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Training Room: When E-Learning Is (and Is Not) an Effective Tool

By Bob Shively, Enerdynamics' President

A number of years ago, Enerdynamics began working with clients to make some of its educational offerings available online. We quickly learned that what works online is very different from what works in the classroom. Over time, we and our clients learned there are ways to make e-learning work extremely well. But we also learned that it’s important to carefully choose the right situation and the right implementation to avoid spending time and money for less-than-stellar results.

First, let’s talk about some successes. One client created a leadership development program several years ago and uses Enerdynamics’ basic gas and electric e-learning courses along with its gas and electric books. Participants are assigned a single module to view along with a section of the book to read. Then they attend a facilitated session to discuss the topic and ask questions. The results have been fantastic, and each year there is a new crop of eager program applicants.

Another client has a global workforce spread across Asia, Europe and North America. In this case, it is just not financially practical to gather these employees for instructor-led sessions. Thus, an online program was initiated. And, because this client has a training professional dedicated to administering the program and because it includes post-course assessments to gauge knowledge retention, the online learning program has been highly successful.

A third client uses Enerdynamics’ online content quite effectively to train a distributed sales force. Again, this client has a dedicated program administrator and, in this case, content is introduced modularly, reducing the time requirements to less than an hour. This is necessary because sales people won’t spend multiple hours in a day taking training courses, but they will do it in half-hour to one-hour bursts during downtime or travel.

Unfortunately, we’ve also witnessed some less-than-successful e-learning attempts that have reminded us that e learning needs to be used carefully. E-learning proponents have tried to make the case to education providers that e-learning is a superior substitute for its traditional classroom training. Simply produce training once and then let thousands view it at their own pace. When calculated at a cost per student, no one can argue the benefits. But, after years of producing our own e-learning curriculum, I’ve come to a few important conclusions about e-learning.

I recently came across a blog article posted by an e-learning software provider entitled “Why E-Learning is So Effective.” The article makes many of the standard pro-e-learning claims: higher return on investment, lower costs, standardized training, increased productivity, etc. While I agree with much of this and am a big proponent of effective e-learning, I believe that for most of our clients, the decision to use e-learning is not the slam dunk this article makes it out to be. But why?

First, e-learning is often very poorly executed. Many education providers mistake the simple task of putting voice to a Powerpoint presentation for true e-learning. Wrong! E-learning is an entirely different medium from a presentation delivered by an instructor, and thus it requires a very different approach. In its early years, the Enerdynamics team was often asked for video recordings of its seminars. Can you imagine settling down to a stimulating 16-hour VHS (yea, that’s what it was back then) of an instructor teaching a course?! It just doesn’t work. For those sitting in the seats it works because there is a level of engagement and in-class participation – but not for the poor sucker stuck in front of the VCR!

This is analogous to my point with e-learning. Keeping someone’s attention on a computer screen requires a different way of thinking; it requires specific techniques that allow the viewer to interact with the e-learning. Animations, interactive exercises, quizzes – all are necessary for dynamic and effective computer-based training. When not approached from this unique perspective, much e-learning falls flat.

Second, e-learning is effective in certain situations, for certain topics, and for certain audiences. The article I cited above suggests that e-learning is simply amazing and you’d be crazy not to use it. While such a generalization is certainly a healthy attitude for an e-learning software company to take when selling its product, this is not real-world experience speaking. For basic topics that can be easily explained in short intervals, e-learning is wonderful. And there’s certainly something to be said for the standardized user experience it offers. But for complex ideas or highly dynamic, ever-evolving information, e-learning can be tricky.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that properly implementing an e-learning program requires substantially more work than anticipated by the HR and training staffs tasked with implementing company training programs. When a company brings an instructor-led seminar on site, it’s easy to quickly and accurately determine if the training was effective. You know who attended, you get direct feedback, and you have an evaluation that can help quantify the value of the seminar. Assuming it was a good one, everyone is happy and your job as training administrator is complete.

Administering an online training program requires a more exhaustive effort. First you need to identify those for whom the training is appropriate. And after you’ve purchased it, you need to assign access to those individuals. But unlike an instructor-led seminar, your audience will view the training on their own and at different times. That means you must continually track each participant’s progress through the course and probably monitor his or her test scores. It adds up to a lot of work per trainee!

The aforementioned blog post ends with a bit of good real-world advice: “E-learning is cost effective and can produce great results. It’s all a matter of how you use it.”

I couldn’t agree more. In many cases e-learning is an ideal solution. But without question, the most effective e-learning programs are those that are thoughtfully constructed and then continually monitored for effectiveness.

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