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Back to Basics – What is eLearning?

February 20, 2014

by Tess Robinson, Director, LearningAge SolutionsBack to basics

‘I absolutely loath elearning with all of my being. I just spent 1hr 40 answering stupid F-ing multiple choice questions in the attempt to gain a poxy bit of paper for work and the blinking site crashed. I get nul points; no poxy bit of paper; no recognition for the time lost, opportunity cost and not even a chance to go back in and waste another couple of hours of my life because of error x2032 – as if I’m supposed to know what to do with that bit of information f%$H, f%!£, f!£$!!! Workers of the world unite – it must be time for another Luddite revolution!’

This was one of my friends, a nurse, on Facebook last week, venting her anger against learning technologies. This is still such a common perception of elearning; dull, mandatory training, done on your own, using technology that doesn’t quite work properly. Such a shame, when there is such a wonderful, eclectic, creative and interesting wealth of approaches and technologies out there. Certainly what my friend regards as ‘elearning’ is not necessarily the same as what I mean when I use the term (although I’m clearly enormously biased in favour of elearning).  So what exactly is eLearning? Let’s go back to basics…

What is eLearning?

Clive Shepherd in ‘The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual’ describes elearning as ‘when we use computers and the networks to which these are linked, to in some way support the learning process’. He has kept his definition deliberately broad to take in everything from self-study lessons on a PC to social learning on mobile devices, use of video and virtual classrooms which deliver live group workshops.

Clive argues that there are five basic forms of eLearning:

1. Self-study lessons (sometimes still known as CBT).

This is ‘traditional elearning’ and the form that often elicits the most swearing. It does, however, have some important advantages in that it can deliver learning at the learners own pace and allows them to learn on-demand in small chunks. As far as the employer is concerned, it can be a very cost-effective and fast way to train large number of people. As Clive points out, we’re still in the ‘one size fits all’ stage but there is vast potential for personalising the learning experience and improving this form of elearning. In the same way that large companies, such as Amazon, personalise your buying experience based on your previous buying behaviour, there is no reason why self-study lessons couldn’t, in future, be more tailored to fit.

2. Simulations and virtual worlds.

Simulations allow learners to rehearse skills in a realistic environment without risk before doing it for real. This can be as simple as some online step-through branching scenarios or as complex as a multi-player virtual world. It’s true that gaming-type technologies are still rarely used in learning, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this is commonplace. No one could deny it would be a lot more fun and arguably more memorable than working through a bunch of Powerpoint slides.

3. Virtual classrooms

Live, real-time learning where participants all make themselves available at the same time. This might take the form of a web conference or webinar. It allows people from all corners of the globe to come together with no traveling and allows the sharing of ideas in real-time. It also enables a facilitator, trainer or expert to be present. Experts are more likely to give an hour of their time to run a webinar than traveling and taking a whole day out to attend an hour’s meeting. This type of synchronous learning also allows the session to be tailored to the audience as their reactions to the material can be gauged within the session. Clive predicts that virtual classrooms will become more and more widely used as a response to budgetary, environmental and time pressures.

4. Online resources

Whereas we already know how vital interactivity is in learning, passive learning resources definitely have their place. When I want to know something, the first places I’ll look are Google, Wikipedia and YouTube. Learning resources can include things like web articles. Videos, podcasts, PDFs, screencasts etc..  They can be crowd-sourced, written by experts or enthusiastic amateurs. We’ve become accustomed to accessing information on demand in our everyday lives, why not in corporate or educational learning too?

5. Online collaboration

Our online experience has changed massively over the past few years – we are now interacting with each other online as well as passively consuming. The massive popularity of social networking and sharing sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Yammer, Pintrest, Flickr… the list goes on and on, is testament to the fact that we humans love to use the web to interact with other people. As Clive points out, this could turn out to be the most significant form of learning for the future if organisations can overcome their fears that allowing access to social learning on-demand will distract from the business at hand.

In summary elearning is a ‘particularly versatile medium, capable of delivering a high quality and highly-adaptive multimedia experience on a wide range of devices and with unprecedented scaleability’*, so perhaps it’s time it lost its dull, boring and frustrating image?


*Clive Shepherd p16 The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual 2013



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