After 50 years of elearning, e-nough for now!

10 Apr
April 10, 2014

There are times when ‘great minds’ come together and do something that’s meant to be collectively and seriously clever, but actually reveals the deep cracks and divides that lie beneath – and that’s what’s happened recently in the eLearning industry.

I have to thank Donald Clark’s “Plan B” blog for drawing my attention to a post entitled “Gang-of-four’s Serious eLearning manifesto – all a bit melodramatic?”  Further investigation took me to the website for the Serious eLearning Manifesto  and here’s where I sat back from the screen and let out an almighty cry of exasperation.

Before I carry on it’s best that you familiarise yourself with the manifesto.

Done that? Right … here goes.

50 years and counting

First a little history . . . this e-learning gig is nothing new.  On 25th May 1961, John F Kennedy delivered his now famous “man on the moon” speech but amazingly, one year before that in 1960 at the University of Illinois, the PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automated Teaching Operations) system was created and e-learning was born.  For nearly ten years there were more users on PLATO than on ARPANET – the precursor to the Internet.  You can read more about this incredible invention here.

The origins of e-learning date back over 50 years – that’s a veritable lifetime in our technology-enhanced world.  And what have we learned in all that time? Well, according to the Serious eLearning Manifesto virtually nothing.  That’s right, after half a century of gurus and conferences and sales pitches and authoring tools and internet and hype and promises and thought leaders, we’re encouraged to sign up to a ‘movement’ that states the following:

“We also believe, with a sense of sadness and profound frustration, that most e-learning fails to live up to its promise.”

Is that really it?  After FIFTY YEARS of effort is this really the best we can say – “That most e-learning fails to live up to its promise”? And if that’s true then who’s to blame?  E-learning is an inanimate object. It can’t live up to its promises on its own – it requires professionals to make it come alive – and we know that there are stunning examples of e-learning. So the only plausible reason that e-learning has failed to live up to its promises is because we can’t be bothered because frankly, good e-learning is “just too hard”.

Putting a sticking plaster over the chasm

Let me be very clear here. Not all e-learning is bad, and not all e-learning companies are bad.  I also broadly agree with the manifesto as a useful checklist.  So if that’s the case, then why this post?

Well, the fact that the manifesto can even exist shows collectively that we’re doing a very poor job.  In a world where there are so many smart people who clearly know what’s good and not good, and with access to a world of research via the internet, how can we possibly be comfortable with the fact that this manifesto exists?

We’re clearly very happy serving up mediocrity to our learners

If you think I’m having a rant – and many will – then ponder this . . . How on earth can two “world class” e-learning organisations – with many awards to their name, and with  PhDs, learning theorists and specialist learning architects in their ranks – deliver e-learning that does the following:

Example 1:  Navigation buttons that do not work with any form of logic or consistency

Example 2:  Presenting a learner with a four part multiple-choice question where the first option says “None of the above”

I offer these as two real world examples from some courses I’ve recently assessed.  There were a whole host of other issues in these courses relating to screen design, readability, testing strategies and learning design – but I offer just two examples to make my point.

These courses were not at early alpha or beta stages; these were live courses.  These were courses that clients had paid good money for and these were courses intended to support an entire UK industry.  These were not ‘click next’ courses that had been knocked-up by an internal resource with little or no learning and/or design experience; these were the products of professional companies – and you know what – they sucked!  And if professional fee-earning e-learning companies can’t be bothered to get it right then what chance is there for the rest of us?

I reiterate that not all e-learning is bad and not all e-learning companies are bad. However, the existence of the manifesto clearly shows that something is seriously broken.

Where we possibly went wrong

Others will have their own opinions but I believe we’ve fallen foul of our own hype.  We’ve believed that if we keep saying it’s good e-learning then it must be.  We’ve believed that every new gizmo will make our learning better – indeed we feel we have to include the gizmos otherwise we’ll be seen to have failed.  We’ve decided that everything has be mobile, or available on a tablet because somehow that makes it better, and this means we also hate classrooms – despite the fact that a massive amount of learning is still delivered this way.

We’ve sold ourselves our own snake oil; we’ve believed our own hype and our own press.  We’ve failed to remember that e-learning – or any learning – is about good, honest, solid principles.  We have taken the shortcut to success and, like the bankers, have only ourselves to blame.  And like the bankers it’s not us that suffer, it’s other people – it’s the learners – and that’s just not right.  As Colin Steed, Chief Executive of the Learning and Performance Institute, said on Twitter: “Learners get the e-learning they don’t deserve” – damningly prophetic words from a long-time industry leader.

I’m embarrassed

I agree with what the manifesto says but I will not be signing it and I have been horrified to find some of the great ‘names’ in the industry only too happy to associate themselves with this.  How on earth can we sign up to something we’ve allowed to happen on our watch?  Where’s our pride, where’s the real challenge and where’s the planned action?  Let’s be brutally honest. Words are easy. I won’t believe this manifesto is having an effect until I start hearing about companies saying ‘no’ to the delivery of shoddy work.

And if you think that I’m the only one who’s decided to ‘tell it as it is’ then take a look across the internet and you’ll find others who are less then satisfied – Donald Clark is a major industry commentator and someone who’s ‘been there, done that.” You may want to read some of his thoughts here.

We weren’t shown excellence

When I looked at the launch video for the manifesto I was expecting something compelling.  I was sadly disappointed.

How many of you reading this post have actually sat through the near hour-long YouTube podcast of the launch?  I did.  It took four attempts because it was like pulling teeth.  I saw no great examples offered, no good practice shown and virtually no engagement.  I was bored to death.  The presenters broke their own manifesto rules – Doh, the slides and audio were often out of synch – and I nearly cried with laughter when the slide was shown and the words read aloud!  Really, we deserve far more than this.

What’s with e-learning anyway?

What’s so special about e-learning anyway?  What about classroom learning or social learning or leadership development? I mean, how many manifestos do we need?  Here’s a trick: read the manifesto and remove the ‘e’ from ‘e-learning’ – now that makes sense.


The manifesto is fine, but unless we have action, unless we apply pressure and unless we insist on better then we’ll be stuck with what we have. Our learners deserve the best.

Returning to John F. Kennedy, On September 12, 1962 at Rice University in Texas he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”  Now that’s a manifesto!

Final thoughts

Kavi Arasu from Asian Paints was one of the signatories for the manifesto, but he added these words from Charles Dickens which perfectly sum up the situation.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”  A Tale of Two Cities.

Call to action

Regardless of the manifesto, we all need to do something, to change, to be better, to want to deliver the best learning possible for our learners and our organisations.  Let’s stop debating in the halls and show real action in the workplace – then, and only then – we will have the elearning our learners so rightly deserve.

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10 replies
  1. Craig Taylor says:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for this post and your insights into the manifesto that has had so many people talking.

    2 questions if I may…

    1) who were the vendors whose e/l you commented on? I’m playing a little ‘Devil’s advocate’ here as I suspect you won’t reveal this BUT I believe it is our collective responsibility to (specifically) call these vendors out – ‘courage of conviction’ and all that!

    2) When you say

    “despite the fact that a massive amount of learning is still delivered this way.”

    do you mean ‘training’ as opposed to ‘learning’?

    Finally, I love the ‘call to action’ heading that you place at the end of your posts – I’ll be stealing with pride if you don’t mind 😉

    Keep ’em coming….


    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks as always for your comments. To answer your specific points:

      1. As you can imagine I’m not going to reveal the elearning vendors. This isn’t because I don’t have the courage of my convictions but because the work was carried out in the strictest confidence for two clients and I would not violate that agreement and trust. Needless to say though that I was horrified at some of the things being ‘served up’ as high quality elearning

      2. You’re right – I did mean training as opposed to learning – so thanks for the clarification.

      Finally, I’m glad you liked the call to action – please steal all you like – As Steve Jobs said “Good artists copy; great artists steal.”

      Thanks again for your comments and I’m looking forward to seeing change in this industry rather than increased rhetoric.


  2. tanyalau says:

    Hi Jonathan, thanks for your post, I’ve been enjoying your blog since we’ve been using some of your posts as inspiration for our OzLearn twitter chat.
    I posted this as a comment on Linkedin but not sure if you’ll see that so thought I’d post here too as I’d be interested in your thoughts….
    The problem isn’t with the Manifesto itself – I actually think it does a good job of bringing a performance focus to eLearning design which does often centre on content. I agree though that action, examples, working out loud is needed to back up high level statements. The REAL problem is what we discussed in the Tuesday’s OzLearn chat- insufficient clarity and scoping on the business requirement prior to design/development of a solution. Why does the business say ‘yes’ to poorly designed eLearning/learning? Often because it’s cheap and they want a solution NOW. Why do L&D enable the business to say ‘yes’ to poorly designed eLearning/learning?

    Often because we’re not doing a good enough job consulting with the business on their requirements, scoping the problem, and bowing to pressure to deliver something (anything…!) rather than thinking outside the content delivery square. Creative solutions aren’t about creative content design anymore – it’s about thinking beyond just content and how we can provide and embed support in the flow of work -> the right content, the right amount at just the right time – and do so with limited resources.

    …oh and certainly agree that the manifesto doesn’t just apply to elearning but equally to all learning – and I’m sure there is just as much badly designed classroom learning/training as there is online. Perhaps elearning just has more visibility…? And yes… the manifesto ‘reading’, I watched most of it live and did think at times they were blatantly going against what they were preaching, in terms of the delivery. More thought could’ve been put into that.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Tanya,

      I did see your LinkedIn comments – and have responded. For me, the manifesto really raised some serious concerns . . .

      I agree with the sentiments of the manifesto but am worried that after 50 years we have lost the plot!

      I know I’m a ‘grey beard’ in terms of CBT, elearning etc. however there was a time when we took care with what we delivered and the manner in which it was constructed and designed. I appreciate that ‘times change’ and new tools make the one difficult easy, but just like the advent of desktop publishing (DTP), cool tools do not make for a great newsletter.

      I fear that we have forgotten much of the learning undertaken since the 50’s. We have become slaves to the “do it now” rather than “do it right” – we have forgotten that a well-crafted question can have a real impact, that telling a learner that 2+2=4 and then asking “What does 2+2 equal?” is NOT learning, that the challenge has been lost and perhaps, more deeply, that we have forgotten that learners are highly intelligent people and for that reason we should ONLY deliver the very best – as and when appropriate.

      Now, we can easily add images, sound, video, animation and so on. Once this was a real challenge and so we always questioned the validity of adding ‘fancy’ content rather than creating a veritable landslide of media for the learner to plough through. We have forgotten that well-crafted words can convey all, that millions of colours amount to very little and that ‘showing our skills’ is not the issue – it is about conveying the message to the learners.

      I am a great fan of rock music – much to the chagrin of my two boys – but there’s there’s a lesson here. Some rock bands can only perform with massive amplification, tons of bright lights and all the rock band paraphernalia at their disposal but REAL artists are able to convey meaning with no more than a microphone and perhaps a guitar.

      Today – I am sad to say, much of what we deliver to learners is nothing more than garnish and we need to get rid of that – to get back to the heart of the issue – and deliver THAT with passion. Then, and only then, will we earn their respect, trust and engage them in the change we are ultimately seeking.


  3. Helen Blunden says:

    Thanks for the thought provoking post Jonathan. I deliberately didn’t comment on the manifesto when it came out and waited to see what reactions it had generated with this wide audience. It’s been interesting to watch and read how everyone has taken to it. I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head about a ‘do it now’ rather than a ‘do it right’ approach and admittedly, I don’t believe the solution will resolve itself. Within our industry, there are e-learning professionals who know, design and practice good design – who may work within organisations or externally with vendors. I have seen and experienced some fantastic online programs that were memorable, that included stories, that provided context and were created to solve a specific business problem. These programs were, in all cases, designed by people who had years of experience and development in adult learning principles, their tools and systems.

    However, I have seen numerous shockers created by people who had every good intention but in all of the cases, had to deliver on something at no cost, with no resources and simply “knocked something together”. Added to that, their own Learning and Development managers supported this to meet a business imperative to get something out at the cost of quality.

    I believe it’s only going to get worse. As our workplace is moving at a rapid pace, our internal learning design teams being made redundant; costs reduced and questions being asked as to why it takes so long to design a course and then identifying someone who has the capacity to learn a program and ‘whack something together’. I’m also seeing that there is a massive reliance on authoring tools – and no money spent on training people to use them properly. In my experience, I’m now seeing the move from asynchronous elearning delivery to synchronous delivery which has its own set of challenges where webinar tools are now used to deliver boring powerpoint lectures online with minimal interactivity and engagement. So if we thought that asynchronous page turners were boring our learners, here we are doing the same synchronously without adequate design of the program to include other activities as part of a blended program.

    It’s interesting times ahead for many workplaces as flexible workplace arrangements, mobile devices, social networking platforms and competition will come to the fore that will put an enormous pressure on learning teams to deliver quickly – if it’s not already doing so. Part of me believes that we are way behind the rest of the organisation – not only in our skills but also our attitudes. But it’s not just the people who are within the learning teams – the doers. I see major performance gaps with Learning and Development managers themselves who are in charge of these teams and who are eager to meet the needs of their client foregoing quality at the expense of delivering something – anything.

  4. Clark Quinn says:

    Jonathan, a little context. You’re right that it’s a shame. We’ve watched a decade and more of inaction continue ‘under our watch’. We had to do something. But what could four independent volunteers do? The manifesto is what we came up with, for better or worse. We recognize that there are lots of reasons why elearning is lagging, but at least one problem is that some segment of the designer population doesn’t seem to know. And the buyers, and the managers, and the executives. So this was a way to try to raise awareness. And we’d love to have copious annotated examples, but see the word ‘volunteer’ above. We’re hoping others will rise up to help, as we do have to pay some attention to our day jobs. And we’re still blogging and writing and speaking and more, so stay tuned! Thanks for the thoughtful consideration, and we welcome hearing how you’ve pulled some action into existence.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Clark, great to receive a comment from you – many thanks. As I said in my post I have nothing against the manifesto, I was just utterly appalled that those seemingly ‘in charge’ of our industry has somehow allowed it to fall into such a state. As a long term ‘elearning volunteer’ I agree that four people can only do so much – and you’ve certainly raised the issued and sparked debate – which is always good.

      As to my actions – I will continue to do what I’ve always done since my very first foray into elearning in 1989 (written in Mentor II) – and that is to ensure all learning is in support of the business, to challenge mediocrity and keep asking the ‘so what?’ question of vendors. I almost can’t wait for my opportunity to challenge someone whose signed up for the manifesto and still feels that c**p elearning is somehow ‘good enough’.

      I support the idea of the manifesto, I just wish it didn’t have an opportunity to exist.

  5. Joe Kirby says:

    Excellent blog. I had many of the same thoughts about the eLearning Manifesto. I also felt the presenters were promoting themselves not the discipline of instructional design. Thanks for the link to the “Big Dog”, looking forward to what he has to say.

    • Jonathan Kettleborough says:

      Hi Joe,

      Glad you liked the blog. I’ve shared some comments with Clark Quinn and believe the motives of the ‘manifesto team’ to be wholly honourable. Time will tell if the ‘movement’ has any real impact – I hope it does because there’s some dire elearning out there!


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  1. […] After 50 years of e-Learning, e-nough for Now: Here’s another thought-provoking post that discusses the reasons why the author won’t sign the Manifesto, this one from Jonathan Kettleborough (Managing Director, Corollis Ltd.) […]

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