The early days of e-learning adoption are behind us, and it is now in the mainstream. With new tools and methods so readily available, it is important to understand how, where and under what circumstances they are best applied. Despite new tools, the classroom setting has not vanished and, in some cases, is the leading choice for particular types of learning. There’s also a surprising twist in terms of movement between synchronous and asynchronous delivery.
Every other month, Chief Learning Officer magazine’s Business Intelligence Board answers a variety of questions to help gauge the issues, opportunities and attitudes that make up the role of a senior learning executive. New delivery options have been spawned in recent years. To understand how different delivery methods have evolved and what plans are in place for the future, Business Intelligence Board members were asked to share information about deployment of classroom, synchronous e-learning, asynchronous e-learning and on-the-job training. Participants responded and commented on their current environments and their plans for future delivery. Some of the results may seem counterintuitive, but careful examination tells us that there is indeed a method in the madness.
Where Are We Now?
Most respondents still deliver between 30 percent and 60 percent of their learning in the classroom. The second most popular delivery method is asynchronous e-learning: Between 10 percent and 30 percent of training is offered in this way. The least popular methods are synchronous e-learning and on-the-job training. Blended learning was not an option in the survey, because the goal was to understand the detailed mix of delivery. However, the commentary given through open-ended questions indicates that many organizations take a blended path.
The majority indicated that their asynchronous e-learning has grown over the past year or so, while synchronous e-learning and on-the-job training have stayed largely the same. Roughly half of respondents indicated that they are doing less instructor-led training (ILT) than a year ago.
CLOs in large numbers (73 percent) said that they plan to deliver more asynchronous e-learning in the future, while a smaller majority (52 percent) plans to reduce ILT delivery. Thus, when companies move away from classroom learning, they go first to asynchronous e-learning—the least expensive delivery method.
Behind the Choices
The top reasons CLOs give for selecting a particular method were in some cases predictable, and in others, quite interesting. Live, synchronous training, whether in the classroom or via Web conference, offers interactivity, which is a key point for consideration depending on the skills being conveyed. The least important driver for classroom training is ensuring completion of the course. Interestingly, cost savings was not the number-one driver for asynchronous e-learning. Rather, respondents said that the most important factor behind use of asynchronous is flexibility in timing. Figures 1 through 4 illustrate the top drivers for particular methods.
Several respondents indicated that the need to ensure consistency across a diverse or global enterprise is the key driver for delivering via asynchronous e-learning. Others said that asynchronous fills the bill when demand is low for a particular course offering. Yet another respondent indicated that excellent course development skills lead asynchronous to be as effective as other means. Perhaps in-house course development capabilities do have a direct impact on delivery choices.
How Does Delivery Match Skill?
The typical learning organization sees demand for a variety of content types. As such, the Business Intelligence Board answered questions regarding the primary delivery method used for different types of learning. For soft skills training, the majority (65 percent) indicated that they employ classroom delivery. Only 4 percent deliver soft skills training through synchronous e-learning. And 65 percent indicate that this has not changed over the course of the past 12 to 18 months.
For technical skills, the highest percentage also delivers training via the classroom, but the mix is far greater. Of all the skills presented, the on-the-job training percentage was highest for technical skills, with 15 percent of respondents reporting that they use this approach. As with soft skills, not much has changed in the past year or so.
Management skills training delivery is overwhelmingly skewed to classroom delivery, with 74 percent of respondents choosing this method. A clear majority, 69 percent, indicate that this has not changed over the past 12 to 18 months.
Finally, for office skills, instructor-led classroom training was in the minority. The most popular choice was asynchronous e-learning, and once again, the majority of participants indicated that this had not changed substantially in the past year or so. This finding might point to the capabilities related to in-house content development. Much of today’s office skills training can be found in off-the-shelf courses developed by third parties and therefore does not require internal development.
In Their Own Words
Respondents also gave general feedback on learning delivery. Some said that their organizations are working toward e-learning, but are not there yet:
- “We realize that we need to incorporate e-learning more in our organization. We have formed a team to look into different e-learning methods and research which will work best for us. This may take a year or two until we fully implement our e-learning.”
- “We are trying to move toward a higher degree of Web-based delivery methods, but the technology and bandwidth are prohibitive. In addition, many of our employees are not computer-literate, which also poses challenges.”
Others are moving to a blended or just-in-time approach:
- “We have evaluated our training needs and determined that in the next five years, we will replace a large percentage (50 percent) of instructor-led classroom training through a blended training approach, planning for conducting 70 percent through e-learning (combo of synchronous and asynchronous) methodology.”
- “I believe we will be focusing in a much greater way on workflow learning—embedding learning into systems, technologies and processes as they are implemented. There will be a greater emphasis on electronic performance support using handheld or other field devices.”
Others observed that the method needs to match the goal:
- “One-size-fits-all training—classroom or synchronous e-learning—has a very low retention rate. The retention rate is rarely high enough to produce the required change in behavior or increase in performance.”
- “Learning delivery methods should be driven by the content, and the best way to impart that content is not by cost or efficiency. The goal should be to ensure the best possible learning environment given the type, nature and scope of the content, as well as how best to acquire the knowledge or skill to be trained. Delivery method is the tail; learning and acquiring knowledge and skill is the dog. The tail should not wag the dog.”
Several considerations came through loud and clear from the majority of respondents. First, no one method is the panacea—CLOs need multiple weapons in the arsenal. Second, asynchronous e-learning has its flaws in terms of retention and the cost and quality associated with its development. Third, live instructor-led training will not diminish entirely due to cultural considerations, learner preference and the demand for advanced skills training. Despite the high-cost model associated with instructors and physical classrooms, good e-learning development can also be expensive and is not easily attained by every organization.
One surprise was the low adoption rate for synchronous e-learning, given that it could essentially provide the best of both worlds. It is cheaper than classroom to deliver, though perhaps not to develop, but interactivity is retained. This is likely attributable to a number of facts, some of which may include:
- E-learning in all forms is seeing slower-than-expected adoption, as reported to IDC by leading vendors of content creation.
- A big driver of e-learning in certain industries has been mandated compliance and regulatory training. In some cases, this becomes less about providing the best learning environment and more about simply being able to prove that training took place. In this case, asynchronous e-learning fills the need.
- With blended learning apparently as popular as it is, there is less demand for the online portion to be synchronous and interactive as well.
Lisa Rowan is program manager of HR and staffing services research at IDC, a global market intelligence and advisory firm. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.