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What we learned about elearning in 2010

Analysing two reports, John Helmer gives a retrospective view of elearning in 2010.

Accelerating Performance: Towards Maturity 2010-11 Benchmark Full report
Laura Overton, Howard Hills, Genny Dixon; Towards Maturity

The UK elearning market 2010
David Patterson, Glynn Jung, Gill Broadhead, Renate Halton; Learning Light

As we brace ourselves for the choppy and somewhat chill economic waters of 2011, elearning is looking to be a fairly shipshape vessel with a bright future ahead of it – according to these two reports, at least. General training budgets may be contracting, causing uncertainty and a deal of localised pain, but at the same time an increasing amount of spend appears to be moving online, as organisations look to ‘e’ to help them in delivering more for less.

Adoption is pretty much mainstream: the CIPD revealed this year (when pressed) that 85% of respondents to its annual Learning and Development survey are now making some use of elearning*. And the industry can point to some solid successes at last. Mature users of technology-enabled learning are achieving cost efficiencies, reduced time to competence and wider access to learning within their organisations.

But there are some worrying indicators too. Is the practitioner community in danger of making a knee-jerk reaction to recession; adopting an outdated model of elearning which is unlikely to produce results and can only lead to more of the negative perceptions that have dogged elearning in its short history?

At the same time, is the supplier industry in tune with the real needs of its clients? Is it merely supplying what those clients ask for, or forging partnership relationships to provide appropriate support and guidance in meeting business objectives with the help of learning innovation?

people use elearning on a tablet

Historic dearth of information

Perhaps it’s worth pausing, before we dive into the detail of these reports, to give a small cheer for the fact that they exist at all. Historically, there has been a dearth of good reliable research information about our industry. So signal was this lack, that when I first did some basic industry analysis a few years back, I had the slightly eerie feeling of someone laying tracks in virgin snow. That work culminated in a briefing paper published by Learning Light, name-checked in the current report, which swiftly became their top download, and for months afterwards I was rung up by on a fairly regular basis by analysts and researchers from the major consultancies seeking to put more flesh on the rather sparse bones I had provided. Overnight I became, gratifying (and also slightly absurdly, I felt) recognised as an expert on the elearning supplier market.

The need for information about what was happening on the practitioner side of the fence was, if anything, even more pressing. Before the welcome rise of Towards Maturity, funded in its early days by Becta, pioneers in the use of learning technology had no means of comparing their own efforts with those of their peers – and no outlet for their own successes and frustrations – other than the case studies provided at conferences and in the trade press, which often, let’s admit it, can occasionally be slightly ‘dressed up’ for PR purposes.

Full disclosure: I have recently been doing some work with Towards Maturity to help them in securing new sources of funding for the future. However, above and beyond any commercial relationship I may have with the organisation just now, I have long believed that the work they do is of critical value.

What is benchmarking?

The important thing to grasp about Towards Maturity, which is not always understood, is that it doesn’t just research the industry: it is a benchmarking practice.

Wikipedia defines benchmarking as: ‘the process of comparing one’s business processes and performance metrics to industry bests and/or best practices from other industries … Improvements from learning mean doing things better, faster, and cheaper.’ Benchmarking is common practice in industries such as manufacturing, but relatively rare to see in emerging ones like our own.

The focus of this organisation is therefore on the effective use of technology to aid learning, rather than on the promotion of a particular supply-side-defined model for technology-enabled learning. This is an important distinction, because it means that Towards Maturity can concentrate on observing what is actually being done within organisations, and on assessing results achieved:the success of its endeavours does not depend on there being a watertight definition of the term ‘elearning’ underlying its researches. Which is just as well, because as far as I can see, there isn’t one. But more of that later.

The 2010-11 Towards Maturity report contains an absolute wealth of data on how organisations are using technology to help the development of their people, to boost performance and to ensure good governance.

Just to take a few top-line findings: we learn that corporates are more mature in their use of learning technologies, even though the public sector tends to have a more established and formal infrastructure. The private sector uses more tools that support on-the-job learning, perhaps showing a more tactical focus on performance rather than on long-term development. Meanwhile, the ‘third sector’ generally lags, but is more likely to use things like Facebook to aid learning.

One of the most salient features of Towards Maturity’s work is the clear eye it can often turn on the storms of hype and controversy that regularly buffet our industry. It’s clear, for instance, that the much-vaunted explosion in social media use hasn’t happened. About half of organisations ban external sites like Facebook altogether (and this is higher in the public sector at 66%), while only 16% are making any sort of effort to harness the power of social media for learning.

Paradoxically, while the appetite of learning practitioners to hear about revolutionary and innovative technology is unabated, its enthusiasm for the sexy new stuff undimmed, the pattern of technology adoption shown here is actually markedly conservative.

A time traveller from 2001, had she worked in an elearning company of the time, would be hugely cheered to see how the LMS and the LCMS have become embedded as core technologies at the heart of learning in these organisations (though the huge growth of open source software would no doubt be a substantial surprise); and similarly, how modules of self-directed online learning have come to replace instructor-led training across a widening range of standard training subject areas. However, the report’s authors point out a significant danger lurking within this generally conservative pattern of adoption.

Will the moment of opportunity be missed?

Organisations in the top quartile of the study – i.e. those who are most mature in their use of learning technologies – report the greatest benefits from its use. They are able to deliver more learning to a wider audience (both within and without the organisation; including to customers and suppliers) and achieve average cost savings of 21%. Learning is delivered 32% faster and time to proven competency reduced by 20%. These are impressive results, but remember that this is among the top quartile. Less mature organisations get less out of technology: in fact, on average, 30% of the total sample are not yet realising the benefits they are looking for from learning technologies.

When you look at the way top quartile organisations are achieving their results, it is clear that they have a more strategic approach than those lower down the rankings; but it also appears that they take a more flexible, sophisticated and more diverse approach over all. Rather than seeking a like-for-like replacement of training courses by self-paced e-learning modules, mature organisations are far more likely to be using the full ‘trainset’ of learning technologies; from virtual classroom to social media – and to be bringing these to bear not only on the formal learning but also to support workplace and experiential learning. It’s an approach that one could characterise as being informed by the 70/20/10 model (about which we have blogged fairly extensively at LINE). Less mature organisations, by contrast seem stuck in the 2001 model.

This cannot but help ring alarm bells for the report’s authors, many of whom will have lived through the backlash following the first wave of e-learning adoption, when it was widely seen not to work. As a veteran of those years myself, it seems to me in no way Cassandra-like of Laura Overton and her colleagues to be pointing out the danger of a similar catastrophe on the horizon.

The nightmare scenario is that organisations faced with shrinking budgets rush headlong into elearning as a panacea, adopt an outdated model that has already been proved not to work, and reap predictably disappointing outcomes as a result – leading to a fresh wave of disaffection and backlash.

Hopefully, Towards Maturity’s warnings will be heeded in time.

Maturity in what?

It could be said that the organisation’s ability to avert this potential crisis will be dependant, in large part, on the credibility it is able to win within the general training community, outside of its home constituency, the elearning ‘village’. And this is where there might be potential problems.

Towards Maturity is seen in some quarters (and even within parts of the elearning village itself) as an organisation that lobbies on behalf of the vendors of technology products. After all, what is the ‘maturity’ it is seeking to measure if not maturity-in-technology-adoption – and doesn’t that therefore short-circuit the question of whether technology has any inherent benefit to bring to the business of learning or not?

No-one should underestimate the force with which a negative answer is returned to this question in many minds. For some, Wikipedia is a byword for unreliability, Facebook a time-waster of cosmic proportions, Twitter the apogee of pointlessness and web technology in general a source of frustration and alienation in our lives, whose much-vaunted benefits have only gained widespread acceptance through a species of mass delusion. It might surprise some people to know how many minds like these are to be found within powerful institutions that control the weather in Organisational Development and Education (full disclosure: some days I even feel that way myself).

So isn’t Towards Maturity shooting itself in the foot right from the start, through its own terms of reference?

My counter to this argument would be: read the reports. From doing so you get a real sense of what is actually going on within organisations as L&D professionals struggle to do the job required of them by today’s frenetic business environment, equipped with a traditional toolset (military-derived stand-up training) that is widely recognised as no longer fit for purpose. A lot of pressure for them to use technology as at least part of the solution, nowadays, is coming down from the top. But technology is only part of the story: what we’re witnessing, as shown in the work of Towards Maturity, is a wholesale revolution in the way organisational learning and communications are conceptualised, enabled and delivered. New technologies provide new opportunities, and also influence user expectations decisively – but actual practice – best, good or bad – can only emerge from a process of experiment and evaluation. Towards Maturity is surely playing a critically important role in that emergence.

All research reports are open to question when it comes to matters of interpretation, and I wondered sometimes if there wasn’t a tendency to conflate correlation with causation slightly. For instance, on page 51: ‘As organisations mature in their use of learning technologies, they are increasingly likely to proactively build IT relationships …’. Well surely if L&D people are using more technology it is likely to bring them up against the IT department more often, if only to barter for bandwidth? Perhaps it is stretching things to call this a facet of greater maturity, so much as the natural effect of being a high-volume customer.

It could also be objected that the survey is self-reporting (although learner surveys are also undertaken in some instances to validate what practitioners report). However, on balance, the net contribution (no pun intended) that Towards Maturity makes, surely far outweighs some minor defects, and the degree of rigour underpinning the study is impressive.

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest …

Learning Light’s third survey of the UK elearning market is impressive for its scope and profusion. In-depth interviews have been undertaken with more than 40 of the UK’s leading elearning companies, and the report bursts its stated terms of reference by also surveying the markets in Europe, EMEA, MENA and the US (though briefly, in this last instance).

The approach taken to reporting the attitudes and opinions gathered in the course of this research differs radically from that taken by Towards Maturity, in that almost no attempt has been made at quantification. As a result there are very few numbers in the report, outside of the laudable efforts that have gone into assessing market size and growth (figures I won’t repeat here since they have been widely press released). The resulting effect is rather like standing by the bar at the after-show party of the Learning Technologies exhibition; you hear a rush of diverse, differing, sometimes conflicting facts, opinions and anecdotes.

As a result, it can take a bit of careful cross-referencing with appendices to establish context and provenance for some of what you are told, and the report is often at its best and most valuable where it reports individual survey responses verbatim. Section ‘5.4 the learner experience’ contains interesting accounts from Accenture, HSELanD and Kaplan, that give a real flavour of some large-scale blended deployments, embodying within just three examples the diversity of supplier offerings out there. Element K’s response (pp 94-102), printed in full, is highly readable, less anodyne than might be expected, and comments with admirable clarity on technology developments. We learn that open source challenges technology vendors to be more creative in their L&D; that corporate IT departments are constitutionally biased towards ‘walled-garden’ approaches and made nervous by the openness of Web 2.0; that the LMS has become a bit of an Aunt Sally for the proponents of informal learning where arguably it has been quietly evolving for some time into a platform that is equally capable of supporting the 70 and the 20 as well as the 10 (if you get my jargon) … and much more.

I also learned a lot from the survey given here of the European market and from the extraneous material included authored by Auricle, Educause and Aptara (although readers should note that a more up-to-date version of the Aptara research is now available. (NB: the URL given in the report is incorrect).

Services under-represented?

Perhaps because some of the clearest voices in the report come from the technology-tools part of the forest, it feels to me that the more service-orientated side of the industry – which is probably to say the consultancies and the bespoke content developers – are under-represented in this report. This is slightly hard to explain, since Learning Light spoke to all the right people – and perhaps is no more than a subjective opinion. I just felt that less space could have been given to general technology trends such as cloud computing and Steve Jobs’s spat with Adobe, and that it might have been informative to hear more about how the supplier community is working in partnership with clients to evolve the use of technology within organisations to support learning and communications.

I am very grateful for having being given a copy of the report to review, but it would not be even handed of me, to pass over some of the report’s occasional failings. More care might have been taken to present the valuable information it contains clearly: in places it is a difficult read – and only one of the many other reports it mentions is properly referenced.

Is there an elearning industry?

Another problematical area, from my personal standpoint, is the question of industry definition. One shouldn’t necessarily take Learning Light to task for this, since defining the elearning industry is by no means a simple thing. Most authors who have tangled with this thorny philosophical problem have chosen to take a pragmatic approach (since business is rarely interested in philosophical problems).

The approach taken here has been to present both the two different definitions of elearning available; the narrow one – ‘delivery of carefully constructed instructional events through computing technologies’ – and the wide-angle one – ‘the broad range of ways computing and communications technologies can be used for teaching and learning’, leaving the question of definition slightly open.

Towards Maturity, by contrast, goes unequivocally for the broad definition, as befits the nature of its study.

Perhaps the question is slightly academic, since most people are moving away from the term ‘elearning’ anyway; but industry research can gain value from being founded in a tight pinning down of its terms of enquiry. My personal recommendation (for what it’s worth) in looking at the supply side particularly, would have been to import and adapt the taxonomy Ambient Insight in the US uses for its elearning reports, if only as a starting point. The work of Outsell on the Information Industry, though far broader in focus, is also helpful in positioning elearning vis a vis related industries such as Publishing and Education.

Quibbles aside, however, the authors of both these reports are to be applauded for adding to our all-too limited store of reliable information and data about this dynamic emerging industry.

Mobile learning - organisational silos

This post was written by John Helmer and first appeared on the LINE  blog on 12th January 2011.