Getting the Most from Your e-Learning Investment

The future of e-learning has been hotly contested. It is one of the many children of the Internet age whose reality has not lived up to its initial promise. In many ways, e-learning has evolved in much the same way as e-commerce. As e-commerce put all the tools in the hands of the consumer (allowing them to purchase goods and services from the comfort of their homes), so has e-learning removed the physical location where training takes place and given control to the learner directly.

But as with e-commerce, many have underestimated and oversimplified just how much the user experience plays into how people want to learn. At first, the expectation was "if you build it, they will come". But, we soon discovered it was more like, "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink."

Even with that said, e-learning can still be a tremendously powerful tool to reach large numbers of people at a reasonable cost. Many lessons have been learned since the initial e-learning offerings. The underlying technology continues to improve to support its deployment. Many believe that we're just about to turn the corner, as organizations begin to observe their contemporaries successfully implementing e-learning programs and become more comfortable making the leap themselves.

So, if you are considering an e-learning deployment, or have made the decision to introduce e-learning to your organization, how do you get the most from your investment?

Here are five things to remember as you plan your e-learning initiative:

1. Understand That Even e-Learners Need Direction

Traditional training is like going to the doctor when you're sick. You make an appointment, show up, get examined and diagnosed, then take home a prescription. And, if you follow their advice, there's a good chance you'll get better. Most people relate to training in the same way that they relate to seeing a doctor. Someone outside themselves has the answer to their problem.

Asking someone to manage him or herself through an e-learning effort is much like asking them to diagnose their own illness after years of visiting a physician. They still need human contact and structure to help them be successful.

2. Bridge the Gap Between Old and New

Find ways to bridge the gap between traditional training and e-learning. I am a firm believer in providing users with familiar things to help them in the learning process. Develop approaches that will help students connect their learning style in the old model to that of the new one. Try these ideas:

Schedule time for people to observe a demonstration of the new learning tools. People are accustomed to being told a date and time for training.
Invite them to informal labs to ask questions about the process, as well as the content.

Don't forget that it's just as important for someone to successfully understand how to use the e-learning system itself as it is for him or her to learn the subject matter that is being presented. Create a lesson that focuses exclusively on the navigation elements of the e- learning tool. After a period of time, your learners won't need this bridge. But in the transition to e-learning, it will increase the speed with which they adopt the new learning methods.

3. Involve the Business Managers in the Process

Start off by making sure the business managers are involved in what their people will be learning. Have them go through the learning process themselves. By understanding the process and the materials, they gain a better sense of how the information should be presented and a greater ability to support their people. This provides managers with first- hand knowledge of the challenges their people will face with the learning system and the content they are being charged to absorb.

4. Use e-Learning as a Piloting Opportunity and Feedback Tool

Too often, training is not started until very late in the implementation process. Typically, it is rolled-out at the last possible minute when someone says the system is finished and it's ready for training. As we discussed in last month's issue of this newsletter, starting the training process early on can be of tremendous benefit. This is especially true with e- learning.

Think of early e-learning efforts as simulation training, where you can initiate the education of end-users while the system is still in design mode. It should be made clear to the users that these initial "simulations" are in a fluid state - that things will still change. But with a well-balanced approach, you can initiate training 85% into the design process; and by 95% completion, you have established prerequisite knowledge for many of the more complex tasks.

There may be some who say that involving end-users at this phase is not appropriate or constructive. I disagree. A huge benefit can be gained from soliciting their feedback to the project team, allowing corrections for missing or faulty information and increasing their sense of involvement and ownership in the overall process.

So, plan your first e-learning rollout early on in the process and think of it as your "pilot program" - which by definition is intended to extract feedback from your core group of users.

5. Tie Learning Outcomes to The Business Need

In any training effort, the focus of the content and delivery should be on the top three things that people need to do differently than they did before. These top three should have direct impact on the business strategy - not learning for learning sake. e-learning is no different. Make it relevant and as simple as possible. Make the exercises meaningful to their work and employ real scenarios, allowing people to better tie the pieces together.

When done correctly, and with a focus on learning outcomes, e-learning can provide opportunities for true just-in-time training as well as demonstrate huge cost savings.