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 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!
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.