Organizational Learning Strategy and eLearning

Situating the Current Popular eLearning Offering

When one decides to venture into the world of eLearning, he or she will quickly come across the following terms:

  • Learning object: a pre-defined parcel of learning that elaborates on a subject or a notion. It is usually developed with rich multimedia.
  • Learning Content Management System (LCMS): a system that enables the organization and sequencing of learning objects to follow a preset learning path.
  • Learning Management Systems (LMS): a system that manages individual learning paths and tracks the learner’s participation and results. It usually interacts with an LCMS and many systems today integrate both.

These technologies are usually worked into a training oriented design where information is essentially pushed to the learner. A certain degree of computer programmed interactivity is planned with the objective of keeping the learner engaged. However, the overwhelming majority of learning objects, at best, transfer a small amount of procedural knowledge—how to do something—and are often limited to declarative knowledge—what is something.

This approach, if properly developed, can be useful when a content push is required such as in the case of introducing new information, demonstrating a step-by-step procedure or other similar processes, etc. But it doesn’t even begin to address the need to develop situational, critical and creative thinking skills at an individual level. This approach cannot transfer contextual knowledge, causal knowledge or foster the development or transferable skills. In essence, it is an incomplete solution and we must push the eLearning offering further.

Looking At a Larger Picture

Organizational development experts began to really expand on the concept of a Learning Organisation in the early 1990s. Peter Senge, a leading expert defines learning organizations as “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning to see the whole together.” (Senge 1990: 3)

The idea that was brought forward by many experts in this field was one of transformation through systems thinking primarily at three levels:

  1. Aligning Objectives: Building a shared vision by linking individual performance and objectives with organizational performance objectives.
  2. Empowering Individuals: Enabling individuals within an organisation to develop personal mastery and reach their goals by providing them with mental models and continuous learning opportunities as well as encouraging creative and critical thinking.
  3. Cultivating Communities: Promoting team learning, cultivating inquiry and dialogue, addressing differences and tensions and using them to stimulate innovation.

Now fifteen years later, the American Management Association reported in their 2005 Global Study of Leadership that “fostering creativity and innovation” was the fifth most highly ranked leadership competency today. They insisted that the “the leader must foster creativity and innovation, both by providing the opportunity to tackle big business issues and by creating a culture where risk-taking and decentralized decision-making are encouraged and rewarded. All too often, executives preach risk-taking and the encouragement of change, but practice control and adherence to established policies and practices.” (AMA 2005: 61)

That said, in order to entrust employees with the mandate of being change agents, the manager needs evidence that employees have the requisite skills and competencies. The plan to develop these skills and competency needs to be embedded in the organization’s learning strategy.

Dynamic eLearning Environments for the Learning Organization

eLearning expert Stephen Downes explains that today’s Web user expects more than a content push. With the advent of social networks, online communities, blogs, wikis, podcasts and other types of conversational Web usage, online users are creating connections in a complex self-directed learning network. Many Virtual  Learning Environment Systems such as Moodle, in recognizing that a series of sequenced learning objects will not suffice, are strategically integrating these functionalities within their systems with the intention of fostering a socio-constructivist learning environment.

Downes, as well as many experts in the field, insist that eLearning must look at these current networking and information sharing practices and embed them into our eLearning strategies. “Learning is characterized not only by greater autonomy for the learner, but also a greater emphasis on active learning, with creation, communication and participation playing key roles, and on changing roles for the teacher, indeed, even a collapse of the distinction between teacher and student altogether.” (Downes 2005)

By developing learning strategies that incorporate these social networking concepts, the potential for designing and developing learner-centered environments that foster reflective, creative and critical thinking is limitless.

Assumptions about eLearning

eLearning is a human performance improvement initiative that employs electronic technology. By that definition, consulting an Internet-based dictionary to find out the meaning of a word is a form of eLearning. Indeed learning is occurring, therefore improving performance by the means of an electronic technology. Though it is incidental and informal, it falls within the parameters of eLearning.

One of the pitfalls many encounter when developing an eLearning strategy is ignoring the wide spectrum of eLearning possibilities. They limit their potential by centering their approach around the digitization of content via impressive technology. They forget that, much like in the case of the user consulting the Internet-based dictionary, meaningful learning is personal, context-related and most effective when answering a specific need.

This error often occurs because somewhere along the line, we forgot that learning is an activity and we tried to turn it into a product. We packaged it, made it stand-alone and made it so universal that it lost its meaning. This approach might have been successful for short tutorials but doesn’t work well within an eLearning strategy geared towards performance improvement.

7 Assumptions About eLearning

Because it’s online, it’s interactive – Not necessarily. Too often, courseware applications are simply digitized content and are limited to back/next type navigation. Their evaluation components are often limited to rote memory testing. This approach doesn’t take into account the need for personalised and contextualised learning. When we develop an eLearning program, we need it to truly engage the learner via contextual interactivity, getting the learner to truly reflect. These strategies need to be built into the design in order to promote meaningful learning.

eLearning is about putting content online – If this were the case, eLearning costs could be reduced considerably by converting all textbooks to eBooks. We know however that the process of creating the right context and environment for meaningful learning is more complex. An instructional design strategy to breakdown, organize and contextualise content with the goal of teaching concepts and strategies geared at improving performance is required.

eLearning is essentially classroom training online – By now, you should recognise that this is a very limited view of eLearning. eLearning encompasses the wide spectrum of performance improving interventions using technology, for example intranets, knowledge portals, performance support systems, communities of practice, peer-to-peer discussion groups or synchronous text chat, voice or video based course conferencing. For optimal results, the type of eLearning used in must be aligned with the performance and learning objectives.

Using a wide variety of media will accommodate individual learning styles – Again, not necessarily. The degree to which an eLearning program caters to various learning styles is determined by the methodology used at the design and development stage. Certainly, including sound, images, video, animation and text throughout the program will ensure a greater equity for all types of learners. But more importantly, knowing which media best relates which kind of content and activity is a design technique that ensures that the information is communicated in the most optimal manner.

Better technology makes for better eLearning – Technology is simply a support. Finding the best technology to enhance the learning strategy is imperative. However, the best technology in a given instance doesn’t necessarily mean the latest or most impressive technology on the market. One of the biggest pitfalls of eLearning development is letting the technology drive the program. Rather, it is important to determine what the technological needs are and then find the best technology to meet those needs.

Technological improvements means eLearning improvements – Technological improvements can definitely mean lower development and implementation costs, it can improve navigational option and usability aspects, but it doesn’t guarantee a better instructional strategy or design. Technology can assist in the gathering and analysis of the information required to develop your strategy, but cannot develop the strategy. In addition, as technology becomes more complex and sophisticated, designing to exploit the full potential of the technology becomes an even greater challenge.

eLearning is expensive to produce, implement and update – If the wrong approach is used, it most definitely can be. Initial needs assessment, instructional design, prototype development and analysis, change management strategies and planned updates are all strategies that can reduce the costs of eLearning development. They should all be part of your strategy. In fact, the most expensive mistake in eLearning development is using the wrong eLearning strategy and having the project fail as a result.

Developing an eLearning Strategy

In order to make your performance improvement driven eLearning strategy a success, you must:

  • Perform a front-end systemic analysis of performance needs and organisational objectives;
  • Profile your learners, understanding their learning styles, needs, abilities and availabilities as well as the factors that will motivate them to participate;
  • Plan the development of your project with sufficient time and with milestones and deliverables;
  • Develop a prototype in the early stages to ensure that your project is on the right track. The prototype will also give you a better idea of what the project will look like, permitting you adjust your strategy early on and get a better idea when costing the rest of the project;
  • Implement a change management strategy and identify early on areas which will require updates, which in turn will help reduce costs;
  • Develop a promotional strategy to get learners motivated once the eLearning program is implemented. This might require getting some learners on board early on;
  • Evaluate your eLearning program regularly and make the required changes.

eLearning is a human performance improvement initiative that employs electronic technology. By that definition, consulting an Internet-based dictionary to find out the meaning of a word is a form of eLearning. Indeed learning is occurring, therefore improving performance by the means of an electronic technology. Though it is incidental and informal, it falls within the parameters of eLearning.

One of the pitfalls many encounter when developing an eLearning strategy is ignoring the wide spectrum of eLearning possibilities. They limit their potential by centering their approach around the digitization of content via impressive technology. They forget that, much like in the case of the user consulting the Internet-based dictionary, meaningful learning is personal, context-related and most effective when answering a specific need.

This error often occurs because somewhere along the line, we forgot that learning is an activity and we tried to turn it into a product. We packaged it, made it stand-alone and made it so universal that it lost its meaning. This approach might have been successful for short tutorials but doesn’t work well within an eLearning strategy geared towards performance improvement.