Why Most E-Learning Did Not Work

Ever since PCs became common in households, training institutions have been toying with the idea of e-learning. In other words, they are trying to put classroom teaching into the virtual world, just like how letters have become emails.


The literature on the numerous ventures into e-learning is abundant, but few address the fundamental question that many training providers face: Why is it so difficult to implement e-learning ?

Their difficulties lie not in access to means to create e-learning courseware; many organisations face the issue where, despite reducing training days and/or with reduced training resources, the feedback from the ground seemed to suggest that learning was not internalized by the learners. Learners would complain it was hard to use their new competencies, and supervisors would assess that there was no observed increase in productivity or quality of work after training.

Many practitioners would blame it on the quality of the learners (i.e. the employees). To me, it was just a way of blaming the victim. Yes, the victim, in most cases, are the learners themselves, especially in situations whereby trainers applied e-learning in the wrong ways.

Wrong Understanding of e-Learning Content

When training schools talk about e-learning, they usually refer to uploading a powerpoint presentation onto the Learning Management System and asking the learners to ‘learn’ (in actual fact, it was just reading through the materials) on their own. Schools with better resources will engage a vendor to add some graphics (moving, or not); I have seen eCoursewares with an avatar of a service staff acting like a TV show host, except that when the scene cuts from the avatar, learners are presented with powerpoint slides (again!).

When experts talk about e-learning , they are talking about interactive, immersive content. The eCourseware will also follow ADDIE (LINK) and also Gagne’s learning theory (LINK), which will present information (which can be in the form of animations), provide learning guidance (eg. in the form of videos or case studies) and then testing of learning by virtue of a simple quiz. There will also be segments to recall prior learning (eg. Animations or trivia games) and to transfer learning (eg. Games or case studies). With the advent of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality, we can even have roleplays embedded in e-learning.

Notice the difference in the 2 descriptions of e-learning? This is what I meant when I said training schools could not roll out e-learning effectively because they misunderstood the concept of e-learning.

Wrong Understanding of e-Learning Implementation

Other than misunderstanding what the content of e-learning should be, training schools tend to implement it in the wrong way. That stemmed from why they wanted to implement e-learning in the first place.

When vendors try to sell their eCourseware development services to training schools, one of the main selling points was the reduction of training days. Therein lies the fallacy — e-learning can reduce training days because they replace classroom learning.

Reduction in Training Hours != Increase in Training Effectiveness

Most implementation plans follow the general rule: Convert some contents into e-learning (in the worst case scenario, the e-learning are just powerpoint slides to be used by the trainers), upload the content onto LMS, remove classroom training time that would otherwise be spent teaching those contents and ask learners to ‘learn at your own time’. It sounds like the perfect plan to reduce the number of training days!

The crux lies in ‘learn at your own time’. When a learner has to ‘learn at your own time’, it meant they had to spend their personal time (for employees sent for training, it meant time after they completed their work… but who completes their work during working hours?!) going through the e-learning. And since there is a sacrifice in personal time involved, it will take a highly-motivated learner to really sit down and go through the eCourseware.

Motivation aside, training hours in the eyes of the learners are not reduced at all. Therefore, such an implementation of e-learning only served to feed the illusion of increased productivity, when no training hours is saved at all. This is like the case of widening part of CTE to “address congestion issues”, when in actual fact, the congestion was just shifted to the next part of the expressway. When looked in totality, there is no reduction of training hours and therefore, there is no increase in productivity.


Make E-Learning Work!

Recommendation 1: Factor e-Learning Hours Into Official Training Duration

Supervisors who want their employees to undergo training at their own personal time might as well ask them to sign up for courses on Coursera. At the very least, MOOC providers like Coursera has a system in place to ensure that their learners do not report having gone through the learning materials, when in actual fact, they had been watching Youtube.

Granted, there are some content that do not require the presence of a trainer; those content can be loaded onto e-learning. However, official time must be factored in for learners to go through the e-learning, so that un-motivated learners (like those being sent for training against their will) do not see themselves on the losing end.

Purpose of e-Learning

To further understand how we can implement e-learning effectively, we have to first understand the purpose of e-learning: to reallocate resources (trainers, classrooms, learning guides etc; the reduction of training hours should be a good-to-have, but should not be seen as the ultimate goal) and to help learners retain their knowledge.

There are only 2 ways e-Learning can reduce training time:

Recommendation 2: Design e-Learning Like How You Will Design Classroom Learning

E-learning is different from conventional classroom learning in the way that learning is conducted electronically. That does not mean we should through ADDIE and Gagne out of the window. As mentioned earlier, the eCourseware should follow the rules of courseware design so that they can guide learners to pick up, retain and transfer learning.

When properly designed, eCourseware can help learners pick up the knowledge faster, or to retain the knowledge for a longer period of time. In this aspect, e-learning will replace the trainer for the content delivered (at least at the most basic level, because I personally believe we should not leave everything to e-Learning. I will elaborate later how we can enhance Recommendation 2), and by inference, replace classroom training time.

Recommendation 3: Gamification As One Way to Design e-Learning

In the classroom, we reinforce learning through structured learning activities, and they may or may not include gaming elements (eg. trainers pose overhead questions and learners answer the questions to earn points for their groups, which in turn earns them a 5-minute extra of tea-break).

Gaming is a form of informal assessment (to check learning), and motivates learners to retain knowledge and transfer learning.

When it comes to the virtual world, it’s easier to implement gaming elements, so why are we running away from it?

Gamification works best when the learning objective is to replace rote learning. Perhaps the learner needs to memorise the concoctions for cocktails, or they must remember the process to complete a purchase. Then a Diner-Dash style of gaming courseware can be rolled out to help the learner recall the recipes faster and without reference to training materials. In fact, such games can even train skills implicitly (no need for powerpoint-style presentation of information!).

Well-designed eCoursewares not relief the trainers for other training assignments, but if done correctly, learners can pick up a skill in a shorter time (reduce classroom time), or finish the training with higher confidence to make use of their newly acquired skills (reduce on-job-training or probation time).

Recommendation 4: Flipped Classroom

The 2nd way to reduce training time is to incorporate e-Learning into flipped classroom teaching (this is an enhancement to Recommendation 2). Learners are given perhaps an hour to pick up knowledge from the eCourseware, and then the trainer comes in to reinforce learning through case studies, discussions or role-playing.

The overall training time may remain the same as before e-Learning was implemented, but because learners go through additional activities to retain their learning and even transfer their learning into practical sessions, the overall productivity is achieved. In this method, supervisors can also be assured that there is a higher chance their employees will return to the workplace to actualize what they have learned. And like mentioned earlier, if we can reduce the duration of on-job-training or probation period, we are also indirectly reducing the length of training.

The list of recommendations to make e-learning work is non-exhaustive, the trick lies in changing the mindsets of sponsors and trainers. Sponsors should expect e-learning to increase productivity rather than reducing learning hours and trainers should recognise e-learning as one of the tools they can make use of to enhance learning.

And the least training schools could do is to treat learners like a by-product of their businesses; they should be serving the learners, instead of serving the sponsors!


Disclaimer: I am a casual social commentator, who speaks because it is logical and rational, so my points are not necessarily based on established research and studies. As much as possible, I will refer to theories and knowledge I picked up through formal education. If you do agree to my ideas, please feel free to contaminate others in your social circle. If you disagree, though, it would be good to provide sources and credits, so that I can learn from my mistakes

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