Myth and Reality of E-Learning

By Stephen J. Gill

This article was originally published in Educational Technology, Volume 43, Number 1, 2003

E-Learning is a misnomer. Computers do not deliver learning; they deliver content and the best of these programs can only guide the learner through part of the learning process. This process depends on the interaction of a multitude of factors. Some of these factors are internal to the employee's attitudes, beliefs, and style of learning, and some are external to the employee and embedded in the culture of the organization. An employee will not learn from instruction, with or without an instructor, unless motivated, prepared, reinforced, and rewarded.

Call it e-courses, e-technology, online instruction, Web-based training, or CD-ROM training. To call it learning, however, is to confuse the instructional method with the instructional objective. By doing this we run the risk of confusing the ends with the means. The instructional delivery format is the means to the end goal of learning and performance improvement. Confusing training with learning outcomes has been the bane of the training field for the past hundred years.

Now, having said that, the reality is that e-learning has become a popular term for computer-based instruction and, in particular, Web-based courses. Therefore, I will use this term knowing full well that it is misleading and misrepresents what we should be trying to achieve in the workplace.

The myth of e-learning is that online instruction will solve all of the problems of learning and performance improvement in the workplace. The reality is that computers offer just one more tool, indeed a very useful one, for the delivery of training and education programs. Performance improvement will only occur when the organizational culture supports learning.

Prevalence of Online Instruction
No doubt about it, online instruction is becoming a major component of workplace education. The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), in its State of the Industry Report (ASTD, 2002), says that approximately 20% of training in "world-class organizations" is being delivered by e-learning technology. ASTD projects that this number will continue to grow, at least through 2003. Training Magazine's 2001 Industry Report (Galvin, 2001), summarizing a survey of U.S. organizations of over 100 employees, says the percentage of companies using CD-ROM, Internet, and intranet-based, employer-sponsored training frequently, is in the 30% to 40% range. W.R. Hambrecht & Co., an investment bank, is predicting that $11.4 billion will be spent on e-learning in the U.S. in 2003 (Dietderich, 2001).

We are witnessing a dramatic increase in number of companies and educational institutions selling courses. Cohen and Payiatakis (2002) report an explosion in the growth of the e-learning industry. Participation in the 2001 On-Line Learning Conference is just one of the indicators of this expansion of the industry. Attendees increased from approximately 5000 two years ago to approximately 9000 in 2001, and online learning exhibitors at the conference increased from 353 in 2000 to 425 in 2001.

T+D, the monthly journal of ASTD, follows the stock market performance of 38 "e-learning infrastructure players" (Martin, 2002). This is in response to tremendous interest from ASTD members. So along with how to use creative training techniques and how to make leaders out of managers, we can read how to invest in one of the hottest market sectors.

E-learning has a faddish cast. It is the Big New Thing in the training and education field. It is glitzy, has a language of its own, is part of a fast paced, intense market culture, and commands major investment by providers and customers. All of this creates a wave that trainers and companies are trying to ride to success. But this success can be elusive. As Cohen and Payiatakis (2002) have observed,
…organizations get caught up in the "next next thing" syndrome, either insistent on being at the leading edge or equally scared of being left behind."(p. 12)

Allure of E-Learning
Online courses are very attractive to business organizations. In a highly competitive environment, this technology offers great promise. The instruction can reach large numbers of employees at the same time (synchronously) or at the convenience of each employee (asynchronously). As long as an employee has access to a computer and sufficient bandwidth, distance from an instructor is no problem.

Executives are attracted to the technology because it appears to be less expensive to produce and disseminate to large numbers of employees in comparison to the overhead costs of maintaining a training department and outsourcing instruction. General Motors hopes to save $4 million dollars a year by moving to an online format for training their 88,000 executives, managers, professional, and technical employees (Dietderich, 2001).

Trainers are attracted to the technology because they can easily measure and report output in terms of courses delivered and employees served. These numbers look very impressive in their performance review. And they like the fact that there is an enormous amount of content available online from which to choose. For example, the Society of Manufacturing Engineers offers its members over 1100 online courses (

Trainers believe they have more control over the quality of instruction when using online delivery. The content is checked upfront and then the same product is delivered to every learner in the same way. Trainers can be confident that everybody is being exposed to the same information in a consistent fashion, which is not necessarily the case in classroom instruction. Also, changes can be made to improve and update the content as needed.

Employees are attracted to the technology because it offers them the opportunity for a large choice of topics and they can learn when and where they want. Many managers like these benefits, too, because they assume that with this technology employees will study on their own and will not have to use work time for training.

Myths of E-Learning
This fascination with the technology has resulted in the spread of a number of myths about e-learning. Let's examine six beliefs about e-learning that are based on a wish and a prayer, not on evidence.

Myth One: Instructor-led, classroom-based courses can be transferred to the Web with no loss in their teaching potential. Course materials that were designed to be used by an instructor in a classroom, with explanations and supplementary material provided as needed, are posted on the Web, which is a different instructional environment than was originally intended for this material.

Myth Two: Taking courses at a desktop is as good or better than attending an off-site, instructor-led course. The two types of environments are considered equivalent even though one has face-to-face interaction between students and instructors and among students, one is dependent on every student staying motivated enough to complete the course on their own, and one can integrate text, graphics, video, and audio under the control of the learner.

Myth Three: All employees learn in an online environment. Large numbers of employees in the same company, in some cases thousands, are expected to take the same online courses. This assumes that all employees learn in the same way, that a visual learner, an auditory learner, and a kinesthetic learner will all be able to learn and apply the instructional content on a computer screen within roughly the same amount of time and the same resources.

Myth Four: E-learning courses are cheaper to deliver than classroom education. It is assumed that once a course is developed, the cost of each employee accessing that course on the Web or printing additional CD-ROMs is negligible. And by sending the course content to employees, companies save the cost of instructors, travel, and facilities.

Myth Five: Having a vast selection of courses from which to choose is an advantage. This is the more-is-better assumption. It is like having a virtual university, a veritable smorgasbord of educational offerings at your fingertips (literally). An employee can select an Intranet course about one of the company's proprietary processes, a generic course on project management from a professional association, a course in Excel from a software training vender, or a course in stress management offered by a community college.

Myth Six: Working and learning are separate activities. A corollary to this is that if you are at your desk, on the shop floor, in a team meeting, you are not learning. Learning is something that happens outside of work. Therefore, e-learning should be provided outside of work hours.

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