Growth and Renewal of eLearning

March 19, 2005

by Jay Cross

Multicellular organisms replace worn-out cells through cell division. One cell splits into two, each carrying the genetic material that makes it unique.

This week the Emergent Learning Forum is dividing into two cells: the eLearning Forum, which will continue along the path of inquiry we initiated six years ago at SRI, and the Emergent Learning Forum, which will branch into online inquiries of edgier topics. Eilif Trondsen will lead the eLearning Forum; I will orchestrate Emergent Learning Forum.

This seems an opportune time to reflect on the term eLearning, its history, its reach, and what’s good about it and what’s not so good.

People tell me I coined the term eLearning when I started writing about it on the web in 1998. In the spring of ’99, nine of the top ten links on Google for e-Learning connected to Internet Time Group.

At Online Learning that fall, CBT Systems, a pioneer in CD-ROM based IT training, renamed itself “SmartForce, The e-Learning Company.” This marked the first commercial use of the term eLearning. Greg Priest, the firmís CEO, said e-Learning is what you get when you take an e-Business approach to learning itself. Gregís vision of e-Learning embraced dynamic content, personalization that learns over time, rapid deployment, Internet and intranet delivery, interoperability with ERP, extreme scalability, top-tier security, and the ability to incorporate in-house programs. (DISCLOSURE: SmartForce was an Internet Time Group client throughout the transition period.)

“eLearning” was invented in the euphroria of web madness that swept through Silicon Valley in the wake of Netscape’s IPO. In October ’99, I explained that I had cooked up the term to win credibility more than to define a new approach to all learning:

“For twenty-five years, training departments and training vendors have tried to get the ear of senior management. Trainers change their titles to ‘performance consultant,’ training departments morph into corporate universities, and vendor brochures tout high ROI.

“At least nine out of ten of these efforts fail. Why? Because no matter what you call it, itís still really training. Trainingís a staff function, it always will be, and corporate management has other fish to fry. Would a mainstream corporate function really be satisfied with anything less than “Level 4” performance, i.e., making a difference?

“Perhaps e-Learning can change that. e-Learning is exciting. Itís Internet. Itís New Economy. Wall Street believes in it. The Fortune 1000 believe in it. Senior managers believe in it. e-Learning rides the e-Business wave.

“Traditional training has proven incapable of keeping up with todayís pace of change. Many managers feel theyíve squandered their investments in training to-date and theyíre leery about being taken again. Perhaps the term “training” has outlived its usefulness.

“So letís shutter the training department in favor of an in-house e-Learning start-up. Letís adopt the can-do spirit of the Internet Age. Demand senior management commitment to the new order. Make learners responsible for their own learning. Hold managers accountable for providing speedy, convenient, effective access to it. Letís go for it. Now.”

e is for Elephant, 10/99

I envisioned eLearning as what corporate training could become:

  • learning on Internet-age steroids: often real-time, 24/7, anywhere, anytime
  • learner-centered, personalized to the individual & customized to the organization
  • network-assisted, often assembling learning experiences on the fly
  • a blend of learning methods — virtual classroom, simulation, collaboration, community, even classroom…
  • the whole learning enchilada, from assessment through testing and sometimes certification
  • online administration — handling registration, payment and charge-backs, and monitoring learner progress
TRENDZ, Training & Development magazine, November 1999

In other words, eLearning takes advantage of tech but doesn’t require it. Unlike France, where the Acadťmie must approve the official definition of any word deemed legitimate, America defines its terms by usage. Many people used eLearning to mean computer-delivered training.

Six months after SmartForce introduced the term eLearning at Online Learning, ASTD’s International Conference and Exposition met in Dallas. eLearning signs sprouted up all over the Expo floor. Obviously, the vendors had not re-tooled their content overnight. Instead, they were reverse-engineering the meaning of eLearning to fit their existing products. Email for lessons? Sounded like eLearning to some people.

Putting new labels on old bottles is hardly new in the training business. Vendors who claimed to have eLearning when in fact they did not fleeced a few suckers but the sham was otherwise benign.

Real trouble cropped up when semantic debates held organizations back from making decisions. HP spent six months wrangling about the meaning of eLearning. Definining eLearning became like the psychiatrist’s inkblot test: you see what you want to see. Pent-up backlash against computer-based training muddied the argument, as did instructors who feared for their jobs. VCs confused the matter by theorizing great ROI from automating the classroom. At one point, Cisco mandated that all its learning be eLearning.

Many organizations actually tried to implement computer-delivered training with no outside support, encouragement, follow-up, or management support. Guess what? It didn’t work. People stayed away in droves. The instructors kept their jobs. The luddites slept well.

The term “blended” was invented to cover over the short-sightedness of computer-only training. Instead of waking up to the idiocy of computer-only eLearning, one could adopt something new, “blended learning.” A mini-industry has grown up around defining, developing, delivering, and writing reports about blends. If this prompts designers of learning not to put all their eggs in one basket, it’s positive. Old hands in the industry scratch their heads and wonder what learning is not blended.

Today “eLearning” gets five million hits on Google. “e-Learning” gets more than ten million hits. (I dropped the hyphen in late 1999.) eLearning is a book, a magazine, a conference, a journal, an award category, a forum, a guild, a centre, a certificate, an alliance, an age, a guru, a foundation, a network, a solution, an FAQ, a community, a glossary, an academy, an initiative of the European Commission, and of course, a delivery system.

I don’t talk much about eLearning any more. Then again, I don’t focus on learning either. I’m still trying to focus the conversation on performance. Learning is but one of many streams feeding into performance.

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