
Remember, when learners feel like students, they often display many
of the dysfunctional behaviors of their earlier days in school:
higher passivity and even sitting in the back of the classroom.
Turn e-learning into active learning.
- Linear instruction: As an instructional designer, I was
taught to focus on scope and sequence. Define for the learners what
they will learn and give them the perfect sequence for acquiring
the new skill. In an instructor-led class, designers have to make a
set of sequence decisions. Yet, e-learning gives the learner the
ability to break the linear sequence. In fact, some learners thrive
on learning things backward. Start at the end result and work
backward. Let the learner skip to the highest interest module and
navigate from there.
- Dismissal bell: A classroom model assumes that the learner
will be there from the start of the lesson until the end or the
bell goes off. Most e-learning is not geared toward visitation and
positive departure. I want to be able to take a module and leave
for a while, if I so desire, and easily come back and continue.
Let's use the flexibility of the e-learning to create more
comfortable access and departure.
- One voice, one instructor: A large percentage of
e-learning is designed with a single voice of expertise. The
instructor viewpoint is presented. Why not enlarge the voices in
the room, including diverse opinions. Bring in content or even
media clips of multiple folks with diverse opinions on the content.
Don't be afraid of conflict, in fact use textured approaches to
make e-learning more lively and engaging.
- Note-taking challenges: We are not helping e-learners with
their notation needs. Learners want to be able to highlight,
annotate, and add context to your notes and handouts. In
classrooms, learning professionals acknowledge that learners will
be marking up their well-designed notes to make them their own.
Yet, in e-learning, learners are rarely given the opportunity to
personalize the learning content. Learning vendors, take note. (No
Lie 4: E-Learning Pricing is Sensible
Wow, now that is a lie! Professionals are at an extremely confusing
point on pricing in the e-learning world. This applies to both the
pricing of e-learning content as well as learning systems such as
learning content management systems (LCMSs). It is not surprising
because the field is changing, and there is confusion about the
pricing of all digital content. Pricing is confusing for buyers and
suppliers as they structure their offerings.
Should an e-learning course be the same price as its classroom
equivalent? Clearly, the organization may save significant expenses
on travel and lodging, but is the learner really getting the same
services and values? Does the e-learning offering provide coaching
and remediation for the confused learner? And, are you paying for
delivery of content or is the price for transfer?
Content Salad Bar Pricing
How should organizations pay for access to large collections of
e-learning content? In the early days of CBT, organizations
purchased content on an "all-you-can-eat" salad bar model. The
concept was to pay a fee for each named user that gave the user
permission to take as many courses as he or she liked throughout
the year. In many ways, the fee was for the "offer" rather than the
delivery. However, in some organizations, the full consumption of
courses did not match the value of the subscription fees, which
were subsequently renegotiated.
Pay for Completion or Access
Learners are grazing e-learning. They are popping into a course and
effectively consuming the one module they need. But, this approach
is causing deep confusion on the pricing front. Should this type of
use be charged as a completion or should organizations be paying
for library access to large collections of modules?
Learning Systems Variations
There is a huge variation in the actual pricing of LMSs and LCMSs.
What should an organization pay per user or per server for a full
functioning LMS or LCMS? There are no guidelines or an easy answer
to this logical question because of the enormous fluctuation in
pricing models in the industry at this moment. The newness of the
LMS marketplace and the wide range of customization requirements
have made pricing a minefield for procurement groups.
Pricing for learning products and services needs a tune-up. As an
industry, take a fresh look at pricing (without raising any
- New pricing models for learning content collections:
Loaded access, average utilization, or even total bandwidth of
content consumed could be explored in content collection pricing.
- Value-based pricing: Experiment with assigning varied
value to content based on impact to the organization. One might
even look to analytics such as increased sales to find a linkage
between content and price.
- Benchmarking on pricing: Improve industrywide surveys of
pricing on specific content, systems, and services to provide a
perspective on the changing marketplace.
Lie 5: E-Learning Has a Future
This isn't really a lie, unless I am arrogantly saying that we
really know the future of e-learning. There are some trends,
however, based on evolutions in learning, technology, and even
society at large that can inform the planning, evaluation, and
purchase of learning systems, content, and services.
The Fading "E"
The "e" is a transitional term. It made great sense when the most
provocative thing about e-learning was that it was electronic and
delivered to the learner via the World Wide Web. But, that is not
really new anymore. When I take a module or course online, it is
just plain learning.
As other digital phenomena have become popularized, the "e" tends
to fade. I don't think of ordering a book from Amazon as
e-commerce. I don't think of checking into my JetBlue flight as
e-check-in; it's just a convenient time saver. The same is true for
e-learning. Watch for
- the fading of e-learning roles and titles in corporations, such
as vice presidents of learning or chief learning officers (CLOs)
- the leveraging of learning systems for all flavors of learning
activities including online, coaching, simulations, classroom,
on-the-job training, and others
- the rise of blended learning as a larger percentage of
organizational learning and performance efforts, combining the best
of digital content with alternative activities.
The Media Richness of Web and E-Learning Experiences
The learning profession is moving toward the posttext stage of its
web experience. In the first decade of the web, learning
professionals were excited to get relevant text (with varied cool
fonts and colors) and an occasional picture or graphic. Now,
expectations are for a richer and fuller media experience. The
rapid acceptance of iPods and MP3 players, along with the rise of
video on demand, has lubricated the way for a more visual and audio
set of content. Look for the following learning evolutions in the
- Audio everywhere: The creation and publishing of audio is
one of the easy and low-cost capacities that will shake web
experiences. Telephones or PC microphones will be used to make
instant knowledge and context objects, which can be linked to sites
with a single click. Audio content from the CEO or a key customer
will bring daily, personalized radiotype shows to computers or
- Video bandwidth available: Your IT departments will
reluctantly enter the video era. While they fought the impacts of
video on uptime and bandwidth requirements for years, the game is
about to end. Organizational requirements to deliver video to
customers, supply chain partners, employees, and even job prospects
will hit quickly and broadly. You will be in charge of your own
video-feed editing. Learners will have access to multiple
perspectives, segments, and even camera views.
- The resurgence of video conferencing: Video conferencing
was once a herky-jerky picture and unsure audio feed, usually
limited to expensive room systems right off the chief executive
officer's suite. That is about to change dramatically! Low-cost,
high-quality video over the Internet will allow learners to be
linked live to expertise, internally and externally, with a single
click. This will supercharge your ability to offer regular access
to coaching, assessment, and context-based expertise on a global
basis. Watch for the first rise of video conferencing in the home
to link families to their elders in assisted living facilities.
Cable modem services are targeting this application as one of the
tipping points for popularizing this capability.
- MySpace and Facebook for work: The phenomenon of personal
publishing that the younger generation, including your teenagers
and college students, will dramatically change people's
expectations of how content and expertise are shared among
colleagues. I predict the rise of totally new social networking
systems and places where your workers can selectively and simply
create their own views and capture their experiences. Imagine each
employee with a rich profile that can be viewed by either the
entire organization or a subnetwork of friends or colleagues.
Imagine providing the workforce with a daily question rather than
an answer and watching the responses rapidly shaping on a global
basis, in real time. If you don't create a rich social networking
space for your employees, they will create a covert one on their
- Lifelong work and competency portfolios: Although learning
professionals have accepted the prediction that careers will span
many jobs, there really isn't an easy method to make work
experience or competencies portable. Imagine if a worker could earn
targeted and micro merit badges that mapped to commonly accepted
sets of key competencies that were part of a standardized
competency dictionary. These would then be supported and
contextualized by a career portfolio that would contain sanitized
examples of work projects to provide backup and validation. These
portfolios would be viewable within the company to better expose
talent and capacities and could be selectively exposed externally
as the workers sought their next jobs or positions.
- More difficult and authentic assessment: Too much
e-learning assessment is designed for easy passing grades. Success
rates are tracked on first usage at levels as high as 95 percent.
Learners want to be challenged, and organizations deserve more
difficult and authentic assessment. With the growth of gaming and
simulation for learning, workers can be given the ability to fail
forward, sometimes failing an assessment four or five times before
they pass. When you are learning something new and difficult,
failure is a natural and helpful part of the knowledge and skill
acquisition process. Don't be afraid of ramping up the assessment
intensity. It will engage learners better and yield far greater
Research and Development
There's a desperate need for a significant commitment to
learning-focused research and development. I'd love to see a study
showing the actual impact of long PowerPoint presentations.
Instructors keep putting learners to sleep with slide hypnosis, but
there is no research to inform this dysfunctional workplace habit.
You need trusted, vendor-neutral studies on a range of learning
topics, including the following:
- effectiveness of various e-learning models
- ideal duration of classes and online experiences
- role of multitasking on concentration, learning, and retention
- generational differences in learning
- effect of note-taking in classrooms and e-learning
- varied effectiveness of feedback and coaching strategies
- result of gaming on learning and retention
- impact of video and audio on learning and retention.
Such studies would help utilize e-learning technology for maximum
efficiency. It is important to use studies that are available to
you now and, based on your own project implementations, generate
results that can be used within your organization for future
Overcoming the Lies With Truth
Moving beyond the lies about e-learning requires you to demand
greater truth telling from all parties. Learning professionals need
to substitute measured evaluation for anecdotal stories. Move up
Kirkpatrick's (1998) four-level evaluation model to look at true
transfer to the workplace and business impacts. The instructional
design models need to continually evolve with changes in media,
content creation, and the expectations of learners. And, you have
to demand and listen to the truth from your learners. Figure out
what actually helps your learners achieve and perform better in the
workplace and what hinders the application of what they learn.
Ultimately, the lie that must be overcome is a naive belief that
learning programs always work. When they do, it is a beautiful and
powerful thing. When they don't, it is the job of learning
professionals to figure out why and do something about it, even if
it means admitting that they were taken in by all of the lies.