When it comes to e-learning: let the buyer beware

E-learning promises to slash training costs and/or extend the reach of training enormously.

Though downsides exist, the math is compelling. Compared with face-to-face training – namely live classroom events – e-learning can cut costs by 80 to 90 percent. Consider a live, face-to-face course on negotiation that conservatively tabs out at $1,200 per person. E-learning advocates say this same course could be delivered for $99 or less – meaning you could reach 12 people with the same course for the same cost. It’s no wonder that managers are responding in droves. One typical edict from a vice president of a large Midwestern equipment manufacturer: “Fifty percent of our corporate training programs should be via e-learning within five years.”

Not surprisingly, dozens of companies have cropped up to meet the demand. Some offer libraries of low-cost, ready-made courses on hundreds of subjects. Others, mainly those staffed with IT personnel, stand ready to create custom courses on almost any subject, whether they know anything about it or not.

That means it’s caveat emptor time in spades. Examine your expectations. Do you expect that e-learning will be just as effective as face-to-face, live classroom training? If so, forget it. An excellent e-learning course might be 60 percent effective, maybe 70 percent. Who knows?

On the other hand, certain subjects lend themselves to e-learning. According to Sue Bowlby, president of Corexcel in Wilmington, Del., which has been providing educational products and services for 15 years — makes the point that “subjects that are ‘concrete’ in content are ideal for e-learning formats.”

Many of the e-learning companies flooding the market today will fall out. Bill Brandon, editor of The E-Learning Developers’ Journal agrees – in fact, he says, the fallout has already begun. “These products are what we in the-learning business call ‘shovelware.’ Companies find that fewer than 20 percent of employees who start these courses actually complete them,” he says.

Worse, the reputations of HR people will be jaundiced in the eyes of line management. HR and upper management personnel who ignore these consequences do so at their own peril.

So are we all to hold off until e-learning shakes out, or can you move into e-learning, avoid the pitfalls and present senior management with cost-slashing successes?

Yes, but your first job is to refocus. Some e-learning can be powerful, effective, cost cutting – all the things promised. So you should adjust your expectations and put extra effort into evaluating courseware and consider all options.

For example, you might be better off selecting a blended approach, which involves live on-line delivery of more traditional material, which cuts a great deal of the costs out but keeps people accountable and on track during the classes.

In any case, remember:

• Poor content can poison you from Day One. If you buy without thorough evaluation, you won’t get the bad news until it is much too late. If, for example, the subject is negotiation, identify the author of the content by name, reputation, background and accomplishments.

• Well-crafted instructional objectives, vital to any training, define the performance students will be able to demonstrate on completion of the training. Read “Preparing Instructional Objectives” by Robert F. Mager. After that, you’ll be an expert. After that no amount of fast talk will fool you. Mager’s teachings can save your bacon.

• There are all kinds of IT people around who convert content to e-learning formats – some good and some not. Find out who did the conversion on any given course. Unless the converter was well versed in the content at hand, unwanted gaffes can sabotage the results.

Remember, in most corporate settings, the penalty for failure is much greater than the reward for success.

Norbert Aubuchon is the author of “The Anatomy of Persuasion,” which teaches technical people how to achieve “buy-in” for their ideas. He can be reached at nib1@verizon.net.

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