Marc My Words: Why I Hate eLearning

In the past, I’ve written about how I’ve hated instructional objectives, ADDIE and LMSs. Now, since this is my 99th and next-to-last regular column, it’s now or never to tackle the Big Kahuna: I hate eLearning.

Wait, you say, didn’t you write two best-selling books on eLearning? Haven’t you been advocating for eLearning for decades? You can’t really hate eLearning now, can you?

Well, sort of.

I think eLearning has been the most significant and consequential disruption in the learning and development business in the last half-century. And until the proliferation of the internet, I wasn’t sure if it would ever make it. Disc-based (micro- to pizza-sized), client-server, and a host of other short-lived technologies only served to make eLearning more hassle than helpful, so I was dubious. The web changed that; eLearning is here to stay. That’s good.

Thou shalt not speak ill of the wonderfulness of eLearning

Like the other tools I kind of hated, eLearning is in danger of becoming so sacrosanct, so entrenched in our orthodoxy, that speaking critically about it amounts to heresy of sorts. We all know the power and potential of eLearning to improve learning efficiency and effectiveness, but we must also shine a light on eLearning’s flaws, not only in processes and technologies, but also in our own assumptions of what it is, and what it can and cannot do. It’s essential for our professional health.

The hype

Maybe I have a love-hate relationship with eLearning. I’m awed by its potential, but my main beef with it is the hype. If we’re not careful—and we often aren’t—it can consume us, and we may never realize, until it’s too late, that all the hysteria has affected our decisions and results, most likely to our dismay. Here are ten eLearning hypes that sometimes make me wish we could blow it all up and start over. We can’t, of course, but if we are more mindful of the unrealistic expectations we place on eLearning, and deal with them, perhaps we can love it just a little more.

  1. It’s fast and easy! The allure of “rapid” eLearning can lead some to equate rapid with good (I recently saw an ad claiming you can create a course in “just minutes”). Just because you can do it fast doesn’t mean it’s going to work, or that you should have done it in the first place. Sometimes, when we make things too simple, quality suffers because we often fail to look more deeply at what we are doing. To avoid hating eLearning, treat it as a professional activity, complete with professional challenges, and make sure you fully understand what you are getting into. What’s true in life is also true for eLearning: you can’t get something for nothing (or almost nothing), especially if you want it to be any good.
  2. Anyone can build eLearning! With the rise of rapid eLearning comes the assumption that anyone can do it. But not everyone is cut out for this. Handing off eLearning design and development responsibilities to SMEs, instructors, techies, managers, or anyone who has a “few days to spare,” can lead to eLearning that looks just like the classroom experiences those people have been used to, only it’s often worse and ultimately leads people to hate the experience. Good authoring tools, templates, and style guides can help, but training and experience in instructional design can help even more.
  3. We don’t need no instructional design! Great eLearning starts with great instructional design, and not taking the time to focus on this, because it takes too long, costs too much, or has been disparaged as not really a discipline (none of which are true), can get you into trouble. eLearning is complex and not always well served by ignoring the basic principles of what makes it all work. Instructional design matters, and great authoring, publishing, or project management, while important, are no substitutes for it.
  4. Social learning is the answer! Social media can be a mess if you’re not careful. Want people to hate eLearning? Try including social media tools that have no purpose. Putting them out there does not guarantee that they will be used in a beneficial way. Embedding the tools in the workplace, giving them a meaningful role, and then incorporating those same tools into eLearning programs will help learners link the workplace and the learning environment together.
  5. Great tech cures all ills! Too often we see technology as a strategy, not as an enabler. This can lead us to assume that we can fix broken eLearning with better, sexier, and shinier tech. This only exacerbates the problem and can lead people to hate eLearning, even while being dazzled by the technology. Furthermore, these investments can be expensive, and if the costs leave nothing left for careful design, your program is no better than it was before. More efficient, perhaps, but no better.
  6. The classroom is dead! eLearning changes the classroom, it doesn’t eliminate it. Those organizations that rushed into eLearning too fast and shut down all their classrooms, and eliminated their entire instructor corps, have lived to regret it (or, perhaps, not survived their decision). Nothing kills the love for eLearning more than using it in ways it was never intended. Precious and expensive classroom training will still be needed, but it will look far different. Much less presentation and fact-focused, and much more problem solving, experiential, and team-focused activities.
  7. eLearning is a miracle cure! If you listen too much to the hype, you might think eLearning cures the common cold! Is eLearning an answer for every learning challenge? Of course not. But you’d never know that in some organizations—or from some vendors for that matter—where it is promoted beyond its capabilities, leading to impossible expectations around performance, cost, and learner satisfaction. If you’ve experienced this, chances are you’re probably having a harder time selling your next project. Start small, pick your projects carefully, set realistic expectations, deliver on them, and then share your success stories. Learn from the experience and be ready to scale. Moving people from loathing eLearning, to accepting it, and ultimately to loving it, takes time.
  8. Learners will figure it out! We have, for a long time, assumed that people know how to learn, in general, and are quite capable at it. But we now know this isn’t always the case and that learners need to learn how to learn. This challenge is worse with eLearning as there is no one around to respond to questions or observe problems. Furthermore, managing learning time and focus is entirely on the learner. Good instructional design helps, but don’t dismiss basic learning skills. If eLearners are frustrated, their perceptions of eLearning will be profoundly impacted, and not in a good way.
  9. It’s sooooo exciting! Think people will love eLearning because of its novelty or uniqueness? Think that your learners will fawn over eLearning because it’s fun or “techy?” Think again. Sure, you might win over some folks with the “newness” of eLearning (as well as gaming, badging, and new technologies like VR and AR), but these approaches alone will not sustain the enthusiasm. Over time, programs that are boring, of little value, or a downright waste of time will turn that initial excitement to a complete turn off, making your next effort much more difficult (and users will tell their colleagues to stay away as well). And simply mandating programs will not help to spread the love. Remember, “activity” is not learning and “implementation” is not acceptance.
  10. Nothing will go wrong! The Peter Principle is alive and well in eLearning, so prepare for it. Good planning and excellent project management may be more of a key to successful implementation than just about anything else. You are not working in a perfect world. While we’re not planning for Category 5 hurricanes, disaster planning mitigates risks, including user dissatisfaction, even in eLearning.

Use this list, and other items you might want to add, to see whether you are susceptible to any of these eLearning hypes. Perhaps you’ve gotten past many of them but new ones have taken their place. Take them seriously; overcome them and, like me, your view of eLearning can easily shift from I hate eLearning to meh, and ultimately to love.

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