eLearning: Yesterday, today and tomorrow…

James Fordham, our former Director of Sales APAC, has written the following article on his experience within the eLearning industry. It details his view on the vast changes in eLearning over the past 14 years and the impact technology has made on the industry.

My career since 1999 has been within eLearning, and subsequently, I have experienced everything from early Computer-Based Training (CBT) concepts through to today’s holistic solutions combining feature-rich Learning Management Systems (LMS), social learning/media integration, immersive eLearning, blended content, simulations and more… Virtual Learning Environments (VLE’s), or eLearning 2.0.

My first experience with eLearning was back in 1999 as the vendor responsible for selling a library of online soft skills and application training modules into Australia. These modules were very high quality for the time and had some simulations built in HTML. The early adoption of this new concept by many large Australian organisations demonstrated that Australia would fast accept and adopt online learning as a future learning strategy. There are few Learning Management Systems (LMS) and content authoring tools I have not used or been exposed to over the years.

Back then, what was an “instructional designer”? My early online learning iterations involved working with classroom facilitators to develop the first online English as a Second Language (ESL) content. On reflection, it worked, we did a great job for those times!

I think it is a fair comment to say between 1999 and around 2004, most eLearning technology and instructional design was performed by IT companies and engineers, not instructional designers. In the last 10 years, Australia as a market has really matured and it is hard to find a large organisation that has not deployed some form of eLearning. Now “eLearning vendors” focus exclusively on online learning solutions, as such, the standard of work being offered is somewhat higher in Australia than other parts of the world I have seen… In fact, I am quite proud of what our industry develops domestically.

I remember the earlier versions of LMS systems out there. They were so rigid and limited in functionality and reporting. Then there was AICC, SCORM 1.2, SCORM 2004 (or no standard at all) for organisations to comprehend. The cost was extremely high per head compared with today’s market. Today it is a different story. Most are configurable, customisable and very powerful. It also tends to be focused around managed services rather than behind the firewall installations.

Do you remember the technology platforms we had to work with 14 years ago? Sadly, I still remember having to develop and run content on Pentium I computers. Actually, I recall pre-Internet and using CompuServe thinking it was the best thing since sliced bread. We were all running on 28/56k dial-up modems. One of the more technically restricting headaches I recall was the need for computers to download “players” in order to play audio, video and Flash. This caused many internal IT Standard Operating Environment (SOE) issues, and tech support requirements were more substantial to run eLearning applications than it is today.

Of course, back then eLearning was simply a means to reach regional users. “Distance learning” was the term most had heard of – What was, or what is eLearning? It wasn’t about saving money for large organisations or providing a consistent approach to learners no matter where they accessed content from, or lived, or worked…

So where are we right now? And what does our future hold?

Whilst answering the “future” question is very subjective, if we look at the latest offerings and current development cycles, we see that mobile learning, TIN CAN API (SCORM evolution) and enhancing social plug-ins are the current buzz around our industry. Whilst bandwidth in 2013 allows us to engage with more rich media, it remains a very real constraint for many organisations. Hence, we need to come up with learning strategies built around lightweight infrastructure and at the same time cater to the ever growing and very popular mobile/tablet market.

As I mentioned earlier, the primary and perhaps initial purpose or reason to consider eLearning back in the late 90s was purely to cater for distance learners. Now it is more about organisations providing a consistent message, reducing per head training costs and improving training turnaround times. Smartphones and tablets are also largely responsible for organisations and vendors trying to get the most out of this ever-growing trend. Like all forms of media, the public want, and expect more…

The earlier iterations of eLearning were rigid and very few organisations had internal instructional designers (ID’s). This has changed in recent years. Content authoring tools are increasingly easier to learn and use, and vendors can develop content and hand it over to their client for ongoing maintenance. More organisations have recognised the value of growing internal capability, whether it be to reduce outsourcing costs, or a case of speed to market for a rapidly changing work environment.

LMS platforms used to be clunky and technically difficult to maintain. Now 85% of available LMS platforms are Software as a Service (SaaS) , or hosted by the vendor. The eLearning world both instructionally and technologically has grown in leaps and bounds. It’s exciting! Do you ever ponder what the next 5 to 10 years will hold given what the last 5 to 10 have yielded? How will we all keep up?

In the last 12 months, “accessibility” has really become foremost in client requirements. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that no known content authoring tool is WCAG 2.0 AA compliant. Few claim to be Section 508 (US-based accessibility standard) compliant, but none to my knowledge are WCAG 2.0 AA compliant at the time of writing this short article. So what does this mean? In simple terms, it means custom hand-built HTML modules need to be developed. For Clients, the challenge is the certification. Any vendor worth their salt can develop custom HTML and develop content to meet WCAG guidelines, but few from my investigations provide formal certification. Of course this comes at an additional cost to the client (in most instances). For more information around WCAG 2.0, please visit: https://australia.gov.au/accessibility

Accessibility aside, TIN CAN API is the biggest thing happening within the LMS space. The Tin Can API is a web service that allows software Clients to read and write experiential data in the form of “statement” objects. TIN CAN aims to capture learner “activities.” These activities will be recorded alongside traditional SCOs and provide organisations with a more holistic learning data set for their employees/learners. Visit https://scorm.com/tincanoverview/ for more information about TIN CAN and check with your LMS vendor to see if TIN CAN can be plugged in (LMS API) OR if it is within the future development plans… Recording offline learner activities will be more and more prevalent moving forward.

The traditional size of an eLearning module is reducing. It is a long-held belief that 20 minutes is the magic timeline for a typical chunk of learning. I am finding that smaller learning bites or chunks are fast becoming more attractive to learners and organisations.

Just-in-time (JIT) type training is where a learner can simply and quickly search and download information, exercises and scenarios to meet a specific individual need – NOW. This form of learning is particularly useful for staff working in “real time” in their role or technical people with real-time problems to solve.

This is where I personally see eLearning moving rapidly. LMS systems are stronger, more flexible and becoming more user friendly; they can cater for JIT search, download and track capabilities. Of course all this content needs to be accessible via smart phones and tablets in addition to traditional PCs. Up until recently this has presented significant challenges in itself. Internet browser capability with HTML 5 features is just one of the many challenges organisations face in a rapidly changing environment.

Learners will still need the traditional 20+ minute content, assessments and face-to-face or field practices before then relying on learning bites as their next step. We not only want to have our audience learn from the content, but we want to ensure they understand the key messages or learning outcomes prior to being let loose on a library of searchable learning bites.

I also believe that the availability of multiple or holistic components (eLearning modules, facilitated workshops, field assessments, collaborative online discussions, eBooks, simulations, forums and more) will only increase as organisations seek to provide better learning experiences for their employees. Welcome eLearning 2.0.

Most vendors will rely solely on the 20-minute eLearning piece to deliver requirements; however, I am slowly finding some vendors who are genuinely looking outside the box, or to use our own company mantra “Thinking outside the classroom”. The organisation will engage with the vendor as a business partner to explore genuine learning outcomes for their requirements, considering the wide-ranging audience, cultures and environments and come up with a holistic package.

One of the fastest-growing content areas driving eLearning is around compliance. As regulations drive business to tick boxes, many “compliance modules” simply do just that. Some company employees are just ticking a box themselves and not really learning anything. Fortunately, there are a few vendors out there who know how to deliver this mandatory training whilst making it relevant, real and in most cases -fun.

The types of projects I like to immerse myself in involve looking at the bigger picture. I like to see real learning outcomes for employees and sustainable learning. I like to see my Clients see genuine value being added. There are many organisations that DO get it right! They will consider and implement a wide range of learning assets to achieve a common goal. One example may be where a short and snappy 2-minute emotive video is the first piece they see which sets the tone and explains the WHY (why do you need this, how will it help me and my workplace? etc.).

Following this piece, learners may then choose their route based on their role (or other criteria). They may participate in traditional 20-minute modules (albeit based around real-life scenarios, exploratory, case studies, etc.) as well as collaborative frameworks (sharing their experiences and thoughts with their peers). Some organisations take this even further and attach their own “rewards program” to incentivise the learning program. Whilst this may spark debate, I find rewards programs more effective than the often hyped up gaming component where it is “expected” that peers will complete courses in order to beat their peers…

I appreciate that some organisations simply do not have sufficient resources or budget to accomplish the best practices available today. It is a real and large challenge for the typical learning and development manager employed in a medium or large organisation. This often leads to either accepting the best you can get for X dollars or doing more in house to save money. Whilst I completely empathise with this situation, I ask you (assuming you are an instructional designer or an L&D professional with some instructional capability): Are you a graphics designer, authoring tool expert, QA expert and/or LMS expert? Depending on your answer, you may have just realised the true value of working with a trusted partner or vendor. Whilst most professional people need to be multi-skilled/multitalented, we cannot all be experts at all things. “Jack of all trades, master of none.” Something needs to give…

Another big change (perhaps culturally) when looking at online learning over the last 10 years compared to today and to our future – is the audience. Pre 2000, I think it is fair to assume eLearning was not designed to cater to the whole audience – Gen X and now Gen Y. Today’s eLearning needs to cater to the entire spectrum… What does this mean? It’s about the “language” used in the module; it’s about the visual aids and ultimately the instructional model and approach. People may disagree, but for me (Gen X) I do not like learning with static cartoon characters walking me through unrealistic scenarios. I prefer a more “real-world” (at least “my world”) feel about what I am learning – but we are all different.

Whether organisations know it or not, I believe this is why Clients typically choose vendors who have had proven experience in THEIR world – the client understands their industry or sector has specific nuances which the layman may not understand or even know. When some vendors or contractors present a script for review, it is not uncommon for internal focus group or stakeholder feedback to return confused or negative comments.

I think for the potential client embarking on their first eLearning project, it can be daunting. LMS procurement and implementation can be arduous and take many months. Fortunately there are many people out there who specialise in helping you with this process. There are also various free tools available to assist. The content side fortunately is much easier. The industry is not huge and most worthwhile eLearning vendors follow a fairly prescribed process and costing model, so comparing apples with apples is significantly easier today than it was in the past. The real key is the understanding of your needs (learning outcomes and industry specific content knowledge) between your vendor and your organisational business objectives. Sometimes, tender response templates miss this point.

My closing comment is around an often neglected component for organisations moving into online/blended learning environments for the first time (or for organisations moving from eLearning to eLearning 2.0) – is “change management”. From top to bottom, if your employees are being asked to learn a different way to what they are accustomed to, they will need some form of change management strategy from above. This can be a simple as appointing peer level “champions” through to complete internal communication strategies. Any organisation that includes this along with their next-gen learning strategy should yield better outcomes.

The evolution of computer hardware was always pushed by the latest software offering. In the same way, I believe the future evolution of technology (bandwidth and mobile type devices) will only push the boundaries of eLearning more and more. I for one am very excited about where the blend between learning and technology will be 5 and 10 years from now…

If you would like to chat further, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Thanks for reading.
James Fordham, PulseLearning – Australia

Skip to content