Kris Rockwell the owner of Hybrid Learning and I decided to jointly blog on there topic of eLearning. Through discussion we both felt strongly that the industry that we care about and work hard to advance continues a decline into obscurity. We wanted to voice our joint dissatisfaction and point to a potentially brighter future. Kris has posted this blog on his site here.
We are the bearers of bad news. After much discussion and consideration we have come to the conclusion that eLearning has failed and that mLearning is moving towards a similar fate. Once a field of interesting new learning concepts and technology poised to replace the misuse of video in the classroom with the promise of providing a more engaging way for students to access content has become a wasteland of glorified PowerPoint presentations, TV game shows and pseudo-science.
Years ago when I began my journey into the eLearning world I was challenged to work on a project that was, even by today’s standards, amazing. The task was to build ground school training for the Boeing 737-300/400 series aircraft that included complete system simulations imported from another application. We successfully completed this challenge by reverse engineering a 737 simulation. It was remarkable and it worked.
We built the entire suite of courseware in Authorware. The simulation was built in a piece of software called Rapid. The system was great because we could actually carve out bits of the simulation and embed them into the Authorware content. We could capture great bits of data using the Pathware LMS and the AICC CMI standard. This was the future of eLearning and we were really proud of it.
Video is just as engaging, if not more so, than 90% of all modern eLearning. Discuss.
Flash forward to today. What happened? How did the eLearning world end up as irrelevant as it has? What was once a promising medium seems to have floundered into pit of mediocrity.
I think there are two things that relate to each other that explain what has happened here. First, there are the tools used to develop eLearning. Unfortunately, consumer demand required that they be degenerated from robust tool sets like Authorware, which required some measure of design skill and coding talent, to simple tools that can be used by anyone. This leads to the second issue: Talent. Years ago an eLearning developer was a specialized position that required coding skills and an understanding of software development processes. Today the simplicity of tools allow anyone to build content. There is a clear tradeoff here – there are a more developers with a less skill creating a more content with less depth.
eLearning is on the same slippery slope. What used to require specialized skills can now be accomplished by anyone that understands Powerpoint. The result is that a mediocre developer pool has grown complacent through the increased access to simplistic tools that for all intensive purposes remove the design work from the hands of the designers completely. The knowledge of how to effectively effectuate and support learning has diminished with the lack of evolution in instructional design skills (I am additionally not convinced that ISD skills have kept up with the changing concepts of eLearning, but that is another story). Add into that flailing equation the newer concepts such as gamification and mobile learning (the concept that all of your existing training content can be put on a mobile phone is one of the most asinine ideas I have heard in the past 18 years) and the setup for the long descent into the Gartner Hype Cycle “Trough of Disillusionment” is in place.
What the industry now focuses on is form over function. The question, more often than not, has become “how do we get our content on [insert shiny new device name here]?” rather than “should we put our content on [insert shiny new device thing here]?” Rather than looking at content and ask “How can we make this better for the end user?”, we look at content and say “You know, you can add badges and other game elements to ANYTHING and make it more engaging.” These pervasive viewpoints are only further pushing the industry into a hole at a cost to our end users.
Poking around twitter the other day I came across a posting from a company I’m familiar with advertising their new mobile solutions. They provided a description of how they can help you the consumer with your mobile learning strategy and development requirements. When I saw this, a pit grew in my stomach knowing full well this company didn’t have access to the type of expertise required to walk a consumer who didn’t have a mobile strategy through the necessary considerations to design one.
I do recognize how crippling consumer ignorance can be if enforced onto a knowledgeable vendor wanting to help a consumer but the truth is, a lot of the blame falls on the vendors who are guilty of wanting to make a buck ahead of what’s best. I am a vendor and I get it. I have a family to feed too. But let’s face it, the company that I’m referring to only needs to cling to the false innuendos, the conference chatter, the pseudo science of learning that is readily available on any linkedin discussion forum, pull the right words out and you the consumer who buys into ‘easy’ before you buy into understanding will inevitably think this vendor knows their stuff. The vendor who I speak of has many great competencies and can help companies with what they do best. The promotion of their mobile solution however is an attempt to make the consumer believe something that isn’t true, and make a buck off of the ignorance of the consumer.
A couple years ago I wrote about eLearning the religion. Vendors are the guardians of status quo and the purveyors of myth. The consumer is the devotee who is willing to make a leap of faith for whatever reason and abandon the search for truth having found it. There are those in the business of religion who are authentic believers and feel a calling. I don’t question those people. I question those who regularly snow the public through an act and are all too happy to make a buck doing so.
eLearning as we see it is a colossal failure and mLearning is not that far behind. It is a failure not because the surface is ugly but because the potential to create meaningful learning opportunities has been turned into a one sided love affair with moving the classroom into a digital format. Technology could be used with far greater impact such as scaling apprenticeships; one of the most effective ways of moving someone from a novice to an expert. Other potential uses of technology include augmenting real world experience and contextually sensitive tutoring. The potential to support learning through technology is over the top and we have dumbed that down to be ‘easy’. It has been dumbed down in the design and the development phases. We have to stop trying to create learning and instead focus on providing better opportunities for learning to happen. The truth is, there is no one savior there is just the uphill battle of getting eLearning consumers educated about other strategies to deploy technology to assist the learning process, raising the levels of talent working in the field and the calling out of bullshit when we see it. If we could take away the need for vendors (and I am a vendor so speak with experience) to appeal to the lowest common denominator to make money, where would be (This is not a unique state belonging solely to the eLearning industry)?
So what do we do?
Looking at the current landscape there is a need to address the standards of content that the industry produces. Somewhere in the rush to make everything electronic we lost our way and forgot that there is more to producing eLearning than rapid development tools and quick output. Design, look and feel and interaction all need to be addressed in order to make effective learning content and that requires specialized knowledge and contextually relevant design. It’s time to take a look at the industry and, perhaps, ask what can be done to create designers and developers that understand this (again) and know how to implement it. It’s time to reset development expectations and what it means to build truly effective eLearning.
There is tremendous opportunity to rethink and recast how we approach online learning. First and foremost let’s understand that ‘learning’ isn’t something we create but something we can nurture and support. Lets also understand that people have been learning well before there were things called learning objectives and assessments and even PowerPoint. The biggest opportunity we have with technology is to collapse online worlds with the real world and find ways of helping people learn in the real world using the online world. That’s very different than taking someone out of the real world to learn in the online world. No greater opportunity has existed to do this before and the opportunity will only grow from here. But if we want to take advantage of the opportunity we need to unlearn what we know about online learning and rethink it, reflect on it and move forward. There is a brighter future, but let’s stop pretending it’s easy.