Friday, November 18, 2011

Why E-Learning Sucks

I originally started this off as a post to summarize a book(let) I recently read on the topic of Mobile Learning - but immediately went off on a rant that took me in an entirely different direction: the egregious quality of e-learning. While I think it's great that instructional designers are excited about using the next generation of information technology (mobile), they have demonstrated profound incompetence in using the current generation (Internet), and never did make effective use of the last generation (computer-based training), so my expectations are very low.

I can likely omit a description of the hideous experience of training in the digital channels, because anyone who has taken a computer-based training module or Internet course has likely been deeply disappointed by an experience that seemed a frustrating waste of time that taught them very little. The average training module is little more than a forced march through poorly-organized information, in a slide-show presentation interrupted periodically by a few hokey animations to make it seem "fun" and a quiz at the end whose answers are so blatantly obvious that it can be passed without having paid any attention at all to the material.

And while the author of the booklet concedes, at times, that digital training leaves much to be desired, and makes a few suggestions as to how it can be leveraged more successfully, the most interesting parts of the book are the editorial passages that seek to lay the blame on anyone but the instructional designer for the sorry state of things - and with good reason: there's ample blame to go around:

The Sponsor

The sponsor bears much of the blame for the poor quality of digital learning - because he pays for it, gives it direction, and ultimately signs off on it. As such, the chief problem with digital courses is a sponsor who simply does not care, or cares too much about the wrong things, such as wanting the greatest benefit for the least cost.

Arguably, the sponsor is handed the task by an organization that provides him with inadequate resources to accomplish the task, and he must do the best that he can. And in many instances, training is intentionally a token effort - the company is required by law to inform its employees of something, or it can get a break on its insurance premium if it provides training to its people. It is merely seeking to meet a requirement to deliver training, to prove to another party that its people have taken training, and is not at all concerned whether it is effective.

The Student

Students also bear part of the blame for the failure of learning experiences - as it's entirely impossible, whatever the enthusiasm or resources of the instructor, to teach anything to anyone who does not want to learn. This is not unique to the digital channel, but the poor use of the digital channel has exacerbated the problem greatly. When presented with a learning opportunity in the workplace, the attitude is generally dreary - "I have to take a class" - and it is seen as an ordeal that will have to be endured but will ultimately yield little benefit. Some have enthusiasm about live training events, but very few show the same enthusiasm about a computer-based training module.

Again, the student can pass along the blame, as their negative attitude at the prospect of a new opportunity stems from their negative experience of similar situations - though I have seen situations in which the trainees at a course reversed their negative attitude within the first few minutes of a (live) class where the instructor was especially skilled in engaging them in the subject, that instructor must overcome the misdeeds of all the ones before him who failed to do the same.

The same burden is laden upon any "opportunity" to take digital training - poor experience in the past creates low expectations of the future - and it's likely more difficult to overcome than in an interactive situation, where the instructor can read and respond to the general mood of the student body. Because a pre-programmed course is static, it does not adapt itself to the level of interest of the student - theoretically, it should be possible to do so, but I've never seen it done.

The Programmer

The author lays a heavy blame on the technical staff who program interactive training experiences, and again with some validity: a good developer, one who seeks to meet or exceed expectations apply his skills to deliver better than what is required, is very rare. Many developers are only marginally competent in their core skills, at their attitude seems to be one of refusal and resistance to any challenge that takes them out of their comfort zone - they prefer to code what is easy to code, and balk when faced with a problem that requires them to invest much thought or effort in discovery or innovation.

The problem is further compounded when vendors are used to do programming work, which is commonplace. Vendors are in the habit of low-balling bids to land a contract - and when they have won a project, they operate much as any other business: to seek the greatest revenue at the least expense. Since "expense" is the time that their staff devote to doing a task, they seek to do it as quickly as possible to maximize their margin - and so long as it meets the (poorly) documented requirements of the contract, they see no reason to deliver one iota more.

The Instructional Designer

The author carefully avoids blaming the instructional designer, likely because it is the author's own chosen profession, as well as the business of the trade association that sponsored the booklet. So it's likely that if there was ever any intent to share any burden of the blame, it was quickly squelched.

But in my experience, instructional designers are guilty of the very same failures as they lay on the programmers: they lack competence (which is why most online courses are poorly organized and conceived) and are unmotivated to do anything that is unfamiliar (which is why the training modules resemble slide presentations). And when a "professional" is engaged as a contractor, they fall into the same mindset of profit maximization by delivering the very least possible.

The instructional designer can lay the blame on the other parties, mentioned above, and is likely justified in doing so if they interfered in the process of instructional design - put constraints on what the designer is permitted to do, or failed to deliver what was designed. I have the sense that this is often the case, but I also suspect that in a great many cases, the designer was not constrained and their design was faithfully executed, and they are merely seeking in arrears to lay the blame on someone else for their own poor work.


All things considered, I don't share the author's enthusiasm for the mobile delivery method. It presents new capabilities, not the least of which is being able to be constantly available to the learner, but given the way in which training and support have been poorly handled in the existing digital channels, I have little hope that mobile will be leveraged with much competence, either.


  1. I am in the midst of some e-learning right now and thought I'd take a brief respite to see if anyone shared my opinion. Glad to see I am not the only one.

  2. Don't forget restrictive IT policies, cheap finance departments that make us use antiquated development software, and middle managers who care very little about the outcome for the learner

  3. Ooops! And don't forget the project manager who keeps changing the goals of the project - even as we are building the training for it.