Can e-learning today really deliver what it promises? Eight learning experts discuss this question at the Oxford Union. Jutta Mackwell reports.

‘This house believes that the e-learning of today is essential for the important skills of tomorrow’. This was the motion put to eight e-learning experts for a debate at the prestigious Oxford Union, organised by e-learning company Epic.

E-learning has become one of the buzz words in training and learning and development. It has been praised for its flexibility, cost-efficiency and its ‘greenness’. But does it really do what it promises, and does it help to impart the essential skills of tomorrow? Or is it simply ‘computers instead of books’ (as Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC’s Technology Correspondent who chaired the debate, learned from his taxi driver) or ‘what employers do when they don’t want to pay for proper training’?

According to Professor Diana Laurillard, who holds the chair of learning with digital technologies in the faculty of culture and pedagogy at the University of London, ‘no sane person can say that e-learning is not essential.’ Rather, e-learning is ‘the most exciting thing to have come our way since the invention of writing’ as it helps to present ideas and knowledge in a new and different way.

Practical advantages

E-learning also makes sense on a pragmatic level, as Major General Tim Inshaw, Director of Training and Education, explained. It can increase the speed of gaining knowledge and reduce the time and money spent on training significantly - Inshaw even said he was hoping to achieve a time reduction of up to 25 per cent. In a time of recession, figures such as these are essential if an organisation wants to continue training - which in turn is essential in order to survive and come out of the recession and ‘not be defeated in the value for money arena,’ as Inshaw put it

Andrew MacGovern, VP - Strategic Talent Technology at Thomson Reuters, added another layer to this argument, looking at high-profile employees, who struggle to find the time for training courses. E-learning, especially mobile e-learning, can make training accessible on train journeys, while waiting for a meeting to start or whenever an employee finds some spare time on the move.

The purpose of e-learning therefore should be to create real-time interaction between experts, learners, colleagues and peers; and LMS should be not just ‘e-learning vending machines’ (a term coined by Dr Marc Rosenberg, a leading expert in the world of e-learning), but actually allow for skill gaps analyses and help to find the right course to address the gap.

Another aspect that speaks in favour of e-learning is the fact that with ‘Generation Y’, a tech-savvy generation is entering the business platform. Combined with a world where IT is becoming increasingly vital for businesses and employees, e-learning helps to address both the need to provide training in a form that is accessible to web 2.0-accustomed employees and also allows them to apply and practise their IT skills while learning.


This point was taken up by Kirstie Donnelly, Director of Products and Marketing at learndirect. In today’s world, a large number of people live their lives through their use of technology. She suggested using the term d-learning (digital learning) rather than e-learning, as this includes the very web 2.0 applications people now grow up with. Using e-learning (or d-learning) puts the learner in control of learning, which should increase motivation and retention of knowledge.

Learning through digital media also has a potential for ‘something liberating’ in education as it helps breaks down social barriers, Laudillard pointed out in her final remarks. One student, a woman three feet tall, said of her online experience that it had been the first time she had been treated like an adult by others. Another said ‘when I’m online I’m not in poverty’.

Reality check

Yet the crux of the matter, as the opposition pointed out, lies in the ‘e-learning of today’. The reality of today’s e-learning, as David Wilson, an independent corporate learning analyst, explained, is that most organisations do not include things such as web 2.0 learning or serious gaming in their training portfolio, and rapid e-learning is mostly nothing more than ‘the creation of non-relevant content faster with less instruction and less longevity’, said Wilson.

Whether it is putting the technology over pedagogy, or simply translating classroom learning into an electronic version, or using e-learning as a strategy rather than a tool, the e-learning of today often ignores the reality of the workplace. E-learning today is mostly about basic knowledge acquisition, and in many ways hasn’t moved on from the e-learning or computer-based teaching that has been around for the last 30-40 years, in Rosenberg’s opinion.

Redefining e-learning

In order to work, e-learning needs to be completely and radically redefined. It needs to be information-centred rather than technology-centred and expand choices rather than limit them. ‘We treat e-learning as we treat Microsoft Word,’ Rosenberg explained. ‘But knowing how to use it will not make you write the next Pulitzer Prize novel.’

E-learning at the moment is most effective when its subject is ‘black and white’, such a legislation, compliance and system processes. However, the essential skills of today are management and leadership skills such as negotiating, decision making and analysis, said Claire Little, VP - Emerging Markets with SHL Group, and these cannot be taught through the e-learning of today.

Another, very practical obstacle to introducing effective e-learning is internet connection. Out of 6.5 billion people worldwide, only 1.5 billion have access to a computer. Additionally, even with a connection of 8Mbs, Little found that it still takes about an hour to download a movie from iTunes - which doesn’t bode well for integrating more interactive and dynamic features into e-learning.

Mobile learning?

Looking at the global picture, there is also the issue of mobile learning. In countries such as India, people might not have an internet connection, but the majority have a mobile phone. If e-learning doesn’t tap into these mobile technologies and therefore cannot be accessed by a large majority of people, it cannot be defined as being essential for the skills of tomorrow.

Putting learning at the centre

Adding the HR perspective to the picture, Wendy Cartwright, Head of Human Resources for the Olympic Delivery Authority, pointed to the enormous upsurge of coaching in mentoring in the workplace. E-learning can easily become shallow, lacking the essence of learning, which is about changing behaviour and a profound experience, the ‘aha, I didn’t know that’-effect. It is very difficult to replicate this kind of learning experience in a one-dimensional environment.

Also, as Cartwright suggests, the ‘Facebook generation’ often have a short attention span and in numerous cases lack social skills. Just because they are able to use IT intuitively doesn’t necessarily mean that IT-based learning is the best way for them to learn.

However, as one member of the audience pointed out: ‘The people who are doing e-learning today are the ones who develop the e-learning of tomorrow. Some years down the line, they will say “Look, this is the stuff that we wanted to do”.’ For this reason, it is important to continue to reinvent and design not only cost-effective, but effective forms of e-learning.

In the end, however, the ‘noes’ won the day, as only 90 of the attendants left the debating chamber through the ‘aye’ door, compared to 144 who thought that e-learning needed to embrace wider technological advances in order to deliver the essential skills of tomorrow.