Why Does Business Love eLearning, But Education not?
I’m going to justify my sweeping headings with reference to this article from last year: http://www.cnbc.com/id/101415252, but I do acknowledge that it is sweeping, and therefore not a universal truth. Setups like the flipped classroom have their origins in the education sector (even if, as a blended learning model, it can be just as useful in a business context), so the idea that no iteration of elearning can have relevance to education is simply untrue. Having said that, let me try to summarise the main points of the article. Firstly, it claims that the University of Pennsylvania found that in elearning courses, few students make it past their first lecture, with fewer than 4% finishing. It also notes that San Jose State University recently suspended a MOOC programme for disappointing results. The article also notes that business, on the other hand, is soaring ahead with the adoption of elearning – training and certification, they claim, runs to a bill of over €130 billion dollars annually. Elearning is a way for companies to accomplish their training responsibilities without the accompanying price tag. The implication, based on these bald facts, is clear: education, free of market constraints and dedicated only to producing quality, effective learning, has tried elearning and found it wanting. Business, who don’t really care about the quality of the learning and are simply concerned with slashing training budgets, have settled for a cheap (but ineffective) option that covers their asses from a compliance point of view but probably produces very little effective training.
Of course, here at Seams LMS, we refute that. But then we would, wouldn’t we? If the facts of the linked article are true (and I’ve no reason to doubt them) then they must plainly speak for themselves. I would argue that it’s more complicated than that, however. First of all, I’ve selectively referenced the article – there’s extended examples mentioned in it that don’t fit that easy stereotype. They mention a software developer Brightpearl, who found that its salespeople produced 32% more revenue when trained in their custom elearning courses, and while no cost was given for the production of the elearning content, they did say 500 hours of work went into it – that can’t come cheap. 32% is a significant shift in any metric, which would suggest that cost is not, then, the sole lure of elearning for business. Even if it was, it seems from the information in the article that good quality, effective training content doesn’t actually come very cheap at all, really.
So why the dichotomy? If we accept at face value that educational institutions have found elearning ineffective, how can we accept that it seems so much more effective for business? There’s two answers to that, and the first one is the easiest – we can simply not accept that education finds elearning all that ineffective. The article focuses on MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses), which are a very specific kind of elearning. As I mentioned earlier the flipped classroom model, a very famous elearning model, comes to us from the education sector, and what university or college doesn’t have some kind of moodle or moodle-esque setup? Very few. These are all online systems used to support, encourage and diversify learning. Even if it’s just a matter of uploading simple documents and giving students a virtual space to bounce ideas off each other, that’s still at least a form of elearning. And even if you’d argue (quite correctly) that these are more “blended learning” forms than pure elearning, what is blended learning but the targeted and considered application of elearning elements into a broader learning context?
So, that’s the first point answered: while MOOCs may have had very mixed success, it’s simply not true to say that elearning as a fundamental principal hasn’t been found to have benefits in the education sector. The second answer is just as important however: the type of learning required by business and education is quite different. For business, an elearning course is a short, digestible, practical dump of information that the learner immediately stands up from and goes to put to use. The model in education is (quite rightly and necessarily) different. In education, the goal is much further off, and requires a much more long-term commitment from the learner. The goal, even in itself, can be much more broad and nebulously defined. A university aims at producing experts in their fields, which is to say people with a broad and widely applicable knowledge base and understanding within their subject. A business doesn’t, as a matter of priority. It’s not complicated to understand – a university wants to produce (for example), over three or four years, a physicist who will understand the principles of the formation of the entire universe. A business wants someone who can sell a product well, and wants it to start not in four years, but now. It would be incredible if the same pedagogical principles could be applied to two so widely different goals.
It’s also worth noting the language describing the MOOC structures in the article – “few students made it past the first online lecture”. The design of elearning content cannot simply be a camera in front of a teacher. Content has to engage learners, and however entertaining a lecturer the experience of sitting in front of a screen watching is different from sitting in the company of an actual human being. Narrative content, different content types (text, images, video, etc), elements of narrative and gamification – there’s a different set of principles involved in designing elearning content to traditional learning. Educational institutions know this, of course, which suggests there are more important indicators than the success or failure of this or that specific MOOC as to the health of elearning in education. Business knows it too – not simply because the things being taught are different, and neither is it simply because it’s cheaper. Designed for purpose, it can be very, very effective.