• August 17, 2019
  • Blog

artwork depicting elearning on a mobile device20 Years of eLearning

I recently had a conversation with someone who, like our team, started creating eLearning back in the late 90’s. He brought up tools and common issues I had forgotten about. Back then, eLearning was more often referred to as CBT, short for Computer-Based Training. Rather than being delivered online, it came via CDs. None of the tools used then made it to today: Authorware, Director, Toolbook, HyperCard, and a few others I no longer remember.

The Internet came along with a whole new set of rules and tools. Adobe Flash quickly became the rage, only to die out quickly when mobile browsing came around. Steve Jobs correctly recognized that it was definitely the wrong technology for the future.

This whole conversation got me thinking philosophically about eLearning as a whole, corporate eLearning, and eLearning as it applies to general education. Over the years, Left Brain Media (LBM) has been involved in such a wide variety of eLearning solutions and topics that it is impossible to summarize.

How is the world doing with eLearning? Is it making progress the way it should?
I often tell people that we are content agnostic. We take the subject at hand and teach it to the intended audience in the most effective way possible. We focus on a specific problem and solve it.

But let’s step back for a bit and think of eLearning as a whole.  How is the world doing with eLearning? Is it making progress the way it should? Is it helping humankind or torturing it?

Tools, Systems, and Technologies

First, let’s think about eLearning tools from a philosophical level. eLearning is a good example of an industry where millions, if not billions, have been spent on technologies that ended up being throw-aways. There are almost as many eLearning tools and systems that have been abandoned as there are bits of plastic in the ocean. Today, I see a lot of tools destined for the same fate because they are not the right technologies for the future. 

It is 2019. Where are our flying cars, and where are our eLearning tools that match today’s technologies and needs? Some get close, only to fail at common barriers like: multi-lingual capabilities, portability, flexibility, accessibility, integration, etc.  Don’t think I am am just being negative. There are some nice tools today. We like and use several off-the-shelf eLearning tools when they meet the requirements of the project. But it is amazing to me how often these tools are not really the best fit. The client wants to add an interactive game, or nine languages, or secure video from a different server, or fully responsive design that matches its corporate branding, or report back to more than one system, or have a leaderboard, etc.  Each one of these requirements knocks a different, popular eLearning tool out of consideration.

Over the years, we have found we need to take the current technologies available and craft a custom solution. When we do this, we create projects that make companies rethink all of their other eLearning efforts. They see success and adaption like they have not seen before. They see true knowledge transfer and change. If it is a commercial project, we see the sales and shelf-life go far past their other products. So given the limitations of today’s tools, how many of them are the future plastic in the ocean?

Informal eLearning

Second, let’s forget about the tools altogether. What if the tools have nothing to do with the future of eLearning? The maturation of the internet has also created the greatest eLearning site in the world, which is not tied to any special content creation tool: YouTube.  If you don’t know how to do something, you can often “YouTube it” and someone will show you how it is done. Have a yellowing piece of plastic on your bathroom hot tub? YouTube can show you a $10 quick fix that will make the plastic as white as new. Don’t know how to solve that geometry homework problem? YouTube has six math teachers who have made amateur videos to show you how it is done.  Want to learn French in one word, YouTube has the answer.

All that being true, the professionalism on YouTube is a mixed bag. You may need to sort through five or six misses before you have the content you need. But the search almost always pays off, as long as you don’t get distracted by the less educational but more entertaining videos thrown at you while you are trying to learn. It’s not a place for the easily distracted… or maybe it’s the perfect place.  After all, “Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig)” does have over 27 million views. If only that monkey was teaching us advanced logic and reasoning.

Despite this, YouTube proves a point. It is not about the tool or technology. It is about the content (at least when you have an audience that is specifically interested in the content you are presenting). For informal training that people seek out on their own, content is what it is all about. If you build it, they will come. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case for corporate learning. Corporate learning is a unique case.

Corporate eLearning

Third, let’s look at the special needs of corporate eLearning philosophically from a high level. When you are making any sort of corporate training, your audience most often cares much less about the content than you are hoping they will. This is true even when that content is vitally important for the company — like cyber security. Throwing together a YouTube-level performance will fall flat if the audience does not have a felt need that you are meeting.

Good eLearning is much more about understanding your audience than it has to do with the technology or the critical importance of your content.
 So if you get nothing else from this article, remember this: Good eLearning is much more about understanding your audience than it has to do with the technology or the critical importance of your content. The less your audience already has a felt need to learn your content, the greater the effort you need to make to create content that is relevant and engaging. If your content is not meeting a direct felt need, then your goal should be to somehow connect it to a felt need. Even making it fun and engaging only goes so far. People have a million ways to have fun today, and at work they are often much more interested in getting stuff done than they are spending time in your incredibly fun eLearning game.

Don’t think I am against trying to make eLearning fun and engaging. Fun eLeaning games can be very effective. We have had thousands of people play our corporate eLearning games, sometimes hundreds of times in a row, to try to beat others on leaderboards.  We have also created videos in our corporate eLearning with the main goal to make the users laugh through clever use of comedy.  But the reason these solutions worked is because we connected the fun to the audience’s felt needs. If you skip this step, you could build the next Angry Birds, World of Warcraft, or Halo, and your corporate learners will skip it if they have the option. They will see it as a waste of time. For some audiences, comedy or gaming don’t mix well at all with learning. So again, knowing your audience is more important than anything else.

Corporate eLearning has an additional vital element of branding. Big companies who spend tons of money on corporate branding often skimp on making sure their eLearning is also supporting their brand. When that disconnect happens, it communicates that the content being discussed is not really that important. After all, if it was important, there would be money spent to keep it on brand. So the most effective corporate training feels like it is on brand and relevant to the audience to which it is talking.

Let me summarize what I have presented so far before moving to the next point. The world has built and thrown away a ton of eLearning-related tools, systems, and technologies. Informal, loosely organized training has exploded on sites like YouTube. There is a high interest for on-demand eLearning when users are interested in the content. And corporate training has run up against challenges of trying to be both relevant and on brand so that it is not just skipped. But what about eLearning in formal education?

eLearning in Formal Education

Fourth, what about eLearning in formal education? eLearning in formal public and private education is in a sad state.  

You may be thinking, “A sad state!?!  How could you call what is going on a disappointment? There are apps, there are websites, free podcasts, and there are online courses at all major universities. There are blah blah blah.”

Let me interrupt those thoughts. Everything that is happening today was happening in 2009 or much earlier in one form or another. Today we should be far beyond all of this.

Virtual classrooms are great, but they are just virtual classrooms. They are only a slight advancement over traditional classrooms. You don’t have to put on clothes and drive to the building, but that is about it. All the other advancements have been around a long time.

The formal education realm is at least a decade behind where it should be as it relates to eLearning.
This lag is possibly because the people making decisions are motivated by the wrong things. Universities are making and spending billions, but they are not revolutionizing the use of eLearning. The Department of Education in the United States is spending billions, but it is not bringing about any revolutions either. Some argue that it is like it is fighting hard to keep things status quo, which just drives up the cost of education for everyone.

If you look at public and private education in the United States, the under-utilization of self-paced eLearning is astounding. Sure, you can get a million YouTube videos on algebra. But where is the free online algebra class that teaches you, tests you, and adapts its instructions to the mistakes it sees you making? There are some adaptive SAT-focused training programs, but nothing on pace with what is possible today. It is not a technology or money problem. An amazing course like this could be built for less than 6 million dollars, and it could change the world when it comes to students learning algebra. In fact, the entire math curriculum through calculus could be covered like this, allowing teachers to spend time working with students that need special help.

This could just be the beginning. These same teachers could be helping create add-on modules for these special cases they encounter.  Alternative math teaching methods could be developed as modules to compete with the original ones, and real data and analysis could be done on how students learn all over the globe. As Artificial Intelligence matures, it could learn in real time from this data and predictively teach based on how that student is interacting with the current material. It would select the teaching modules and approaches that had worked for students with similar issues. Students who need a human teacher’s help could be connected virtually to teachers in real time to best match that particular student’s needs.

Technology could be designed so it would not be threatening or replace teachers’ jobs. It could be elevating their job to best utilize their skills and human interactions where they are needed instead of having them repeat the same demos over and over again, year after year.

This is the road the United States should be on in 2019 — leading and helping the world. So far, as a society, we are not even looking for the access ramp to get on this road.

What Can be Done Today?

Fifth, what can any of us without millions in our back pocket do to change the current state right now? The short answer is to create the best possible eLearning for projects we get to be involved in and to keep talking about new possibilities with anyone interested in listening.

My hope is that I will live to see a future where even the poorest of students can be educated and not left behind, and that technology will help match students with the special gifts and abilities of human teachers, as well. Maybe articles like this one will help spark discussions in the right direction. The world has many other problems it is dealing with besides education. But it is frustrating to watch this one continue when I know it is something that could be helped tremendously by the aggressive use of high quality self-paced eLearning. Once there are some very visible examples, I think it will create an avalanche of effort and money in this direction.

For now, I also hope that Left Brain Media (and like-minded companies) can spark ideas about what is possible with eLearning. Whatever budget we are working with and whatever educational goals, we can strive to make eLearning effective and relative. Doing this takes building a team with a variety of strengths and abilities, and then helping them communicate and respect the abilities of other team members. When you achieve this balance, you get things that are not possible otherwise. We can keep pointing to what eLearning could be by making our efforts the best possible.

Put an End to Mindless Media

If you are looking for a forward-thinking, solution-focused eLearning development team, reach out to Left Brain Media. We welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss your goals and challenges.

At LBM, our slogan has always been, “We’re putting an end to mindless media.” After almost 20 years, it looks like the slogan is just as relevant today as it has ever been.

Authors’ note: I stand corrected Toolbook is still around today.  Although I don’t know of anyone using it.

Written by Tim Bobo

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