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Is e-learning effective?

20.01.2014

By Clive Shepherd, Learning and Communications Technologies Consultant, UK

My focus in this article is a question that I am frequently asked by learning and development people: ‘Is e-learning effective?’ A reasonable question, because there is no point in using a new approach if it doesn’t work, however much time or money it might save.

Unfortunately - as is so often the case - there is no easy answer. 

E-learning is just a medium

E-learning is a medium for learning, just like face-to-face communication, print, the telephone and countless other technologies. In other words, it is a delivery channel. On balance, the evidence would suggest that the medium, the delivery channel, is much less important in determining effectiveness than the learning strategy you choose to address the task in hand (exposition, instruction, guided discovery, exploration, etc.), the social context in which the medium is used (self-study, one-to-one, group) and, indeed, the relevance and importance of the subject matter on which you are focusing. Thomas L Russell reviewed 355 research reports, summaries and papers that documented no significant differences in student outcomes between alternate modes of education delivery. It is the method that matters when it comes to effectiveness, not the medium.

However, e-learning is a medium which opens up the possibility for methods that would otherwise be impractical or impossible to deliver using traditional means. Let’s take two examples:

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) makes it possible for many thousands of students to learn together at the same time. While the underlying pedagogy of a MOOC can, in some cases, resemble that of a traditional course, the sheer scale of the endeavour and the opportunities that this provides for peer interaction make the MOOC something very different from what we have ever been able to experience face-to-face.

An immersive and highly-realistic training tool, such as a flight simulator, has no meaningful traditional equivalent other than practice in the real world.

In both of these cases, e-learning is providing something different from what we had before. You cannot dismiss it as ‘just another medium’ because the medium has made possible the method, just as the invention of the printing press made it possible for the population as a whole to learn by reading.

E-learning supports many methods

To answer the question, we also have to qualify the type of e-learning that we are talking about. Do we mean instructional tutorials delivered for the individual learner? Live group sessions in a virtual classroom? The delivery of online content using web sites, video, podcasts, etc? Collaborative, distance learning like the MOOC described above? The only characteristic these approaches have in common is that they use the same delivery channel - a computer network. In all other respects they are radically different.

Let’s take the first of these approaches, the self-study tutorial, because that’s what most workplace learning and development people associate with the term ‘e-learning’. The Towards Maturity Impact Indicator released in March 2010 and based on UK findings, demonstrated many real benefits of e-learning to employers. However, the majority of the indicators related to efficiencies, i.e. time and cost savings, convenience and scalability. None of these really indicate the effectiveness of the approach in terms of impact on individual performance, when compared to alternative approaches.

It depends what you use it for

I’m not sure where we’ve got to in answering the question. Is e-learning effective? To the extent that a medium can make much of a difference to outcomes, it would seem that much depends on the type of e-learning and the use to which it is put. For more information on this, please visit the author’s blog.

The author, Clive Shepherd, is a consultant specialising in learning and communications technologies. He works with a broad range of public and private sector organisations, helping them to effectively harness the benefits of technology for workplace learning and communications.