Learning

This Is Not Showbusiness

In his recent post Market failure? Blame it on the dog food, Clive Shepherd suggests that the reason that elearning content often has high production values but superficial learning design, is down to a market failure; that elearning vendors are selling to the employer, not the learner.

I agree, but how did this situation come to exist? Based on my own experience as an elearning manager within a corporate, and more recently as a consultant, I have some thoughts about why the relationship often works this way.

In his post, Clive touches on the first one:

When employers purchase an e-learning product or engage with a developer, they choose on the basis of production values rather than learning design, because they have neither the time nor the inclination to test out materials with real learners.

I’ve seen many examples of this, but it’s a problem that existed long before elearning. The same can happen when commissioning external providers of face to face training. The focus is on the delivery and collateral rather than the learning and business outcomes. Trainers are often selected, quite literally, on the basis of style over substance.

This is closely related to the second problem. When I was getting started with elearning, I was given all sorts of advice, but one of the more frequent suggestions was to produce “high profile content”; that is, content that people would talk about because it had the “wow factor”. The trouble is, that ends up being “wow those graphics were amazing”, or “wow I think 3D models are cool” when it should be “wow I’ve learned so much by doing that!”.

Who are we trying to impress with this high profile, “wow” content? It’s usually stakeholders and senior managers, because we want their buy in as way to ensure that we can do more of this.

The trouble is, once we’ve opened this box, it’s almost impossible to put thing back in again. We establish a situation where elearning is perceived as something that must have high production values, and anything else is considered to be sub-standard.

This also relates to the problem of procurement models and IT involvement. In the past, it was not unusual to see the commissioning of a piece of elearning treated as a software purchase, and for some organisations that’s still true today.

There are two problems with this;

First of all, a software purchase is usually sourced based on factors such as integration with existing systems, and the availability of support. Effective learning outcomes will not be high on the list. IT then end up making decisions about the choice of vendor; something which should be the domain L&D.

The second issue is how these things are paid for. A software purchase is usually treated as capital expenditure, and in many organisations something can only be a capital expense if it is above a certain cost (perhaps £30-£40,000). So what do you do? You make your elearning content more media rich in order to push up the cost, because you couldn’t get the budget if you wanted to spend less. Sounds crazy, but I’ve got plenty of experience of this!

How do we overcome this? Like Clive, I’m not completely sure, but I do know that it involves L&D keeping their focus on being business people rather than show people.