The Promise and Challenges of E-Learning

The Oxford English Dictionary defines e-learning as “Learning conducted via electronic media, typically on the Internet”

Before the internet, there was learning conducted via use of electronic media (tapes, videos, devices), but the level of interactivity changed dramatically with the Internet. This was because material could be drawn upon to serve the learner as needed. This opened up the true promise of how technology could be used to enhance the learning experience. Self-study has been with us since the beginning of education in the form of books. The Internet based e-learning revolution took this self-study to a whole new level.

To be precise, we should exclude any synchronous human intervention in the definition of e-learning. Blended learning (using e-learning in combination with human intervention) does often happen via the Internet, but is not e-learning. In this precise definition, e-learning is primarily driven by self-study, although asynchronous communication does occur.

So what did this new revolution offer? Vast amount of learning material was available to be served up to the learner to fit their personal situation and learning styles. Learner tracking meant that some parts of the learning process (their assessment, their progress, and their preferences) could be automated and material served up to give learners what they needed, when they needed it. New technologies enabled simulation of real life situations that meant learners could practice as much or as little as they wanted. Learning could be personalized and adapted to each learner’s skill level and learning style. And most importantly, it reduced costs and increased scalability. This enabled the democratization of learning,

The first phase of e-learning’s growth began as the Internet was gathering acceptance. In this phase, bandwidth was low and hence most e-learning material by necessity, rather than by choice had content that was not as rich. Video was almost non-existent. Learners were not as comfortable with eLearning. Interactive design was flat and not as innovative. But yet, e-learning took off. From IT Skills to Driver Education and Design skills to Language skills. Math and Science to Geography. In the corporate world and increasingly in educational institutions. The promise was too great, the benefit within grasp.

The next phase of e-learning is what we are seeing now. There is increased acceptance of technology. (The new generation is born with the Internet and the smartphone). Today’s e-learning uses lots of video, artificial intelligence, innovative technologies and is available in all formats (desk top, smartphone, and tablet).

The promise of e-learning is great and I am a big believer in using technology to increase skills and open education for all. But what have been the results? Let us look at the revenue and then let us look at learner attrition.

According to ASTD, in 2013 the Global Corporate Training market was $306.9 billion. According to the World Bank, total education spending in 2012 was about $4.4 Trillion. According to various estimates, the total Internet based learning market in 2012 was about 91 billion, but this includes distance learning as well as e-learning. According to Docebo, the self-study e-Learning market in 2011 was $35.6 billion and is growing at about 7%. Based on these numbers e-learning is about 8-10% of the total market. It is likely a slightly higher percentage in the corporate segment.

Efficacy is hard to measure, so course completion and learner attrition is often used as a proxy, Estimates of e-learning course completion are about 15-20%. With the recent improvements in engagement (principally through the use of Video), these numbers can be improved somewhat. If learners never even complete the course, it is impossible for them to improve their skills. So is the fault with e-learning design? In recent years, there have been significant improvements in learning interactive design and content. This still has not improved learner drop-out rates significantly. There are several consumer models where people pay $25-30 a month for very good content. But even with this excellent content most users continue their subscriptions for only 3-7 months. One could argue that learners might have derived their value by using short courses that they specifically need. I think that is correct. But what happens when you need learning that is not a short endeavor?

The answer lies in looking at e-learning as just another self-study model. Yes, it is far superior than what was available earlier. More interactive, more personalized, more engaging. But we still need motivated learners. There will always be 10-20% of the population that is super motivated and be diligent in using e-learning. But the vast majority need help. This is especially true in adult language learning.

We need to focus on learner outcomes in addition to content flexibility/scalability. How do we ensure that learners finish their courses and improve their skills? There are technology solutions that can be used. Content providers are experimenting with using chat windows that pop up with human help at the precise moment that a learner is stuck and needs help. This helps in the scaling of the effort, but will still require human intervention. Our goal should be balance, how do we use human intervention judiciously but effectively. We know that using human intervention too much will increase the costs and hence reduce the price/performance ratio of the learning. But there are ways to dramatically improve course completion without increasing the costs too much. Learners and organizations will gladly pay a slightly higher price if we can assure them that we can increase course completion rates dramatically.

Human intervention can be of different kinds. E-tutors or coaches who are not trained teachers, but who act as motivation agents can dramatically improve course completion rates. Intervention at the right time and focused on achievement of completion goals is the answer. In addition, use of trained teachers to provide feedback can also be useful.

My Oxford English, the excellent English language e-learning course from Oxford University Press has been selling in Europe and Latin America for the past several years and they have focused on this problem and report course completion rates higher than 70%. My Oxford English uses an innovative approach by aligning e-tutors (who are called dynamizers) with learner course completion goals and making efforts to ensure that learners complete the course

My company Ardor Learning is a global distribution partner for My Oxford English and proud to use the same methods. Ours is a unique approach that focuses on providing value to learners and organizations by ensuring that learners finish what they start.