For a straightforward concept, e-learning has a lot of aliases: distance learning, online education, computer-based training, and "the virtual classroom," among others.
Scholars split hairs in defining those terms, but, in essence, they all refer to the same thing: education delivered electronically. E-learning can involve audio or videotapes, CD-ROMs and DVDs, videoconferencing, e-mail, live chat, and, increasingly, sophisticated use of the Web. Learning may happen synchronously -- that is, in real time -- or asynchronously, meaning students do coursework at their own convenience.
E-learning is becoming particularly popular for business training because it rarely requires costly travel. Instead, employees learn on-site, often at their own desks. In 2002, the market for business-to-business e-learning hit $2.9 billion, says Eric Bassett, director of the research practice at Eduventures Inc., a Boston-based firm that analyzes the education industry. He expects corporate demand to keep growing by 10 to 15% annually for at least the next few years.
That growth reflects widespread acceptance of e-learning as a legitimate educational option. More than 60% of U.S. colleges and universities now offer Internet-based courses, according to the sAmerican Federation of Teachers. Eduventures says about one million students are enrolled in degree-granting online programs this year at both traditional schools and at for-profit programs such as the University of Phoenix. Among the hottest areas: online MBA programs such as those offered by the University of Massachusetts, Arizona State University, the University of Florida, and the University of Baltimore, among others.
Numerous noncredit ventures have sprung up as well -- some from surprising sources. Barnes & Noble University offers a range of free and low-cost online classes on everything from using Microsoft Word to becoming an effective leader. Charles Schwab & Co. Inc.'s Learning Center offers Web-based courses on stocks, bonds, mutual funds, investment strategies and other financial topics.
Even government agencies have gotten into the act. The Small Business Administration offers e-training in business-plan writing, financing, marketing, taxes, accounting, exporting and other entrepreneurial topics. In late 2003, the New York State Department of Labor launched a pilot program that allows businesses to offer their workers e-learning courses in e-commerce, marketing, customer service, and software applications. About 1,700 employees at 100 businesses were participating in the initial phase; eventually, officials expect to add self-guided classes on management, conflict resolution, negotiation, and other topics.
Companies interested in e-learning can follow several paths. They can let employees individually register for outside classes or degree programs. They can outsource a single workshop or an entire training curriculum. They can buy off-the-shelf programs. Or they can hire someone to create courses tailored to their needs.
The explosion in content and delivery options illustrates just how far the underlying technology has come, Bassett says. Some early e-learning courses consisted primarily of printed materials that instructors scanned and stuck online: "Not very engaging," he adds. Now classes may use a combination of technologies such as streaming video, live chat, Web-conferencing software, online reference libraries, and videogame-style simulation. Such interaction, Bassett says, "adds a human interest element beyond just 'I have to learn this."
Weblogs, or "blogs," are another hot e-learning tool, says Kathleen Gilroy, CEO of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Otter Group, which creates customized e-learning courses. Blogs -- simple, chronologically arranged websites -- offer "rich storyboards" for teaching or supplementing online classes. "You can add all kinds of elements to give people an idea what the content is all about," she says. With easy-to-use blog software, an instructor or course designer can add reading lists, case histories, photos, links, updates, and other material; the blog can also serve as the class's online discussion forum.
Of course, e-learning won't meet every educational need. In some cases, "the high-touch element of [traditional classroom-based courses] is always going to be preferred," Bassett says. But the Web is especially well-suited to teaching technical topics, effective sales and customer-service techniques, financial skills, product and policy updates, and things that can be learned step by step, such as drafting a business plan or managing a project. E-learning can also help companies comply with new regulations by walking employees through the new rules, testing what they've learned, and keeping records on who's completed the required training. And, of course, Web-based training is a no-brainer for businesses with widely scattered work forces.
Following are some tips for successfully using e-learning in your company:
Develop a culture that values e-learning as much as traditional face-to-face education. If students get the message that online courses are somehow second-rate, they'll take them less seriously -- if they take them at all.
Build e-learning into regular employee milestones such as orientation, performance reviews, and required refresher, compliance, or continuing-education training.
Promote the e-learning initiative in newsletters, e-mails, and brochures, on bulletin boards, and at staff meetings. Remind employees what's available; alert them whenever there's a new offering.
Focus on the desired result as much as on content. Why do you want employees to engage in e-learning? What should they know or achieve once they've finished a class? How will you assess their understanding?
Remember the learner's point of view. "Think 'I'm the learner here. What's it like to go through this experience?" Gilroy advises. "If it doesn 't appeal to you personally, it probably won't appeal to learners, either."
Use a familiar interface such as a standard Web browser or Microsoft Windows interface. That way, people don't have to master a new technology before taking an online course.
Include an interactive element. If possible, let participants interact with an instructor or with each other. If not, at least include options such as self-quizzes or simulations, which let them test and apply what they've learned.
Acknowledge employees who complete significant courses. Reward them publicly or privately. Seek their feedback about how offerings might be improved.
Sidebar: E-Learning Resources
About.com Distance Learning Site
Articles, links, glossary, FAQ, online study tips, recommended reading. Focuses on degree-granting programs, but includes information useful to business learners as well.
All Online Schools
Comprehensive guide to accredited degree-granting programs
Distance Education Clearinghouse, University of Wisconsin
Definitions, FAQs, resources
Distance Learning Resource Network
News, links, general information on instructional strategies, methods, and technologies
Research and analysis on education industry, including corporate training and e-learning
Portal site for all types of e-learning programs
Web-based publication covering online learning and training
Focused primarily on degree-granting programs, but includes a directory of vendors offering workplace e-learning programs as well
Organization specializing in Web-based education. Site includes e-learning blog, white papers, and other resources.
U.S. Distance Learning Association
Non-profit organization promoting distance learning for education and training
U.S. Small Business Administration
Online training in business-plan writing, financing, marketing, taxes, accounting, exporting and more