I'll be blunt. Over the past several months I've grown weary of the bad news about the e-learning industry. I'm tired of seeing magazine headlines announce e-learning is disappointing, major deployments are failing, and our entire industry is floundering. "Just the growing pains of an immature industry," say industry analysts and pundits. Yeah, maybe. But enduring those months when customers stayed away, revenues plummeted, companies shut their doors, and workers lost jobs has been more than painful. If the industry seems to be rebounding a bit I hope it's because we've learned a few lessons along the way.
I've identified some specific actions we can take to regain customer trust and recover our industry's earlier momentum. The future leadership of e-learning belongs to vendors that can best refocus attention on the individual learner; deliver a consistent, high-quality e-learning experience; and help our customers educate their workers on e-learning's real benefits.
When did we decide to put learning last? It's wonderful that vendors pack systems full of useful administrative features, but these features do little to enhance learning. Learning occurs at the individual level, so why do individual learners seem to be considered last and least when it comes to e-learning?
Think of it this way: When your 17-year-old daughter asks your advice on which college to enroll in, will you say, "Amy, consider my alma mater. It has a very efficient system to register students for classes, and I love the wonderful way they distribute end-of-term grades."
More likely your thoughts will be on the quality of education your daughter will receive in exchange for the wad of cash you're going to spend over the next four years. You, quite naturally, assume the university will handle the administration function competently. The same goes for e-learning and the enterprise. E-learning administrative features must function well, but going forward, what will differentiate one system from another is how effectively each delivers e-learning's benefits to individual learners, as well as to the enterprise that employs them.
The headline in one IT magazine proclaimed, "E-Learning Struggles to Make the Grade." Why the struggle? Well, I assure you, it's not because training managers refuse to use e-learning administrative features. It's about the learners.
The "Field of Dreams" model our industry has followed—deploy it and they will learn—isn't working because the targeted learners too often won't use the deployed e-learning system. Why not? Because both e-learning vendors and clients have virtually ignored the individual expected to acquire new skills. Before an e-learning initiative is in danger of failing at the department or enterprise level, it has already failed repeatedly at the individual level. Generally speaking, the current e-learning experience is not sufficiently compelling to motivate learners.
No matter how good e-learning products become, our customers will continue to face grassroots resistance to e-learning initiatives. Consider what a training manager at a big defense contractor recently told me. "E-learning has ruined the whole training experience for workers," he said. "It has taken the fun and excitement out of getting away from the office, and interacting and learning with other employees or peers. Employees have to sit in their workspace and deal with the same distractions of phones and daily tasks, while trying to learn something at their terminal—and then be thankful to the company for graciously providing this marvelous learning opportunity."
The problem, he went on to say, is that his employer has 11,000 workers and only a few people to implement training programs. That means this manager is forced to consider e-learning solutions, even though employees don't want them, and that resistance makes him skeptical that e-learning can succeed.
Building great e-learning systems and supporting them well won't be enough in the years ahead. Suppliers must also provide effective marketing support to help customers internally communicate to their target groups of learners how e-learning can benefit each learner personally. Those who provide this kind of transitional support will achieve the greatest future success in our business.
John Clemons is CEO of LearnKey, St. George, Utah. firstname.lastname@example.org