eLearning Directions

I act as as TA assistant in a university setting, and therefore I get to see the students reactions to the overall eLearning Course Management System-LCMS and the individual eLearning programs and modules used by the teachers. The LCMS is uniform across the university and most departments make use of the core course management subsystems:
1)scheduling course sessions including distributing extra material and collecting student work;
2)provides calendaring+ messaging for students, teachers, and TAs securely emailing each other;
3)provides some online demo and training sessions relevant to course material;
4)provides a tracking system for what students took what courses and participated in its exercises;
5)provides a database & bulletin board for posting marks and class grades on tests and exercises;
This Learning Course Management System can provide a variety of other functions including administrative statistics and reporting services for the course teacher and rollup information of interest to the department leader and Dean of programs. But what I see most pointedly is how well first and second year students, new as is the university to a LCMS, have taken to the system.

The eLearning picture has not been pretty.

This is not the fault of the individual teachers, nor the choice of specific training programs, nor is computerized grading a factor – because, except for the most trivial of multiple choice “pop quizzes”, the LCMS Testing subsystem has been deliberately avoided.

No, the critical factors damaging the reputation of the LCMS is its reliability, scalability and … usability. Now since I am a user and not involved at all in the administration of the LCMS I cannot speak to the reliability and scalability of the system except from a users perspective. The system does not scale well – with peak hours bringing very slow response time and more session crashes. In addition, even in off-peak hours anomalous crashes can occur.

But even more surprising has been the usability issues. One would have expected in an eLearning system a great deal of attention would have been paid to usability and ease of learning. To be sure, some of the subsystems are reasonably well done. But some of the calendaring, messaging, and testing routines and dilogs are shall we say … counter intuitive.

These specific observations therefore lend credence to the 2002 Survey Report done by Bizmedia on Quality and eLearning inEurope. The survey examined some key eLearning issues:
• Functions technically without problems across all users
• Has clearly explicit pedagogical design principles appropriate to learner type, needs and context
• Subject content is state of the art and maintained up to date
• Has a high level of interactivity
The results of the survey of a broad crossection of business professionals, executives, trainees, and trainers numbering 443 total respondents found that eLearning systems overall quality was:
– Poor = 15%
– Fair = 46%
– Good = 33%
– Very Good = 5%
– Excellent = 1%
Fully 60% of respondents rated their systems below Good. Now the specific details of the learning systems vary but the major failure rate in both study and my personal case clustered around “functioning technically without problems across all users” and “has a high level of [ease of use] interactivity”. What makes these results a bit strange are two factors. First, at the same institution running across the same network but on its own server is a Lotus Notes system which has to cope with the same teacher and student population. So why in this particular instance the Learning software underperforming in operational capabilities – an endemic proposition if the Bizmedia report is still timely. Second, the eLearning marketplace is already huge – $10B worldwide.

So why is eLearning, already big and to double in size getting such mixed grades?

IDC expects the worldwide market for eLearning to more than double by 2008 to $21Billion. That represents a hefty annual growth rate of 20%. There a number of factors contributing to the demand including:
1)High learning and retraining demands across a broad swath of industries and professions;
2)Availability of desktop computing power and LAN bandwidth to accomodate eLearning;
3)Governments are contibuting to eLearning initiatives;
4)eLearning aids collaboration by getting all stakeholders on same page sooner;
5)WiFI and broadband allow external experise and mobile resources to be utilized more readily.
These are some of the key factors seen as helping to move the eLearning market to a broader set of users and a more substantial growth rate.

This reviewer can testify to the fact that just in the software demo arena and course development software. I have reviewed and used some very powerful course and training creation tools which have emerged just over the past 2-3 years. Likewise the price is coming down for some of the traditional tools. So with all these positive indicators – why the problems ?

The first problem is that there a lot of players in the eLearning arena and some of the software does not scale well beyond the 30-100 user range. As well eLearning companies have been pulled in many, sometimes contradictory directions in the need to provide “checklist” training and admin capabilities in their software. As noted above the pace of change in online capabilities has caught some traditional eLearning developers off-guard and slow to respond to new demands and feature options.

The net result is that some major consulting and software players are starting to consider entering the high growth, high margin, fragmented marketplace. Accenture and IBM have built up sizable eLearning and Microsoft is expanding significantly the capabilities of its Help Systems and Producer as a sophisticated PowerPoint eLearning addin. Adobes Macromedia division has made significant additional investments in course creation systems with RoboHelp, RoboDemo=>Captivate, Breeze, and Central. So watch some of the major players and their acquisitions related to the eLearning market.

The second problem has been the sink or swim strategy on the business side. Many companies have simply put classroom material online and just tracked users and courses in some overall LMS-Learning Management System. Course choices were poorly tied to HR resources such as evaluations, training recommendations, or new project responsibilities and skills assessments. Between HR and the personnels boss there is a fumbling on who tracks progress and success or failure in training and eLearning courses. Remunerative rewards are frequently not available for superior training course grades. And there is always the contentious issue of whether new training and skills bring an employee up to a new pay grade. Finally, the use of courses to set the collaborative framework is just emerging in business practice. The bottom line is that management of training has been decidedly mixed.

In sum, eLearning may be suffering some classic deficits – selective attention and lack of focus. However, in todays IT industry, the prospect of 20% growth rates on a $10B base is sure to attract a good deal more concentrated attention. Watch for major players positioning them selves to capitalize over the next 6-8 months.

eLearning Resources
Capterra – links to some very good training development software and programs
eLearn Magazine – an ACM publication with academic orietation
eLearningGuru.com – very knowledgeable coverage of eLearning news
WorldwideLearn.com – superior portal site for all thing eLearning

(c)JBSurveyer 2005