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Getting serious about e-learning

Today at 7pm, Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn and Will Thalheimer, backed by a raft of other well-respected thinkers and practitioners in the field of workplace learning technologies will be launching the Serious eLearning Manifesto. This campaign is the result of many years of discussions, lamentations and grumblings about the state of e-learning. It’s time to do something about the problem before e-learning is discarded as a good idea that, in spite of 30 years of our best efforts, somehow never got to fulfil its potential.

As usual, because this terminology means such different things to different people, I must clarify what sort of e-learning we’re talking about here: the problem is with interactive, self-study materials accessed on a computer. We’re not talking webinars, virtual classrooms, online video, social learning and all those other good things.

So what is the problem with self-study e-learning? Well, if you go to the awards ceremonies and you read the case studies, you’d think the medium was flourishing. That’s because there is some wonderful e-learning being produced which achieves fantastic results, not just in terms of efficiencies but meaningful, engaging learning experiences. From my base here in the UK, I have been especially pleased with what we have been able to produce on this small island, at least now and again.

The problem is that, although there are gems, there is just too much dross. You won’t find this out by talking to learning managers or producers, but lower level learning professionals and learners themselves will tell you all too readily. They hate that stuff which makes you feel like you are drinking from a fire hose, with it’s endless abstractions, irrelevant graphics and patronisingly simple interactions. And, be honest, you’d think that too, if you had to use it yourself (I bet you don’t).

Unfortunately, throwing money at the problem is not enough. You get dross with bling, pigs wearing lipstick. Good e-learning requires great communication skills, empathy with your audience, a really good understanding of how people learn, an appreciation of the opportunities that technology can afford and, above all, an ability to stand up to clients and subject experts who want you to stick with the fire hose.

So, I’m with Michael, Julie, Clark and Will. I share their values:

  • Real impact over unexamined effort
  • Meaningful learning over knowledge delivery
  • Spaced practice over one-time events
  • Realistic decisions over knowledge tests
  • Emotional engagement over passive content
  • Authentic contexts over abstract principles
  • Real-world consequences over didactic feedback
  • Conceptual models over isolated information
  • Learning effectiveness over authoring efficiency
  • Individualized challenges over static content

I hope there is a positive reaction to the Serious eLearning Manifesto and that we find ways to cure the malaise. If not, it’s only a matter of time before our users will lose patience and look to other media for solutions – and that will be a real opportunity missed. Seriously.
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