Online learning – the future of professional development?

As e-learning continues to evolve we might ask how will online training develop in future, how relevant e-learning will become to  professional development,  and how the e-learning industry itself will develop?

Professional Development

e-Learning is an already established way of using technology to facilitate the learning and development process.  It is particularly suited for professional development.   But far from being a stable, mature field, e-learning is in fact still evolving rapidly. As new technologies become ubiquitous, people are becoming accustomed to learning new skills in a range of situations; both at work and outside of work. Professionals are increasingly using e-learning for their own development.  New content providers are emerging all the time and a whole new industry is forming around online training courses.
Mobile devices have recently made it possible to easily deliver rich media to almost any device that has a connection to the internet. This enables learning and development to take place even while commuting, while exercising, at your desk and in the office.  In fact, in the crowded busy life of a professional, arguably the only time for development is while commuting or exercising.

In many respects the technology is now far ahead of the maturity and acceptance of e-learning itself.  Organisations focussed on e-learning sometimes feel that they are running around with a hammer, looking for a nail to hit.

The Global Industry Analysis Inc. predicts that the e-learning industry will be worth $168bn by 2018. With such investment levels the industry is set for some significant changes.  We can predict the emergence of thousands of new companies offering online training, followed by the inevitable subsequent consolidation as barriers to entry (such as the cost of content production) rise and crowd out the smaller players.

Technology evolution

Gartner describes a hype cycle as a predictable process whereby new technology innovations eventually become widely accepted and mainstream. Gartner’s hype cycle includes a technology trigger or innovation which rises to a “peak of inflated expectations”; and then which drops to a “trough of disillusionment” before eventually rising less sharply to a “plateau of productivity”.



Gartner Hype Cycle Research Methodology

We can take most e-learning technology innovations and confidently assume that these will follow a similar hype cycle.

Online courses, virtual classrooms, rich media training, computer based training, online assessments, learning management systems, massive online open courses (MOOC’s), the flipped classroom and blended learning can all be regarded as examples of technology enabled innovations that will inevitably follow the hype cycle.

Some of these technologies are at the peak of inflated expectations (e.g. MOOC’s?), others are already at the plateau of productivity (e.g. LMS) and others are stuck in the trough of disillusionment.

e-leaning is at its core a mode of communication whereby the learner is particularly motivated to gaining new skills, knowledge and experience under the guidance of a mentor, coach or teacher. As we know, all meaningful communication is a very personal experience, with feedback and interaction as essential elements.

Computer based learning is however a poor approximation of real-person training in many respects, because it can lack the elements that make meaningful two way communication so effective.

Advantages of computer based training

Computer based training on the other hand has many compelling advantages. For example:

  1. Asynchronous training – where students can learn in their own time and therefore fit learning into their personal schedules
  2. Access to the best instructors – in specialised subjects e-learning allows you to be taught by the best experts in the world and still relatively inexpensively
  3. Extended community – e-Learning can give you access to a community of like minded individuals around the world who become an important part of your professional network
  4. Scalable – e-learning can scale to multiple locations and multiple sessions at very low cost, making it ideal for reaching a large audience in several countries
  5. Repeatable and high quality – e-learning can ensure that training is of a high quality at every interaction, thereby ensuring consistency and repeatability
  6. Flexible – e-learning courses can be broken down and combined into personalised situationally relevant scenarios

Blended learning

Several techniques are now prevalent that combine the advantages of computer based training with in-person communication.  In essence, this combining of traditional training with technology enabled training is the basis of “blended learning”.

Blended learning is a combination of activities that include both computer based and in-person/social activities to achieve a superior learning outcome. Blended learning is increasingly being accepted as the right approach to training and development that uses the best technology enablers combined with personal coaching and instruction.

Technology can still be an enabler in the personal coaching aspect of blended learning.

For example, one on one coaching can be effectively run using tools such as Skype. Group coaching sessions and mastermind groups can be run in Google hangouts, Skype conference calls or more advanced virtual conferencing tools such as Zoom.

Simple e-mail is also a very effective medium for driving weekly activities and receiving assignments and feedback from students.

Online forums can be a very effective and natural social way for students to participate asynchronously with their peers in collaboration activities.

The future of e-Learning

In the future how will we see the continued evolution of e-Learning?

I have given this some thought, and while my predictions may be wrong in several details I do believe that e-learning will continue to evolve along a broad trajectory as follows:

  1. Blended learning will continue to be the most effective optimised learning mode and the best courses will be instructor led using technology as a tool.  Educational institutions will adopt this approach to “flip the classroom” and gain access to expert trainers and coaches.
  2. The fidelity of audio and video will continue to improve as the tools improve, leading to very realistic virtual classroom settings with good quality video and audio support. The days of “telephone sound” and grainy video and blurred screen captures are thankfully almost over.
  3. Online courses will become more specialised, purpose driven and niche.
  4. Certifications will become more important for technical training, but many traditional certification providers will lose their dominant positions in favour of new brands.
  5. There will be a lot of poor quality training on the web which will give e-learning a bad reputation. Even on the major learning marketplaces, variable quality of courses will eventually damage the brand. In this environment the specialised and quality training and development brands will start to dominate.
  6. Continued professional development or life-long learning will become more prevalent with short format courses dominating.
  7. More advanced training technologies that include context aware and data driven presentation and delivery will become more prevalent.
  8. Gamification of the learning process will improve student engagement and loyalty to the course creators.
  9. Open MOOCs will remain confined to broad academic and reference materials much in the same way Wikipedia has become a reference for written content.
  10. Significant investments by companies (e.g. manufacturers) in online training for specialised applications – for example motor vehicle assembly and servicing will result in very high quality global scale courses that set the standard for technology based training.  Another example is the IT Industry with Microsoft recently announcing its new Virtual Academy for technical skills training.
  11. The barriers to entry will rise as professional content production sets new expectations in course presentation and delivery

In conclusion

There is no doubt in my mind that e-learning provides an exciting opportunity for developing skills.

This is even more important for professionals in a technology driven world where new information is being created so rapidly and rapid change is the new normal.

Despite e-learning’s relative infancy, variable quality and less than stellar current reputation; the future indicators all point to a maturing of e-learning to the point that it becomes the foundation for all development programs.