E-learning has failed. Time to get rid of it (or at least do it right).

Originally posted July 21, 2014 on my blog Education Outrage

It’s about time. Someone has finally noticed that the training industry is failing at its job:

Learning and development failing to deliver for two-thirds of UK organisations, study finds

There is nothing new here of course. In 1989 when I started the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS), our mission was primarily to fix the mess that training had become. Our first sponsor was Andersen Consulting (now Accenture). Their problem was simple enough. Their training was delivered primarily through what they called FGBs. (You figure out what the F stood for, the GB part was Green Books.) These training manuals told you everything you needed to know in order to work at Andersen. Readings were followed by multiple choice tests and other exercises. Other companies soon asked ILS for help and we saw the same problems every time:

At ILS we able to build simulations, using Goal Based Scenarios, that allowed trainees to practice the skills they were trying to learn, within a fictional scenario that was engaging.

We were doing fine, more and more companies were signing up, and then something terrible happened: The WEB.

The web made it possible for training departments to spend much less money and yet appear as if they were doing something new and modern. Eventually training on the Web got to be called e-learning, but what was meant by e-learning was the FGBs plus cute pictures and animations.

Now let’s look at what the UK’s Training Magazine has found:

  1. Only 33 per cent of those involved in designing and delivering L&D said it had a lasting impact on their people or organisation.
  2. Nearly half (49 per cent) said their L&D function could do more to improve its effectiveness.
  3. Despite the growing popularity of e-learning, practitioners have reservations around its effectiveness in delivering lasting improvement in knowledge and skills.
  4. Less than one in ten rated webinars, audio learning or online virtual learning as effective and only 12 per cent said mobile learning packages for smartphones or tablets were effective.
  5. Action learning was rated as the most effective L&D practice whether this was through on- the-job training (69 per cent), coaching-based learning (57 per cent), business simulations (43 per cent) or computer-based games (38 per cent).

So e-learning doesn’t work? Shocker. I think I said that here:

Schank: "El 'e-learning' actual es la misma basura, pero en diferente sitio"

What I said was: "e-learning is the same garbage just in a new medium."

E-learning is dead and good riddance. MOOCs aren’t dead yet, but they soon will be. They both have the same fatal flaw: an attempt to do exactly what was done before, but in a new medium: the computer.

What has been done before in education at all levels has been a lot of telling, followed by quizzes, to see if a student/trainee can temporarily memorize what they just read or heard.

The real question in learning is how to actually attain new abilities. For this there is only one answer: PRACTICE.

The computer should be used to make practice realistic and engaging, with the possibility of failing and being helped to see things in a new way after failing. The practice should be fun, interesting, exciting, challenging --- not boring and perfunctory. Or to re-consider my four points above:

  1. The training should be exciting and challenging.
  2. The training should be a natural part of one’s job.
  3. New skills must be learned and practiced.
  4. The learning methodology must be doing.

Enough with e-learning. It was always simply an attempt to go back to doing training the way it had been done in the FGBs. Just like MOOCs are more boring lectures masquerading as something new and hi-tech.

There are new things to do in education and training. We could do them. Or if we want to go back to old methods, go back even further to apprenticeships. Those actually worked.

©2017 Roger Schank