L&D and e-learning in 2016: is this the year L&D fully embraces matured technologies?

e-learning on a mobile device

In recent years, the discussion around the future of learning and development has centred on the idea of incorporating e-learning more seamlessly into what might be called “traditional” L&D initiatives.

This is essentially a case of digital meeting analogue, which is and has been a significant trend within many industries. In L&D it has been something of an ongoing concern for a variety of reasons. Reports suggest that L&D practitioners have felt uncomfortable utilising e-learning and new technologies in their work and users haven’t necessarily taken to using new programmes and features either. There has also been a lack of innovation displayed in e-learning thus far – many people’s experiences continue to revolve around click-through courses, perhaps incorporating a multiple-choice quiz at the end. This is hardly an inspiring or engaging delivery method and certainly no more effective than taking a day out of the office to attend a classroom based lecture.

However, many are predicting that 2016 will be the year in which e-learning drops the “e” and becomes fully integrated into L&D strategies as a matured, equal, legitimate and fit-for-purpose companion to those “traditional” initiatives. Below are a few reasons for this line of thinking, but how valid are they?

The users

The fact that millennials are now starting to outnumber previous generations in the workplace has been widely talked-about, and it has probable ramifications for the rise of e-learning in L&D. Because millennials are younger than baby boomers and Generation Xers, the assumption is often that they are more comfortable using technology in more varied ways than their predecessors. In essence, this is the kind of thing they expect companies to be doing because it mirrors the technology they’re used to employing in their social lives. It is therefore expected that millennials will be a driving force in embedding e-learning in L&D.

However, while this assumption of digital confidence is largely true, it doesn’t mean that all millennials are comfortable interacting with technology in this way – using technology professionally may be completely different from using Twitter or Instagram in one’s personal life. Additionally, it doesn’t mean that Generation Xers aren’t capable of using technology to support their learning and development. Due to the nature of the world we live in, the majority of workers in all generations are already fully conversant in the latest technology and comfortable using it for their development needs.

What is true for all generations is that there will be pockets of individuals who are fully open to the use of technology in L&D, and some who are not – as with most things it will tend to come down to personal preference. With this in mind, digital training shouldn’t be introduced wholesale on the assumption that the vast majority of users will adapt instantly to it – it may be better off used as a complimentary approach to other learning methods.

The technology

As noted above, much of the e-learning sphere is currently filled with uninspiring, time-consuming online courses. These courses are little more than box-ticking exercises, where the user can work through them using little brainpower, just so they can say they have completed them. Whether they’ve learned anything or not is often largely irrelevant. However, e-learning vendors have shown recently that there is no reason why technology can’t make L&D engaging and fun while still being relevant and valuable.

One example is the use of gamification, which is becoming a more commonly-used training tool aimed at turning learning into a competition, thus helping to engage people who enjoy utilising technology in this way. If every level focuses on one element that has to be completed before the next stage is accessed, this may help fast-track professional development. When combined with social features like blogs and forums, and responsive design allowing games to be played on mobile devices, as well as computers, digital gamification can be an extremely effective way of facilitating learning. Coupled with the likes of bitesize videos and, in the not-too-distant future, immersive and virtual reality technology, there is a real sense that e-learning will play a significant part in L&D from now on.

On the flip side, though, it’s valid to question whether L&D is really required to gamify its lessons just because the world and the L&D sphere is becoming more technologically advanced. The way in which employees (regardless of their age) digest information or learn isn’t, and shouldn’t be, solely through a screen. In addition to engaging with “traditional” L&D initiatives for specific skills development, we need to gain experience by learning on the job and watching others perform the same tasks or roles. In this sense, could e-learning initiatives be more of a distraction than a help? It is probable that they still need to be phased in gently alongside non-digital learning methods rather than replacing them all in one fell swoop.

The potential for personalisation

One of the previous problems with L&D was its one-size-fits-all approach to delivering solutions for users. We all learn in different ways – some prefer reading articles, while some prefer watching videos or discussing topics with peers. The context of learning in general has to be relevant to each person in order to garner the best results, and this hasn’t been happening.

With more varied technology employed within the L&D sphere, training can now be personalised to a larger degree than ever before. This ensures the right information can be delivered in the right format and at the right time to each individual. Leveraging social media tools like Yammer enables learners to voice opinions, concerns and ideas as well as fuelling discussion related to the concepts and information they have been learning. Also, analytics can be used by training operators to uncover learners’ trends (for example, how and when they learn) and then tailor the system to match their behaviour.

While this is great for digital and e-learning technologies, though, it is a lot more difficult to personalise the non-digital aspects of training that we need to retain. What might the effect of personalised digital training coupled with generalised non-digital training be? At best it will be a disjointed, ineffective experience – at worst, it could be a completely disillusioning and disengaging experience for the learner.

It appears that there are clear benefits and potential downsides to solely employing digital technologies in L&D programmes. While 2016 might be the year in which learning technology comes of age, it appears far from ready to solely assume the L&D mantle. For now, at least, blended programmes that combine non-digital and digital learning techniques look to be the best option for L&D practitioners. Although demand might increase for e-learning solutions, a complete, sudden move would only lessen the effectiveness of the learning programmes already on offer.

Issue 2 and issue 3 of our Enhance magazine discuss this subject in even greater depth. Download them here and subscribe to next month so you never miss an issue.