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4 Reasons e-Learning can Fail

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eLearning Fail

A recent blog post on NPR's Learning & Tech: You Probably Believe Some Learning Myths” Take Our Quiz to Find Out sparked my interest.

There was a fun little quiz on learning myths. Can you get 100% correct? More importantly, the article made me consider some of the failings I notice in working with clients that are looking for e-learning to be developed and the requirements they put in place.

Here are four considerations as to why your e-learnings maybe failing:

1. The focus of the e-learning should be on “learning” but the business really cares about “doing”.

Here is a story about what happens when companies confuse changing behavior with a knowledge gap. 

A client implemented a new ERP system. Part of the ERP system was a new web based  purchase orders system. While the new process was simple, the company decided on an e-learning module for all staff to provide instruction. As part of the needs assessment, it was quickly evident that due to the systems ease of use the e-learning could be short, simple and should prove effective.

The result was 100% completion in the first week with an average quiz score of 90%. Those can be exciting results for e-learning adoption. Unfortunately, the business impact was very low. The new system was only being utilized at 20%. Manual (paper) inputs still made up 80% of orders and maintained a 10% error rate.

What do you think was discovered in the after action?

All employees had the knowledge needed to use the system (most said the training was unnecessary). The employees' answers to why they were not using the system:

  • Didn't know that the company expected them to switch yet.

  • Many thought they would use up old forms before switching

  • 20% didn't access the system except for purchase orders and were never given log-in information so they assumed they were to use the old process.

Too often companies look to training to address communication and accountability instead of a knowledge gap. While communication and accountability are important components to the desired change, e-learning will not be effective in delivering those results. This is an example of a misuse of “learning” when the desire was for a change in “doing”.

2. E-Learning doesn't provide a chance to think about thinking.

Diving directly into a topic for e-learning seams essential, especially with 1 to 1.5 hour time constraints.  As the NPR post addresses, thinking about thinking can be just as importance as intelligence.

Occasionally, questions or statements are added that ask for a commitment or a consideration on how the information could be used on the job. These questions are a start but do not fully  address focusing on metacognition. This becomes even more important as part of a larger learning culture and enhancing the capacity of an organization to learn. 

3. Students don't have the chance to explain key concepts.

A well designed e-learning does an excellent job of providing key concepts to students. An excellent way for students to learn is to explain key concepts in their own words. The opportunities for participants to explain concepts is often limited by the need to make e-learning self-contained, auto-scored and automatic.

Providing opportunities for students to explain concepts either in writing or recording an audio response can help them both understand and retain the information. While it may be an increase time consumption and resources, it can help ensure the key concepts were interpreted correctly.

4. Spaced repetition is reduced to the one e-learning session.

There has been an explosion in the recognition of spaced repetition and its effectiveness in learning. There is the old saying - “tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” While the structure is often utilized effectively, the e-learning is often only 1 to 1.5 hours. The spacing and repetition are not far enough apart to build the thought patterns that build permanence.

Many new tools and systems continue the learning but unfortunately they are often used as a “second stage” or separate from the initial learning event, thus the e-learning is isolated. An effort should be made to extend past the e-learning event and become part of a fuller competency development process.


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