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