Jay Cross
Jay Cross

New blog
Links & more

Subscribe with Bloglines
Enter your email address to subscribe to Internet Time Blog.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005
A Brief History of the Term eLearning and A Lesson for Portugal
Jay Cross, Internet Time Group

Special to Nov@ Formação magazine

People tell me I coined the term eLearning when I started writing about it on the web in 1998. In the spring of '99, nine of the top ten links on Alta Vista for e-Learning connected to Internet Time Group.

At Online Learning that fall, CBT Systems, a pioneer in CD-ROM based IT training, renamed itself "SmartForce, The e-Learning Company." This marked the first commercial use of the term eLearning. Greg Priest, the firm's CEO, said e-Learning is what you get when you take an e-Business approach to learning itself. Greg's vision of e-Learning embraced dynamic content, personalization that learns over time, rapid deployment, Internet and intranet delivery, interoperability with ERP, extreme scalability, top-tier security, and the ability to incorporate in-house programs. (DISCLOSURE: SmartForce was an Internet Time Group client throughout the transition period.)

"eLearning" was invented in the euphoria of web madness that swept through Silicon Valley in the wake of Netscape's IPO. In October '99, I explained that I had cooked up the term to win credibility more than to define a new approach to all learning:

"For twenty-five years, training departments and training vendors have tried to get the ear of senior management. Trainers change their titles to 'performance consultant,' training departments morph into corporate universities, and vendor brochures tout high ROI.

"At least nine out of ten of these efforts fail. Why? Because no matter what you call it, it's still really training. Training's a staff function, it always will be, and corporate management has other fish to fry. Would a mainstream corporate function really be satisfied with anything less than "Level 4" performance, i.e., making a difference?

"Perhaps e-Learning can change that. e-Learning is exciting. It's Internet. It's New Economy. Wall Street believes in it. The Fortune 1000 believes in it. Senior managers believe in it. e-Learning rides the e-Business wave.

"Traditional training has proven incapable of keeping up with today's pace of change. Many managers feel they've squandered their investments in training to-date and they're leery about being taken again. Perhaps the term "training" has outlived its usefulness.

"So let's shutter the training department in favour of an in-house e-Learning start-up. Let's adopt the can-do spirit of the Internet Age. Demand senior management commitment to the new order. Make learners responsible for their own learning. Hold managers accountable for providing speedy, convenient, effective access to it. Let's go for it. Now."
[Source: e is for Elephant, 10/99]

I envisioned eLearning as what corporate training could become:

* learning on Internet-age steroids: often real-time, 24/7, anywhere, anytime
* learner-centred, personalized to the individual & customized to the organization
* network-assisted, often assembling learning experiences on the fly
* a blend of learning methods -- virtual classroom, simulation, collaboration, community, even classroom...
* the whole learning enchilada, from assessment through testing and sometimes certification
* online administration -- handling registration, payment and charge-backs, and monitoring learner progress

[Source: TRENDZ, Training & Development magazine, November 1999]

In other words, eLearning takes advantage of tech but doesn't require it. Unlike France, where the Académie must approve the official definition of any word deemed legitimate, America defines its terms by usage. Many people used eLearning to mean computer-delivered training.

Six months after SmartForce introduced the term eLearning at Online Learning, ASTD's International Conference and Exposition met in Dallas. eLearning signs sprouted up all over the Expo floor. Obviously, the vendors had not re-tooled their content overnight. Instead, they were reverse-engineering the meaning of eLearning to fit their existing products. Email for lessons? Sounded like eLearning to some people.

Putting new labels on old bottles is hardly new in the training business. Vendors who claimed to have eLearning when in fact they did not fleeced a few suckers but the sham was otherwise benign.

Real trouble cropped up when semantic debates held organizations back from making decisions. HP spent six months wrangling about the meaning of eLearning. Defining eLearning became like the psychiatrist's inkblot test: you see what you want to see. Pent-up backlash against computer-based training muddied the argument, as did instructors who feared for their jobs. VCs confused the matter by theorizing great ROI from automating the classroom. At one point, Cisco mandated that all its learning be eLearning.

Many organizations actually tried to implement computer-delivered training with no outside support, encouragement, follow-up, or management support. Guess what? It didn't work. People stayed away in droves. The instructors kept their jobs. Luddites slept well.

The term "blended" was invented to cover over the short-sightedness of computer-only training. Instead of waking up to the idiocy of computer-only eLearning, one could adopt something new, "blended learning." A mini-industry has grown up around defining, developing, delivering, and writing reports about blends. If this prompts designers of learning not to put all their eggs in one basket, it's positive. Old hands in the industry scratch their heads and wonder what learning is not blended.

Today "eLearning" gets five million hits on Google. "e-Learning" gets more than ten million hits. (I dropped the hyphen in late 1999.) eLearning is a book, a magazine, a conference, a journal, an award category, a forum, a guild, a centre, a certificate, an alliance, an age, a guru, a foundation, a network, a solution, a FAQ, a community, a glossary, an academy, an initiative of the European Commission, and of course, a delivery system.

I don't talk much about eLearning any more. Then again, I don't focus on learning either. I'm still trying to focus the conversation on performance. Learning is but one of many streams feeding into performance.

The lesson for Portugal? Don't get caught up in definitions the way we did in America. If it works, do it, regardless of what it is called. If it doesn't work, don't do it. In the words of DAU President Frank Anderson, "If you are riding a dead horse, dismount."


Post a Comment

<< Home

About Us | Contact Us | Home |

Powered by Blogger

Copyright 2005, Internet Time Group, Berkeley, California