Elearning has taken off over the past few years, fuelled by cheaper creative and collaborative ‘Web 2.0’ tools. Technology editor John Stokdyk traces the latest trends and explains how HR can play a more active role in implementing successful elearning programmes.
Over the past couple of years, trainers have shaken off traditional attitudes and embraced every emerging technology trend possible. Social networking and Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis, ‘serious gaming’, virtual reality simulations and online environments such as Second Life are all grist to the elearning mill, with software companies and consultants lurking in the background to tie up high-tech contracts that will transform your organisation’s people development capabilities for just a few thousand pounds.
The proliferation of authoring tools, free online collaborative environments and open source software systems such as Moodle have transformed elearning and made it possible for organisations to make huge strides in developing and deploying their training electronically.
Retaining control of such rampant creativity may prove more difficult, as will measuring the effectiveness of the learning that is delivered. But that has always been an issue for HR managers. The question to ask is whether the recent surge in elearning will also bring new tools to improve accountability in training.
This article sets out to document the latest learning trends and to project how they are likely to develop. As well as providing some practical guidance about the tools and terminology that trainers are using (see ‘Elearning trend watch’, below right), it will examine how they fit into the wider HR context.
No HR manager needs to be reminded about which budgets come in for scrutiny when economic conditions tighten. But many will also be aware of the counter-cyclical nature of technology spending. As Clive Shepherd, chairman of the Elearning Network noted in his New Year predictions blog, when classroom training budgets are squeezed, “asynchronous elearning” can plug the gap, for example by converting existing classroom materials into elearning course content.
Asychronous elearning – communication between instructors and students occurs intermittently, usually via electronic mediasuch as CDs, email or the web.
Authoring tools – or DTP and web design software as it used to be called. Now cheap creative software can include 3D animation and video editing tools, fostering the illusion that anyone can do it, according to Academy Internet’s Richard Middleton. “If you’ve got a budget of £20,000, you’re not going to get the equivalent of a PS2 game,” he warns.
Blended learning – traditional 1:1 and classroom techniques mixed with electronic learning delivered on demand. The word ‘matrix’ often crops up.
Learning management systems (LMS) – another golden software egg that has plummeted in price, thanks mainly to the success of the open source Moodle LMS. The LMS is a framework in which courses and elearning modules can be stored and delivered to students, while tracking their activities and feedback.
M-learning – aka mobile learning – is the hottest buzz in elearning today. ‘Granular’ learning can be broken down into chunks small enough to be delivered to individuals via their mobile phones and iPods. What better time could there be to listen to a language tutorial than when stuck in a traffic jam? While bringing flexibility and convenience, m-learning has also encourages employees to undertake personal development during their non-work time.
Serious gaming – no, it’s not an excuse to indulge in fantasy role plays during lunch hour, it’s a “learner-centric, contexualised” technology that lets users practice in a safe, failure-free environment, says Caspian Learning’s Graeme Duncan.
Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) – is a standard, XML-based framework used to code up learning materials so they can be handled by different LMSs.
Web 2.0 – the network is the learning environment, where users gather to share information via blogs, wikis, and instant data feeds such as RSS and Twitter. If any of these concepts still baffle you, go with the Web 2.0 flow and look them up on Google or Wikipedia.
Two other key trends among the eight identified by Shepherd include the decimation of the market for traditional learning management systems (LMSs) by the open source Moodle system, and the emergence of informal, bottom-up learning made possible by wikis and blogs. As social networking commentator Sarah “Intellagirl” Robbins noted last year, who needs to invest in an LMS when Facebook groups give you much of the same functionality, and more, for no cost?
That may be pushing the envelope a little too far for most organisations, but the underlying theory holds – technology costs are coming down and can maximise training budgets in tough times. Elearning and its many variants can blend training into the day-to-day routine, reducing the need for people to take time off and lowering the associated travel and accommodation expenses. From the recruitment point of view, the workforce is increasingly made up of ‘digital natives’ who have grown up with technology and expect to have access to online interaction and learning tools. Giving tech-savvy recruits and workers the development tools and opportunities can play an influential role in recruitment and retention and enhance the organisation’s brand value.
New toys in the training toolkit
The Web 2.0 phenomenon has happened because of the near universal reach of broadband internet connections. The most important facet of this explosion for learning has been the emergence of collaborative environments such as Facebook, MySpace and Moodle, which let people share their pictures, videos, text files and ideas. It takes a matter of minutes to create a blog where you can broadcast your views to the rest of the online world, or record a learning journal to share with your tutors and peers. The ‘wiki’ approach, where several people can debate and refine the contents of a single online document, is another time-saving way to record and propagate internal knowledge on company policies and procedures on the internet.
Learning has also benefited from innovations in interactive interfaces and display mechanisms including digital whiteboards and yellow ‘stickie’ annotation tools. Training rooms have been through a technology makeover too, with flipcharts and PowerPoint projectors being replaced by interactive touch-sensitive displays which can also connect to colleagues hundreds of miles away. The interactions and comments made during the session can be recorded and stored online to reinforce learning, or bring those who were not able to attend up to speed at a later date.
Last, but not least, the programs that let you create, design and publish learning materials have become commodity products rather than the specialised tools of creative professionals. Adobe’s Creative Suite is the industry standard for multimedia production and swept away all comers in the learning management system category of last year’s Software Satisfaction Awards.
For a recommended retail price of £823, the CS3 Web Standard edition will give almost everything you need, apart from the domain and web server, to create and maintain interactive websites and training applications. Just type in and lay out your content and away you go… Even cheaper creative tools are available if you’re willing to compromise on output quality or don’t need all the standard formats that Adobe supports such as PDF, Flash and SCORM.
While the DIY approach to training content is entirely feasible and widespread, it would not be the route recommended by most training professionals. More focused training tools are available not just to structure and organise learning materials, but to monitor how they are used and the results that students achieve.
Talent management and changes to the training mindset
HR is a key stakeholder in training, and frequently carries responsibility for the function. As has been mentioned, the two disciplines overlap at the point of induction and the great challenge for HR is to sustain the employee’s development throughout their time with the organisation.
Digital learning materials are fully trackable. Not only can training and development professionals deliver their learning at different times in different formats to PCs, web browsers, and even PDAs, iPods and Blackberrys, records can be retained about when the courses were completed and feedback collected on the learner’s performance and experiences. These functions are all the preserve of the LMS.
Don Taylor recently quoted in his blog a comment from enterprise learning and talent management consultant Josh Bersin that with 30% of corporate training hours now being done online, the LMS has become one of HR’s ‘bread and butter’ applications. “If you do training at all, you need some kind of LMS,” said the US guru.
While there has been considerable investment in elearning in recent years and the cost per outcome has come down, accurate figures are hard to come by, noted Graham O’Connell, head of organisational learning and standards at the National School for Government in an article for TrainingZone. Laurence Collins, managing director of the human capital consultancy activ8 Intelligence, also picked up the theme in a recent whitepaper, ‘No Measurement of Talent Management’.
“Most organisations are not even measuring the basic components of what constitutes talent, let alone beginning to describe the linkage between investment in human capital and its impact on the bottom-line,” he wrote.
Collins is selling services and solutions to address this shortcoming, but still has some interesting observations to make about linking competencies to development plans and reporting on the results. “LMS’s have the potential to be quite transformational for a lot of HR and learning and development functions,” he says. “But give baby a hammer, and everything becomes a nail. A lot of managers try to use learning management systems for everything.”
Reminding readers to go back to basics and consider the primary points of their HR strategy and the role elearning can play within it, he observes that the real-time feedback available through an LMS gives you more opportunities to evaluate and modify the training package.
Describing the activ8 approach as ‘predictive learning’, Collins explains that it involves profiling competencies and talents within an organisation and using elearning solutions to flag when training could be delivered to someone to enhance their capabilities – either to ensure a solid base for succession into a new role, or to boost their motivation through personal development.
As a side effect of the bitty, self-service nature of current elearning techniques, Collins also sees HR moving away from the annual appraisal of aptitudes and competencies, and getting a stronger hold on the value of learning and development. “Rather than measuring competence by management assessment, the process is more continuous, and backed with feedback from employees, and from customers to see how it has affected their performance.”
Once you have these more objective measurements, you can track back to cacluate the return on training investments, says Collins. Many organisations already have existing frameworks, content tools and learning management in place, but activ8 sees the market moving towards a more modular approach, where organisations and individuals pick up and use a variety of web-based elearning applications to cater for specific personal and management needs.
The possibilities are endless, and at this point learning technologies have run far ahead of many organisations’ abilities to harness them effectively. The creative and collaborative tools will remain a source of fun, fascination and enlightenment for trainers and employees alike, but digital systems are also good at collecting data, which will interest senior managers to a much greater extent.
As corporate belt-tightening forces HR and L&D professionals to justify every penny of their budgets, ‘measurable return’ is likely to become the mantra of the moment. Fortunately, as long as you approach them with the right attitudes and strategies in place, there are also many new elearning mechanisms out there to help HR managers document their returns on training investment.