In 2012, a venture-backed, education-focused technology company called Coursera went live, founded by two Stanford computer science professors. Since launch, its online courses and degrees – offered in partnership with universities – have lured 26 million learners globally. In 2016 it launched a paid-for version of its online learning platform for corporate customers.
That same year, non-profit edX was launched by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. By the end of 2017 it had racked up 14 million learners, with 65 per cent over the age of 25.
In 2015 LinkedIn spent $1.5 billion acquiring Lynda.com, an online learning company teaching business, technology and creative skills to help people achieve their professional goals. Now part of the platform’s premium service, it offers courses in the likes of body language for leaders, acing an interview and advanced bookkeeping. It offers e-learning solutions for enterprises.
E-learning has muscled its way into the corporate world as an alternative to traditional learning models of teacher and classroom, conferences, seminars and lectures.
Content is deliberately palatable and bite-sized and thus easily digested, and often followed up by quizzes or related activities to complete.
The personal development benefits are obvious. It makes sense that some of the content we’re ferociously consuming is contributing to our professional success.
And, unlike offsite training courses, online learning offers people the chance to learn at a time and in a location that suits them, and revisit past lessons. For that reason, content must be mobile friendly.
For businesses with multiple offices and fragmented teams, it ensures consistency in what is being taught, and is far cheaper to deliver than physical on or offsite alternatives, even with the video production costs factored in.
Crucially, no one misses out if absent or working remotely – meaning it can support your virtual workforce, and flexible workers.
Businesses can also offer optional e-learning experiences, giving employees the chance to upskill in areas of interest – be it coding or copywriting – perhaps outside of their usual roles. This shows a business is committed to the learning and development of its staff.
There are drawbacks. Any good teacher will tell you that lecturing offers a lacklustre learning experience, because audience participation is key. If teachers don’t elicit responses from their students, they cannot tailor their lessons to the audience’s level on the fly, and they risk boring people.
To combat this, most e-learning platforms now gamifying the learning process to a degree, with interactive activities, quizzes that test the information has been absorbed and understood, and by injecting an element of competition between learners.
Secondly, if it’s not introduced with care, e-learning can appear as though employers are box ticking, rather than fully invested in training. It’s less effort to get people to learn by themselves rather than to be taught.
Blending different styles of training within your career development efforts will show you’re committed, as will making it clear that you don’t expect employees to be training in their own time.
Finally, employees need to interact with each other to strengthen bonds and be fully engaged. For that reason, online learning shouldn’t replace physical training which offers interaction with peers and experts and the opportunity to learn more by asking questions and practising what has been learnt.
These sessions are usually far more motivational given the trainer will use audience participation, blend practical with theory, set group work and change content on the fly to suit the level of the students.
Both physical and virtual training have such different benefits, it’d be unwise to rely on one or the other. Integrate a blend of teaching and learning styles into your training strategy.
The only limitation to online learning, really, is the management’s view of what is possible. The potential for creating new and convenient learning experiences is there, and so an understanding of the best learning environments and tools is key.
Tips for integrating e-learning
- Customise content. Built-in permission and notification systems ensure that e-learning courses are presented to only the appropriate users. Similarly, training courses can be assigned validity time-periods if the content is likely to become out of date quickly.
- Use real experts. Call on experts to create and review online training courses before they are made available, as well as to deliver the course content.
- Enable interaction. Support real-time collaboration by letting learners post questions and comments and add ‘likes’. Look at whether your chosen platform allows additional corporate social networking features so learners can interact with one another as well as with the course.
- Keep track. Progress can and should be tracked so HR and management can see who’s learning what. This is especially important when e-learning programmes educate on compliance, procedure or policy changes.
- Celebrate achievements. Completing a course can earn the student a company-accredited certification, an achievement which is shared on the company intranet.
Nigel Davies is the founder of digital workplace software Claromentis.