Why eLearning fails & what to do about it


This article is written by someone with 20+ years experience doing pretty much all the things there are to do in the eLearning industry and larger field of Training. While I’m not exactly the world’s foremost expert, I do know a lot — because I have done a lot. And it wasn’t a glamorous journey, I’ve made more than my share of mistakes over the years. I’ve simply tried really hard not to make the same ones twice!

I believe in the spirit of Learning & Development. I believe in the community of awesome people who show up to fight the good fight everyday in spite of not having the resources needed to do it very well. And I believe in putting every process we teach into practice first, before we try and go preach about it. This article may read like a scathing indictment in places, but it isn’t. This is an expression of what I see as our current pain points, and what (IMHO) needs to be addressed before we as an industry can move forward.

1. We have no standards

It’s literally true, y’know. In our industry there is no collectively-accepted definition of what eLearning even is, let alone what makes a valid one.

We have to know what we mean when we use words like assessment, course, learning path, etc. We have to know when we’re grading those assessments in a mathematically valid fashion, and when it’s time to gently make fun of each other for doing otherwise (hey, we’ve all done it!). We have to establish with each other as professionals when we are making professionally-crafted experiences and when we’re choosing to give people what they asked for instead of what they need.

We do know these things, most of the time. And we could establish language that helps us keep on track and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. Most industries have standards that allow them to do this. Rarely are they perfect, and often they’re quite arbitrary. They work when they help us go forward faster or safer or cheaper or better than we would otherwise.

Proposed Solution:
Declare some standards! These don’t need to be controlled centrally or mandated or used in exclusionary ways. Like The Agile Manifesto, it could be as simple as a small group of us coming up with a well-thought-through list of what works, then giving it a label so we can tell when we’re doing it and when we’re not.

2. We scale too early

We have a tendency to start developing content or some other solution before we really know enough about the audience it is going to, and how to tell if it is working for them. Until we can prove success with one single user, we cannot add more users to prove more success. People hate it when I say this, but…

If you don’t know how to show if ANYONE will EVER learn from what you’re making, you’re not ready to make anything yet.
It doesn’t matter who requested what or how important their position is or how much you want to please them or how much people are demanding the training you desperately want to make. Don’t do it. It’s too early. You don’t know if you’re scaling smart actions or stupid ones yet.

…And it is far too easy to scale stupidity.

Proposed Solution: Test everything!
Who needs this training anyway? I dunno, test it. Do they think they need it? I dunno, test it. Does the process we’re talking about training them on actually work for them? I dunno, test it. Is it worth making this training? I dunno, test it. Can training even solve this problem? I dunno, test it. Will people use this training for reference when they need it? I dunno, test it. How long will it take to approve future content changes and resolve questions? I dunno, test it.

None of these are very difficult tests, most of us simply aren’t in the habit of doing any testing prior to scaling up a new “learning solution” that isn’t really.

3. We have broken stuff everywhere

Ok, personal pet peeve for this one. I bet you I could go into your internal training platforms right now and come up with a dozen different broken links in 20min or less. I can say that with confidence because I’ve done such QA tasks for dozens of clients, and nobody ever gets this right.

So not only have we left undefined what “working training” looks like, we know that we have broken things in our trainings right now that we don’t bother to fix. In most content management systems, certainly anything serving web content to the public, there is an option to run what’s commonly known as a “broken link checker”. It does what it says, it crawls every link within every image and anchor tag and tests if it works or not. I don’t know a single LMS/LXP that does this. Maybe they exist, but 25 years in to such products and we don’t even have the basics needed for maintenance in an ever-changing web.

Proposed Solution: Demand the logs!
Every vendor worth their salt has records of the 404 errors in their system, they just don’t think they have to show these to us. And they don’t…unless we create a market for those who will. If links originating from our vendor systems don’t work, and they already know this, and they need only to tell us so that we can fix it. (In fairness, there are other better ways to run link checks too, this is just the easiest way I can think of.) Vendors in general won’t do anything until it becomes a competitive edge. Band together and we can make it one!

4. We like to feel smart

Actually serving people means making them smarter. And instilling a sense of confidence in their (correct) answers. Unfortunately, far too many people got into corporate training because they just like to hear themselves talk, or tell other people what to do, or look good in front of others.

We are in a business function that is the opposite of that. We in L&D are wrong most of the time about most of the things. We are not the SMEs after all, we are learner advocates, defenders of our people’s time and optimizers of organizational workflow. If we’re not wrong every single day, then either we’re aiming too low or we’re not testing and updating our models often enough. Or both.

Solution: Get out!
If you like to be right, you should probably be in another field. In fact, I would like to kindly ask you to find another profession. When you’re not comfortable with being wrong, you’re making the rest of us uncomfortable with you. There, I said it. Sorry, not sorry.

5. We don’t actually know what we’re doing

Oftentimes all the talking is covering for the fact that we’re faking it. We don’t actually know what all our people need to do or know or be, do we? I mean, especially if we didn’t bother testing any of our assumptions before we scaled up on a solution, right?

In the business of learning, uncertainty reigns supreme and change is the only constant. You’re either comfortable operating in this ambiguity or you have issues with imposter syndrome. But it’s good to remember what makes us imposters or not.

You’re not an imposter because you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re an imposter when you pretend to know what you don’t. Academia is a frequent but flawed reference point for workplace training. It suggests that there is one right answer and that someone more important than you will grade you on it and find out if you’re faking. Yeah, that’s not how it works in real life. There are multiple right answers, and you only need one to move forward. Though the more answers you have, the better you’ll be at selecting the right one for the right person in the right situation.

Proposed Solution: Learn & Develop, dammit!
If the last item triggered you, you’ll love this one. Until we are the best people in our organization at learning & developing, we don’t have credibility. Nor should we.

IT people know how computers work better than Salespeople who can sell better than the Finance folks who can balance books better than us. That’s all well and good, we need to be better learners than all of them put together, and we can start by learning about what we do, where it comes from, and how to do it better. If you’re looking for where to start, here’s my new favorite recommendation.

It starts with us.

Nothing that I’ve listed here has to stay the way it is. Changes come as soon as enough of us collectively decide it’s time for change.

It starts here. With you and with me.

This is my attempt to practice what I preach, and to personalize it. I believe this is not for others to do, it is our work. This is our profession, and our chance to be the change we wish to see in the world.

Alright, so this was my turn, and now it’s yours. I’m ready to begin when you are. Share or comment if you agree, or if you don’t.

Let’s come together and make things better as only we can!

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