E-learning: not a library with a new name

As COVID-19 has rampaged across the globe, the closure of schools has brought the topic of ‘e-learning’ sharply into focus. This rapid disruption has also impacted adult education from colleges, universities and corporate Learning and Development (L&D). Unfortunately, ’e-learning’ is broadly misunderstood and can often have plenty of ’e’ and not great ‘learning’. This has given online learning a poor reputation. It doesn’t have to be that way.

In this article, Gareth Moxom explores what e-learning can do well and fit within an L&D programme, the pitfalls, and how it is still the human element that counts.


Not quite a snow day...

If like me, you have school-age children and you live at latitudes where it does (but rarely) snows, there isn’t much that creates more excitement than the sight of snowflakes falling and the prospect of a day or two at home with the schools shut;  the ‘snow-day”’

With governments across the globe forced into lockdown, schools have now been shut for many weeks. The ‘snow-day’ isn’t quite as much fun anymore. Like schools, most businesses have followed suit, with their L&D programmes cancelled or postponed. There are numerous consequences for these decisions in all organisations; notably, of course, the impact upon learning. Like the cavalry riding to the rescue, e-learning will save the day. Or will it?

If it was easy, wouldn’t we have done it already?

Like most types of innovation, in many sectors, online growth has rapidly disrupted or destroyed the traditional approach. A crisis or war has often hugely accelerated innovation, smashing through vested interests advocating the status quo. The current crisis will do something similar to learning, but I’m not in the ‘EVERYTHING will be different’ school of thinking; history suggests that things will be different after a crisis, some things very different. It also suggests that much will remain very similar to before.

Undoubtedly, ‘e-learning’ can be a fantastic addition to the L&D toolkit, but only if it has been thought through with its impact & limitations understood. And, let’s get something clear, just as we have found out in the field of news & journalism, on-line & ‘free’ doesn’t equal quality, effective & founded upon facts.



A library by another name?

The approach of my children’s teachers during lockdown has been interesting; those that get paid by us directly (extra curriculum stuff) have swiftly delivered actual classes via Zoom. Those paid by the traditional school system have either done nothing or emailed passive work through. Both could be considered ‘e-learning’. Which do you think has been met with the most enthusiasm and best outcomes by those that matter most – the learners? It’s the interactive sessions; but only if they’ve been delivered with the expertise to understand what works in that environment.

There is evidence of libraries existing over 2,500 years ago and the fact that they’re still around would strongly suggest a huge amount of value is added by them. I’m a fan – I love libraries, always have. Too often though, ‘e-learning’ is confused as a library delivered electronically. Just because the modern version may have video or some other form of interaction, it doesn’t change them from what they are – fantastic stores of knowledge that, generally, are excellent for a reflective, thinking style of learning. No issue with that, but it only goes so far.

I’ve viewed & read plenty of material on hitting great tennis serves, golf putting like a genius & topics like leadership. Guess what? I’m no-where near winning Wimbledon, my golf clubs are seeing more spider webs than greens and, well, I’m not Prime Minister yet (yet !). Reading it is one thing; challenging concepts & ideas, practising it, getting feedback, making adjustments, or inspiring to greater possibilities; that takes something else. You need other people. Maybe, one day, artificial intelligence may provide this but, frankly, right now Alexa isn’t quite doing it for me.


Who was your best teacher?

Think back over all your educational experiences – who was the stand-out teacher? Most of us had one. Who had the biggest impact upon you? What qualities did they have that made them stand-out? I’d be surprised if somewhere on that list of qualities was an equivalent of ‘they emailed work to me’.

They may well have provided some material that stimulated your mind but it’s the other human stuff that makes the difference. The inspiration, the belief in you, the challenges, the support, the tips & hints, and all the other things that make great teachers stand-out. Solid research tells us that this is the same at all ages of learning from early childhood and right throughout our adult life. It’s even more the case with e-learning – interaction squared if you like.



Much remains the same, but different….

The best educators will thrive in whatever medium for delivery exists. Why? Firstly, because they understand that driving learning and change requires a deep understanding of what makes humans tick. Secondly, they have the attitude and ability to adapt that understanding to different delivery mechanisms. This is where the magic of real ‘e-learning’ happens, adapting what works to the virtual platform. My colleague, Alex Selwood, has recently written and is publishing, a fantastic series of articles with hints & tips about adapting learning to the on-line world, so I’ll direct you to those here.

Here are a few points to highlight critical considerations when trying to engage us, humans:

1. Up the interaction on-line

In a face-to-face engagement, we know that people naturally go into ‘trance’ mode frequently & get easily distracted. This is even more of an issue engaging on-line. Up the interaction to keep focus & engagement. Think about the numbers – more people equals less engagement and less learning.

2. Keep it short & punchy

Listening to someone drone on for 3 hours is dull at the best of times. Watching a video of a similar event on-line is even worse. Think about trying to listen to a friend in a car with the window open & radio on – it’s much more effort with many more distractions and it’s the same for online learning. If it’s going beyond 60-90 minutes, it’s too long. Cut it down; prioritise content & key messages.

3. You are always on

Face-to-face engagement is exhausting. For the same reasons as in my previous point, delivery on-line is even more energy draining. Managing your energy & state is crucial – if you are not energised and engaging, don’t expect them to be.


A blended approach for greater impact….

Too many organisations have a perception that ’e-learning‘ is simply a matter of creating a web-based portal, sticking some content up, and expecting their people to have the same learning outcomes as before. Even better news, the Finance Director is delighted with the budget-saving. Win, win, win, and wrong.

A successful L&D approach needs a blended approach & virtual delivery can fit beautifully within that blend, as long as it’s delivered well with expert knowledge of the ups & downs of the virtual world. There is nothing wrong with creating learning assets on-line, its potentially an excellent resource – a modern-day library. But remember what the best educators do? It isn’t passive; it’s engaging, and it deeply touches people which helps inspire change. That change will need support and coaching. You don’t get that from Alexa.


If you are curious to learn more about how to deliver impactful L&D virtually through these stormy times, take a look at our website to find out more about how we can support you and your team when you may need it the most. Please like and share as appropriate if you have found this article useful.   

Gareth Moxom

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