E-Learning is a Dirty Word

Ask someone what e-learning is – usually that person automatically conjures up an image of an hour-long module filled with text and the occasional question, navigated through with a ‘next button’ and a certificate to print at the end. This is the predominant meaning of e-learning in the common consciousness, and it is making it harder to break people’s preconceptions around the scope and depth of digital education.

What exactly is e-learning?

What we now describe as e-learning first started as a concept based on a traditional classroom approach converted into a digital format. Information was presented in an input section then the user would face an immediate quiz at the end to test their understanding of the presented information. This was both popular and accessible, as it promised to deliver a familiar learning format (lecture-style) and a clear record of knowledge (test scores).

As the market for e-learning grew, instructional designers developed the format by trying to add output elements such as drag and drop and matching exercises. The byword for good design became ‘interaction.’ Designers and developers started pursuing higher levels of engagement by forcing learners to be more active, rather than passively receiving information.

The development of rapid-authoring tools such as Captivate and Articulate made e-learning into a standard format that anyone could reproduce using a set of ready-made templates and a powerpoint deck. The industry now had a standardised toolkit, which made creating e-learning content much easier, but had a limiting effect on the evolution of both the concepts and scope of the format.

Same old story

While the graphical design, length, and types of interactions around this standard format have continued to be developed, some key concepts have not. Trends in design have improved the experience by shortening e-learning to minutes instead of hours, and using video and sophisticated interactions but the format remains rigid in it’s limitations – it mostly remains very linear, test-driven, and passive with standard question-based immediate testing.

Public perception of e-learning is now completely tied-up with this particular format. Unfortunately,this format has a number of fatal flaws which have now snowballed into the current negative view of e-learning in the general public consciousness.

Fatal flaws

The continuing demand for e-learning modules has led to perfectly good content being re-packaged for e-learning to the detriment of the whole experience. Let’s be honest for a moment here – while I accept the format has been pushed outside it’s limitations by many creative people – most e-learning modules are simply animated PDFs with a horribly demotivating linear format and no search functionality, making them demotivating for learning and useless as reference tools.

Many people’s experience of e-learning packages of this kind are as part of mandated programmes, often for compliance, and often hours long. This adds even more negative associations with e-learning.

Finally, the difficulty in harvesting any real robust data or evidence for learning and change from these modules means that management enthusiasm for the solution is starting to wane. While these modules remain cost-efficient, they are not having the impact that is needed on learners to make them a worthwhile endeavour.

Change the Terminology

The term e-learning is fast becoming a negative one, and I can already see it’s commercial value dropping as the proliferation of rapid authoring software makes it easy to replicate and the lack of robust data-driven evidence of anything except completion/awareness make buyers question the value outcomes of the solution.

It has also become painfully limiting terminology which stifles innovation because of it’s association with such a familiar and constraining format. A format which has left many people with negative experiences and views which are difficult to challenge.

I have found that distancing conversations from the terminology of e-learning will help people start to think about the wider opportunities for knowledge, learning, and change that digital interventions can offer. I use the term digital learning because it seems to put people at ease with new ideas, and opens discussions about how we can explore the huge possibilities of digital without being constrained to any familiar format.

What do you think? Please comment or share your thoughts on the term ‘e-learning.’

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