eLearning For Employees: Why Is It Not Working?

eLearning For Employees: Why Is It Not Working?
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Summary: Ask most training managers how they deal with an employee training problem and the answer will probably be "Get the employee to take a course!"

How To Make eLearning For Employees Work

A few years ago, employees were sent off to classroom courses for their training, but with the advent of eLearning, employees are now asked to complete online courses sitting at their desks. Although this seems like a very good idea in theory – it saves money and time – in practice, it hasn’t worked out too well. Employees aren’t that enthusiastic about sitting at their computers ploughing their way through hours of online course materials. They soon get fed up. If they encounter any technical issues, they just don’t bother. If their line managers think they are wasting valuable working time, they stop altogether. eLearning seems to be getting a bad name: It isn’t working, it isn’t liked, it costs too much…

Why eLearning Isn’t Really The Problem

However, the real problem is not with eLearning per se, but with not providing employees with an appropriate solution to their learning needs, one that fits in with their ways of working and learning, one that is presented in the most suitable format for them, one that is valued, encouraged, and supported by line managers, one that works technically, one that is available for the employees when they need it and one that meets the budget.

First of all, formal courses aren’t the only solution to learning problems. It is now well recognized that something like 80% of learning actually takes place informally in organizations, i.e. not just in the classroom,  but also on the job – reading, listening and talking to colleagues. Sometimes, therefore, a simple informal learning solution is all that is required to address a learning problem, e.g. a job aid or a list of the FAQ. Employees don’t need to be sent off on a week’s course or want to wade through a 3-hour online course to get an answer to a problem – they need a solution now. And even when a more formal, instructional solution is appropriate, there are other options: simulations, demonstrations, learning games, and so on.

Secondly, it is also important to recognize that providing access to content is not the only answer to a learning problem. Content can take a lot of time and cost a lot to produce. Sometimes, more powerful and enduring learning experiences can be provided through the use of online communities and networks and by encouraging collaboration and knowledge sharing between employees, than by providing lots of content online. And often such solutions are much quicker, easier, and far cheaper to set up.

Thirdly, the answer to a learning problem might not just be one solution; it might be a combination or mix of solutions: Face-to-face and online, content and collaboration, formal and informal – in other words a blend of learning opportunities.

What Is The Right Learning Solution?

The key to providing the right solution to employees at the right time and at the right price is by carrying out a thorough examination of the learning situation. What usually happens when a training manager has a training problem is to ask a developer to create an online multimedia course. Or if you are limited in resources, you can simply look at the existing course on Youtube. However, the problem begins at this point, because the emphasis is immediately placed on the solution and the technology to build the solution rather than on the problem and the environment in which the solution is going to be used.

To me, this is the same as instructing a firm of civil engineers to build a suspension bridge to cross a stretch of water without giving them any other information. If the stretch of water is a stream three foot wide, and one or two people need to cross it, by foot, very occasionally and have very little money to pay for a structure, then a suspension bridge is totally inappropriate and something as basic as a plank of wood would be much more suitable. And if the stretch of water turns out to be the Atlantic, a bridge would also be inappropriate. What is required is for the civil engineers to understand much more about the "water crossing" problem before deciding whether a bridge (let alone a suspension bridge) is the most appropriate solution, i.e. how wide the stretch of water in question is, how many people or vehicles need to cross it, how regularly they need to cross it, and how much money there is available.

But even if we assume that we are talking about a situation where a bridge is appropriate, in order to determine the most appropriate type of bridge – arch, beam, cable-stayed, girder, truss, suspension, etc – the civil engineers need to know more about the local physical environment, e.g. the geology that the bridge would need to be erected on, as well as the type of weather conditions the bridge would have to endure. They would want to be sure that their bridge wasn’t going to disappear into quicksand once it was built, or that strong side winds would keep it shut for more days than it was open. In essence, the civil engineers will want to guarantee that sound engineering principles underpin innovation and creativity to produce an aesthetically appealing, usable, and cost-effective solution.

Similarly, when identifying an appropriate solution for a learning problem, it is necessary to understand the problem fully, e.g. the specific training need, how quickly a solution is required, the number, type and location of learners, and the budget available. So if there are only a handful of learners, all based in the same office, who need to be trained very rapidly on a new computer application, and there is little money to fund the solution, then a simple solution like a couple of web pages, a presentation or a short training session would be more appropriate than an all-singing, all-dancing online, multimedia course that might take months to produce. This is the equivalent of the difference between a plank of wood and a suspension bridge to solve the water crossing problem.

And once the general type of learning solution has been identified, a lot more needs to be understood about the environment in which the solution is to be used. In particular, the organizational culture and the technical environment so that a solution can be designed that is not:

  • such a cultural mismatch that it doesn’t fit in with the learners' ways of working and learning, or that middle managers do not approve of it and, therefore, do not encourage or promote its use; and
  • requiring a higher computing specification than what is in place, which means it does not run properly on learners’ computers or requires a more sophisticated understanding of computers than what is the case.

Innovation and creativity in designing learning solutions are just as necessary as in civil (and any other form of) engineering to build aesthetically pleasing solutions, but they need to be underpinned by sound principles from organizational behavior and pedagogy to create effective learning solutions.

In conclusion, then, what is needed is a more disciplined approach to designing learning solutions, by professionals who have wide experience in organizational behavior, pedagogy, and learning technologies so that the outcome is effective, efficient and (most importantly) appropriate learning solutions that meet the organizational and technical environment.