2011 Research Study into Virtual Learning
My instinct is always to mistrust and challenge statistics. If you read my April 2010 blog Straight and Crooked Thinking, then you’ll recognise why I say this. But, I have just finished reading Harnessing Online Learning, a benchmark report by Towards Maturity, for Redtray. I am surprised to find myself so ready to accept its compelling findings and the conclusions that it reaches.
The voice of The Devil’s Advocate is seldom silent. It’s running a script in my head right now – first, the much quoted, “There are lies, dammed lies and statistics”, most commonly associated with Mark Twain. Then the much misquoted, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” which was the response of the notorious Mandy Rice Davies to Lord Astor’s denial that he had ever met her. Nevertheless, fearlessly fired by the TM report, I’ll make two bold assertions:
- The benefits of live online learning are proven, (“Lies, damned lies and statistics”, says The Voice).
- More organisations should be doing it, and doing it better, too! (I’ll declare an interest -Onlignment is a supplier of advice and skill development in this area, so, go on Voice, “He would (say that), wouldn’t he?”).
I’ve pre-empted the objections and got my retaliation in first, because it would be an opportunity lost if scepticism were to cloud (deliberate choice of word) the significance of the trends that Towards Maturity has charted. Let’s open up the report and delve a little deeper behind the headlines.
The accelerated pace of adoption
Should we be surprised that the adoption of live online technology for communication and learning has accelerated? I think not – after all the logistical and ecological arguments have always been there – travel is costly, potentially dangerous, time-consuming and inconvenient. Global organisations with a dispersed workforce find it awkward to bring people together for training and to improve operational effectiveness. We all must protect the Planet.
The absence of “hard data”
TM’s report has some numbers to validate these long-held assumptions. And yet those numbers are a measure of individuals’ perceptions. The Report expressed “shock” that only 13% of respondents were able to quantify even the simplest of comparative cost-benefits with hard data. How much had they saved on travel and subsistence; how many hours of trainers’ and learners’ productive time? I was not shocked, especially when I reminded myself that the people who had given their time and opinions to this survey came from L&D, a fraternity that is not best known for its capacity to translate its product (training) into tangible, desirable benefits with indisputable numbers attached.
Declarations of faith
Still there were the conclusions for all to find. “What have you L&D advocates and enthusiastic adopters of live online learning done for your organisations?” one might ask. And what answer should we expect? Shall we hear, “Dunno?”, or shall we hear, “We’ve DEFINITELY reduced travel time and costs (more than 40% of us); we’ve COMPREHENSIVELY opened access to more learners (42%), we’ve EMPHATICALLY reduced the costs of training (35%), and SERIOUSLY improved the quality of training (23%).”
Hopes and expectations
The Poet warned us:
“Between the idea and the reality… falls the Shadow.”
T.S. Eliot. The Hollow Men.
In the TM Benchmark Report, 57% hoped to reduce the overall costs of training; 35% claimed to have achieved it. 66% aspired to improve the quality of training; 23% believed they have done so. Separate the reality from the idea, and what you have left is a profound belief that almost 1 in 4 users of live online technology for learning have raised the quality of training in their organisations, while reducing the cost. Worth having? I’d say so! Separate the fact from the opinion and there, gnawing into my consciousness is The Voice, asking me to show what criteria define “quality” and what measures “improvement” in these people’s estimation.
Factors getting in the way of success
An examination of the obstacles that seem to prevent organisations from using live online learning is revealing. Experienced users and newcomers alike recognised and reported on a gap in the skills of trainers. New initiatives were frustrated by the negative expectations of a target population. They had been disappointed by unsuccessful earlier forays by suppliers (presumably internal) who were not ready or equipped to manage the change. This makes very good reading indeed for one who supplies, as Onlignment does, direction, training, coaching and confidence-building in the areas of online learning and communication. But don’t shoot the messenger! This is the first time an unbiased and scientific report on this scale (180 participants from a range of organisational backgrounds) has been done in the UK. We should be glad of it, and look forward to regular updates to see how robust the forecasts will have been. If it is true (and I’d like to predict it is an under-statement) that the use of virtual classrooms is set to increase dramatically in the next 18 months, then we’d all better get on with preparing our tables in the face of “reluctance to shift to virtual” (52% in the Public sector), and despite anxiety about the security of “The Cloud” (variously between 43% and 75%).
The “old dispensation”
Apocryphal tales of success will help; sufficient volumes of Good News stories will make Live Online Learning feel more like a “Movement” and less like an organisational “lifestyle choice”. More than that, the conspicuous airing and sharing of ideas, examples and innovative approaches is likely to inspire others to broaden their concept of what you can do with these tools. Eliot’s poetry comes to mind again; this time I think of “The Journey of the Magi”, where he describes the kings returning to their homes, no longer at ease with the way things used to be done, and the people that are still doing them the old way.
“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.”
T.S. Eliot “The Journey of the Magi”
The report shows that there are still lots of presentations, demonstrations and briefings going on. I want to stimulate, see, copy and share great ways of working live online to engage, enthuse and commit people to learn from tutors, peers and materials, and to build together new and better ways of doing their jobs. Behind those assertions that the quality of training was improved, I detect a shift towards live online learning being a prompt to check that “L&D” is delivering what learners need, and not just what Training is best-placed to deliver. I want to identify and congratulate those with the vision and courage to embrace live online learning as a new rubric.
Come out, come out, wherever you are!
We need to hear more from the pioneers who are discovering ways of intensifying the learner experience online rather than making compromises to mirror the old way of doing things and shoehorn unsuitable teaching and learning transactions into an unnatural medium. Most of all, we need a steady flow of believable numbers, but not just to show comparative cost- saving. I can deliver rubbish to you fast and efficiently, or slow and laboriously; which would you prefer? I want to see the £, $ and EUR recovered through increased optimism, improved efficiency and operational effectiveness.