E-learning: the next killer app

You could hardly accuse Cisco chief executive John Chambers of trying to play down the e-learning phenomenon. But to his credit, at least he’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Cisco is a huge advocate of online learning and already has a number of initiatives under its belt, including an online scheme to educate its sales force and technical consultants on the ever-expanding offerings in its product portfolio. That implementation alone has boosted the ratio of online sales and technical training to 80%, and slashed internal per-employee training costs by between 40% and 60%.

In the midst of the online chaos, e-learning continues to be trumpeted as a killer online application which can save money for companies, motivate and stimulate workers, and propel everyone into a utopian world of self-knowledge and better pay. It hit the headlines again a couple of weeks ago when Boxmind, a company set up by two Oxford University graduates, outlined plans to put lectures by famous academics on its web site. The electure is being heralded, like many things before it, as the beginning of the online learning revolution.

Corporate spending to grow
Corporate spending on e-learning is projected to grow by an average 25% this year, according to preliminary figures from a survey of 539 users across Europe carried out by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training and UK business consultancy Alphametrics.

Perhaps not surprisingly, IT professionals are among those most keen on the idea. There’s a flipside to elearning, with particular implications for individuals. So-called 24/7 access to training may offer the benefit of flexibility but it also puts the onus on staff to keep up with the latest developments in their own time. Being forced to sacrifice home and social life for the sake of their jobs could be a bitter pill to swallow for staff.

Nonetheless, online learning offers distinct advantages. It has the potential to grant empowerment, allowing those using it to manage and implement their own learning and development plans, and take responsibility for their own education. Research conducted by Cisco revealed that those who follow the e-learning route for certification have a higher rate of success on their first-try exam than those who go on instructor-led courses. But can you be sure your employer is as interested in delivering training as in delivering savings’ The Attitudes to E-learning survey, conducted by charity Campaign for Learning, in association with KPMG, found that 40% of employers did not know what percentage of their training budget was spent on online modules. Cisco also said the objective of its e-learning programmes is not to save money.

Getting through the hype
The hype surrounding e-learning threatens not only to undermine what it can achieve however, but also do little to help users find their way through the e-learning maze, warns Steve Molyneux. As Microsoft chairman of advanced learning technologies at Wolverhampton University, director of learning lab and newly appointed head of the DfEE’s National Research Centre for ICT education, training and employment, he’s well placed to comment.

‘Too many organisations are forming bodies to run too many conferences and exhibitions with e-learning logos plastered all over the stands,’ he says. ‘It’s no wonder users get confused. There’s a lack of awareness of standards because they are just emerging,’ he said.

Ther responsibility of employeers
Molyneux believes it is the responsibility of employers to make sure their staff get the right training in the right format. He’s also concerned that not enough effort is going into training the trainers in these new methods. Even though firms such as Microsoft and Cisco are moving a lot of training online, there will always be a need for face-to-face teaching, particularly for ‘foundation’ learning.

‘Look at Azlan. It’s the largest Microsoft Certified Technical Education Centre in the UK – you can’t get into the car park,’ Molyneux said.

Although Donald Taylor, managing director of IT training specialist SkillsCo agrees there is too much hype, he doesn’t see it as a threat.

‘Most customers are canny. They look at what is being claimed and are perfectly able to cut out the hype. They also know there are no panaceas. It’s going to cost either time or money, or both,’ he said.

The bottom line is can you learn more through elearning, can you teach yourself and can you learn as effectively online as you can in a classroom? Until we get some straight answers to these questions, the real push for e-learning is that bosses like it because it looks cheap, Taylor said.

IT staff who want to train online could still face an uphill task because even though employers are spending more on elearning, they still don’t understand the benefits of the method.

Lack of commitment from senior staff
A survey of training professionals and HR staff conducted by Training magazine found that 43% of respondents believed lack of commitment from senior staff was a major barrier to more widespread elearning. One third cited cost and a poor self-development culture within the organisation, while 28% said e-learning wasn’t part of the company’s business strategy. The danger, Molyneux believes, is that beyond cost, there are significant implications to following the e-learning model.

‘Businesses don’t understand the impact it will have on them,’ he said. Part of the problem is the fact that most internal education initiatives are run by the IT department. ‘It’s like looking at a classroom, seeing a lot of desks in there and, on the strength of that, deciding that the desk supplier should decide the investment strategy for training.’ Companies with in-house training departments should let them take the lead on any decisions on education, Molyneux advises. ‘They will look at what has to be delivered, not worry about bandwidth issues.’


  • 43% of users’ IT training needs are today met using e-learning
  • Even though employers are spending more on elearning, they still don’t understand its benefits.

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