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10 Damaging E-learning Myths

First published March 03 2003

Stuart (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)), Senior Learning Designer for a leading bespoke e-learning company.
Maish Nichani (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)), elearningpost.


Make no mistake about it, the e-learning industry is going through troubled times. The current economic climate isn´t conducive to providing top quality e-learning and there are mixed opinions about the success of this type of training.
We can argue about the causes of this phenomenon forever. However, this article presents 10 damaging myths that we feel are contributing to the problems facing our industry. These myths seem to be spreading at an infectious pace. This list isn´t intended as a criticism of any existing e-learning company Ð we have tremendous admiration for anyone who works in this difficult industry. Rather, this list gives us an opportunity to look again at the assumptions and beliefs that have come to define our dealings with customers.

This list could be used to educate clients as they impact the outcome of our work considerably.

1. Volume = value

E-learning tends to be priced in terms of hours of learning content produced. Customers ask, "How much will it cost to produce a one hour e-learning programme?" Suppliers also talk in those terms: "we currently charge £10,000 per hour of e-learning, with reductions for volume". Here lies the danger: value is becoming equated with volume of content rather than the degree to which a solution meets the training need. This is generally leading to conformity within the industry and a reduction in quality.

Currently, it would be difficult for a supplier to make the following argument:
"If we spend more time in the analysis and learning design of the project we can probably think of a way of meeting your training need in half an hour instead of an hour. However, because we need to spend budget on the extra thinking time, we still need to charge you for an hour. You still get a better solution though: your trainees will spend less time away from work and will probably get a more focused learning experience. You are paying for value or service, not volume."

We´re waiting for the day we can make that argument.

2. We are producing content

Many customers still approach suppliers with the question, "How much will it cost to turn this content into e-learning?" They think they are in the content delivery business instead of the 'improving user performance' business. The language that customers use also betrays this bias. They talk about content producers´ and scriptwriters´ rather than learning designers or instructional designers.

We wish clients would come to us and say, "How can we use e-learning to solve this performance issue?" This would set the focus firmly on people and performance rather than content. It doesn´t matter how much quality content I produce if it doesn´t lead to a change in learner knowledge, attitudes or behaviour.

However, this brings up the same problem as discussed previously: if customers want our learning designers to take the time to analyse their problem and devise a quality training intervention, then they either have to pay for this additional time or reduce the amount of subsequent content and production.

3. We must include all of the content

This issue relates to the content-centred design problem. Customers frequently seem to believe that it is their duty to cram as much content as is possible within an e-learning programme. They don´t seem to realise that displaying content offers no guarantee that it will be understood, recalled and used in the workplace.

This just isn't so, and leads to overly long and cumbersome courses (especially, in my experience, when producing system training). We need to help customers understand that all content isn't equal and that learners are very unlikely to learn everything even after multiple visits. We should encourage the Usability approach of looking at the tasks to be learnt, and assessing their importance, frequency, type of use, etc. We can then decide which content to focus on in the training, which to have as reference material and which to exclude.

4. E-learning is a course replacement

Most industry e-learning still takes the form of 'electronic books' that replace courses (or parts of courses in a blended solution). E-learning has come to mean 'training that is similar to classroom training´. We prefer the broader view that is slowly emerging: e-learning should be any technology intervention, which helps people improve their performance. Therefore, Knowledge Management, Performance Support Systems, Intranets, Practice environments and standard electronic courses should all fall into the category.

We always need to ask, "How can we use technology to help people perform their best?"

5. Research proves our way is best

It is becoming more common for e-learning suppliers to justify their methods with reference to research from educational psychology or the brain sciences. This is no bad thing: we are more credible as learning designers if we sensibly apply research from our field. However, there is a real danger that we over simplify the research findings, misapply them or allow them to fool us that there is a best approach.

For example, We have seen companies justify the importance of imagery in e-learning with reference to the Dual Encoding theory. This research shows that learners recall concrete nouns better than abstract nouns, because it is easier for learners to form an image of concrete nouns. The idea is that the concrete nouns can be stored both visually and verbally, increasing the chances of recall. This theory is then used to justify the idea that imagery in e-learning is a powerful learning technique. Some important things to note:

Simply put: the research does not justify the subsequent claim. Now, we like images as much as the next person. They can enliven a programme, illustrate difficult ideas and highlight key content. You don´t need the research to justify the inclusion of imagery.

You also need to think carefully about how you use your images. Imagery may indeed have some effect on recall, but not if used on every screen. The principle of interference makes it likely that learners will find it harder to recall material if each screen looks the same with text and an image. It might be much better to only use imagery where it helps illustrate a concept or emphasises a key idea.

Once again we return to the need to think and take account of the context of the training. We cannot rely on research to give us a best approach.

6. It´ll get easier when the technology/standards/theories improve

We think that there is still a belief that e-learning is failing to fulfil its potential because of the current state of technology, standards or our understanding of the psychology of learning. I think this is pure wishful thinking: that there is a miracle cure around the corner.

We believe that producing good e-learning will always be difficult in the same way that producing a good book or lecture will always be difficult. The difficulty is at the level of the content/training not at the level of the delivery. To teach something will always require you to take the time to understand the learners, the context of the learning, what is to be taught, etc - this work will never go away. We still find that at least a third of a project's budget goes on content management/understanding/training approach (probably closer to half the budget) Ð this will never go away.
This doesn´t mean that improvements in technology, standards and theory won´t help. It just means that there won´t be a Ômagic bullet´ curing all of the ailments of the present industry.

Personally, we hope producing quality training will always be challenging. That´s what makes it worth doing.

7. Meeting objectives = successful training

We are very wary of the Ôtraining by objectives´ methodology, where individual objectives are set, taught in turn and then tested. The method is based on the assumption that if the individual objectives are met the person will be able to perform. We don't believe this is true. The cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner has shown that even top class Physics students can struggle to solve new or unusual problems (or problems that force them to draw on different bits of knowledge), even though they full well know discrete chunks of knowledge (statements, formulas, techniques). Real understanding comes from combining the discrete chunks of knowledge and having the skills to know when it is relevant to apply the different parts of knowledge. Therefore, it is better to set Performance Objectives, which force learners to focus on overall achievements.

We think Ôtraining by objectives´ raises the danger of not being able to see the wood for the trees. Objectives such as, Ôthe learner will be able to state the three key elements of customer service´ are missing one vital thing: context. Why do they need to know these things? When would they apply this knowledge? How does this translate into tangible actions?

8. Suppliers produce e-learning for clients

Lots of companies approach us as if we can magically produce a bespoke training course for them with virtually no involvement from them. They seem to think we can somehow guess their training needs and magically become experts in the content. With today's budgets, it is hard enough to become vaguely familiar with the content let alone expert. We need them to see e-learning projects more as partnerships, which will require work for them in the same way that designing a classroom course would take time and work.

9. E-learning = Easy

Clients tend to think that they are paying for simplicity. But making the complex simple isn't the only issue; it's also making the complex clear. Clients tend to like the dumbed-down version more than the challenging version. And this is sad, because e-learning can be a really powerful tool in making the complex clear.

10. E-learning = One Time Quick Fix

"If you build it, they will come" was the mantra that backfired bigtime during the early e-commerce days. In these early days of e-learning a similar mantra is awaiting a similar fate. "If you build it, the problem will get solved" will however squander millions of dollars before dying out.

This is the problem with strategy. Instead of viewing e-learning as a marriage requiring trust, patience, empathy, and sharing, many training departments see e-learning as a one night stand.


This list grew out of an e-mail discussion between us. We don't believe that it in anyway captures the entire spectrum of myths going around, but we do hope it gives you a platform to think about the beliefs, assumptions and myths upon which we base our work. Some of our current practices are historical or a reflection of the current economic climate and therefore deserve to be questioned if we are to move forward.

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