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Is e-learning effective?

Is there a significant difference between e-learning and other delivery modes?

This is draft text from the book about e-learning that Brooke Broadbent is writing for the American Society for Training and Development. Numerous footnotes are included in the book that are not included here.

For years, academics have researched questions about the comparative merit of instructional methods.  Most of these studies occurred among students of education institutions and they are particularly relevant to the academic milieu.  One of the high-profile leaders in this research is Thomas Russell, Director of instructional telecommunications at North Carolina State University. He has poured over the academic papers published on the entire gamut of training methods—355 sources from 1928 to 1996. Russell concludes that comparative studies lead to the conclusion that no one training method is more effective than another. His research is published as the book The No Significant Difference Phenomenon. Selected entries from the 355 research studies cited in the book are placed in a searchable database on the Web site of New Brunswick’s teleducation program . 

The new twist is that the teleducation site has added a site called Significant Difference . This site is less comprehensive than its counterpart; however it does cite recent studies from institutions such as University of California - Irvine, Graduate, the School of Management, North Carolina State University and Pepperdine University.  These studies indicate that students using e-learning significantly outperformed traditional face-to-face groups. 

What’s the difference?

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have also published a review of research on the effectiveness of distance learning.    Their study, available as a downloadable Adobe Acrobat file reviews 40 research studies conducted in the 90s. The overall goal was to assess what the research indicates—and just as important, what it does not indicate. The bulk of these writings suggest that students using technology at a distance learn as much as students who participate in conventional classroom instruction. The students using distance learning are generally positive about using distance education. 

The 42-page report stemming from the research is called “What’s the Difference?”  It concludes that the research is incomplete. It does not prove cause and effect.  Subjects for research are not selected randomly, the validity of measurement instruments is not tested, and precautions are not taken to guard against results being corrupted by the positive feelings that students and faculty have as a result of doing something novel—by doing anything novel. 

No simple answer

This brief foray into academia is obviously not the final word on a complex question. It does underline however that there is no simple answer to the question of e-learning’s effectiveness. Moreover, it cautions us to think critically about claims such as you might read in an advertisement that e-learning reduces costs by 30%, leads to 35% increase in productivity, increases learning gains and decreases training time by 40%—an advertising claim that you may have recently read. 

In short, technology is not a panacea. It is a tool. In the hands of a skilled craftsperson it produces results. Let’s look at some results and manage risks. 

Technology is not enough

E-learning, (EPSS, corporate universities, knowledge management, online learning) can be invaluable for fostering understanding and to help people perform their work better.  In some organizations e-learning might be a great solution on paper; however, in reality e-learning would create more problems than it will solve—in those organizations—because members are not willing, or able to adapt to the changes that this technology will inevitably bring. 

Technology is not magic. It won’t motivate an alienated employee. Technology does not create a learning organization—committed people do. Nevertheless, in the right organization e-learning and the technology that accompanies it will send the right knowledge to the right person at the right time.

Beware of too much technology 

Everything in moderation, nothing in excess—the ancient Greeks taught us.  E-learning is one of those areas where we might get excessive.  An example of excessive use of the technology is seen in some courses where participants need to spend hours downloading files or reading documents online. In some courses students waste time working in groups.  In other courses students are expected to read long documents on a computer monitor. It would be better to send them paper versions of the documents.  Placing huge documents on CD-ROM, or DVD sounds like a great idea, but who reads them? Video conferencing appeals to the techie in us, but is it more effective than video tapes or even audio tapes? Is video conferencing worth the additional cost and the effort? You can get too much of a good thing. E-learning does not need to be 100% pure. It may be appropriate to combine leader-led courses, paper-based documents, video tapes and audio tapes with e-learning instructional materials.

One of the dangers of online learning is that we will try to do too much with new technology. We need to guard against replacing existing, valid approaches with new, less-effective ones.

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