The e-learning market has long been predicted to grow, indeed it is over a decade since Andy Grove of  Intel fame predicted that  e-learning will be the next big thing….and somehow the promise, in the eyes of many, has never quite materialised. Yet quietly and perhaps quite unnoticed after the dotcom bubble burst of 2000  the last decade has seen quite remarkable growth in e-learning, it must be the “after the hype effect.”

Today we see the UK having the largest e-learning industry in the EU, with more than 400 companies specialising in e-learning for the corporate learning market alone. Usage levels amongst learners and organisations continue to move forward strongly. Indeed e-learning is the only part of the corporate training market that is growing.

Overall spend on training since 2008-9 is markedly down, with a 17% decline in use of external trainers by companies, and most training budgets in companies under consistent downward pressure, all this has driven the market for e-learning, as the business case becomes clearer and clearer.

Learning Light’s (one of the most respected industry researchers) market forecasts indicate that expenditure on corporate e-learning is growing at over 6% per year, and many e-learning developers are reporting sales increasing by over 20% per year.

So we answer the question posed “is e-learning becoming more popular in the UK?” with a YES – We can see this from the growth in e-learning companies turnover, we also see new e-learning companies being established regularly. We observe the switch in training spend from face to face to e-learning principally to save money, therefore we can confidently conclude that e-learning is growing in popularity with companies and we would add equally importantly with learners.

It has been the growth in popularity with learners that perhaps been the most outstanding achievement for e-learning in the last 5 years. E-learning did have a poor reputation is some eyes, but the creativity deployed by learning designers and learning content developers, using gaming, animation and video to create engaging effective e-learning scenarios and courses has been quite spectacular.

This creativity in which the UK leads Europe has also seen the industry adopt new technologies to deliver learning, and the mobile/smart phone device and tablets are the most prominent present example.
–          Will the rise of smartphones, tablets and other consumer technology impact on its popularity?

In the hype cycle mobile learning (mlearning) is not new, but it has been the arrival of 3g networks and smart phones that have turned the promise into reality.4g networks promise to bring even better performance and allow for truly mobile pervasive learning and communication.

Our view is that mlearning will grow in usage and grow in popularity and importance, and the e-learning industry is already very effectively unlocking the learning potential of these devices.

Already we see Apple’s i-tunes U (university) with learning Apps gaining in importance, and other operators and networks are all looking for competitive advantage that can be gained from innovation in learning delivery on smartphones and tablets. Perhaps we should coin a new piece of shorthand: PLearning – the P for Portable!

The benefits of using mobile devices to allow anytime anyplace learning are obvious, but the ability of the mobile device to provide locational sensitive learning and use augmented reality technologies is really quite significant.

These devices are however not suitable for all forms of learning,  screen size and other limitations mean that only learning that is designed for them will maintain the level of quality that is so important to the learner. So we do not expect wholesale conversion of lots of learning to be delivered on smart phones, tablets offer a better platform for much learning, and many organisations are investing heavily in them.

The ability of smartphones and tablets to create user generated content to share is also of great significance, and learning episodes created and shared on youtube is now common place.

They will also grow in importance in what is termed “second screen learning” as tools for interaction and communication with others in learning environments, especially virtual classrooms.

Virtual classrooms will become increasingly popular (rather like webinars have become popular in the last 5 years) for training seminars delivered by real tutors. The virtual classroom will (and indeed already are) utilising avatar technologies so each learner can have a photo – realistic presence in the virtual classroom. The tutor will engage and deliver the course through their principle screen, but the learners will use the second screen device (tablet or smartphone) to importantly socialise,  communicate or carry out research or undertake tasks or just tweet (as is often the case at many conferences now).

–          What are the key benefits of e-learning courses when compared with traditional formats?

e-learning courses have offered many benefits in terms of cost and convenience, and this has been well known and recognised for some time. The new generation of e-learning using gaming, simulation and video as well as animation has allowed much more complex issues to be explored.

Learning games now allow for collaboration and team building of global teams for instance. Complex events can be modelled and experiential learning allows learners to explore the consequences of decisions.

The speed at which e-learning courses can be created and delivered to multiple locations allows for organisations to deliver learning that is business critical in a much shorter time it would take to deliver in a more traditional manner. This has been one of the greatest drivers in the adoption of e-learning.

It is not uncommon for highly effective courses using rapid development tools and techniques to be developed in 2 weeks and rolled out to support a critical business issue.

Likewise often these same development techniques are used to support the launch of new products or services into the market place. This approach offers speedy development and Learning Management Sytems (LMS) ensure thoroughness of delivery of the learning message (no one can miss the course as its availability is 24/7) and e-learning also brings standardisation of message. These attributes offered by e-learning are proving crucial to the successful launch of new products and services for many organisations.

e-learning is proving very adept at delivering system simulations training in call centres. The systems are accurately simulated to support skilling up new members of staff. The results are hugely impressive, delivering much improved time to competence, reduced labour turnover and higher levels of customer satisfaction due to the realism of the training, as well as saving money.

          Are there any particular challenges that organisations may need to overcome when branching out into e-learning?

Our advice remains consistent, what is the learning requirement of the organisation? What does it need to achieve with its learners to improve corporate performance? Do not become fixated with the technology first, not every situation will need a wonderful animation or simulation, – it may actually get in the way of what the learner needs to know! Do not “solutioneer” with technology, be clear as to what you wish to achieve and ensure you have a compelling narrative that illustrates the role that learning will play in achieving the desired outcome.

Sadly we come across too many flawed learning projects we have to rescue, so start with performance in mind, write down what changes (and how you measure them) you require, (we do this using a balanced scorecard) assess your learners skills and attitudes. Make sure you have a clear learning design process in mind, and that any vendor you may choose understands learning and technology. It is the learning design that will make the difference in the final analysis, by aligning the most appropriate technology to the learning requirement.