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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Relearning e-Learning: Three Principles for Success

Providers of click-and-drag curricula and virtual classrooms have stumbled, but the e-learning sector is poised for a comeback.

Like many of the overhyped e-revolutions, Internet-enabled e-learning turned out to be another great concept seemingly doomed by its execution. But its near-term outlook is not bleak. In fact, forecasters are predicting a revival in the total e-learning market, which will catapult revenues to between $12 billion and $14 billion by 2004, from about $5.3 billion in 2000.

Learning from Failure
In the K-12 sector, ZapMe! offered free computers to schools and access to hundreds of education sites in exchange for collecting demographic and Web-surfing data about students. MamaMedia, launched with $50 million in funding in 1999, targeted so-called “edutainment” learning products for the at-home under-12 market. Both services failed as educational tools in part because many schools viewed them as too commercial to integrate into the curriculum.

“Forecasters predict a revival in the total e-learning market will catapult revenues to between $12 billion and $14 billion by 2004, from about $5.3 billion in 2000.”
In the higher education segments, e-learning’s early incarnations flunked because they merely aped traditional post-secondary institutions. For example, the UNext consortium of top business schools offers diplomas from Cardean University, a newly accredited institution. UNext spent more than $1 million per course to develop an Internet curriculum, but has enrolled only 3,000 students to date. Similarly, textbook publisher Harcourt’s online “college” offered full curricula and hoped to grant degrees. Instead, Harcourt U closed its classes forever in July 2001.

Three Principles for Success
Above all, these early e-learning initiatives taught us that electronic education is not a substitute for real teachers in real classrooms. Rather, e-learning will realize its true value only as a supplement to traditional methods. In the next phase of development, three business principles can guide providers of e-learning products and services toward success:

  • Principle 1: Deliver education in bite-sized chunks. The typical post-secondary school consumer of e-learning via the Internet is practical and task-focused. These students enroll in virtual programs to master a particular skill. Most have limited time; they want to learn quickly and conveniently.

    Much as the milk industry revived stagnating sales with convenient single-serve containers for people on the go, e-learning companies should cultivate “single-serve” product offerings for these learners. Single-serve education is focused on one clear subject with relatively limited scope. In many cases, it is a unit or module focused on teaching a single concept. For example, in just a few minutes a teacher might locate, download, and display a short video that illustrates an event from history. Or a corporation might piece together several modules to rapidly train IT staff on a customized software solution.

    Sometimes the bites come in larger chunks. A study led by Booz Allen Hamilton for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Council on Education Technology found that MIT alumni were more interested in obtaining “knowledge updates” than in pursuing further degrees. Such updates could take the form of research papers, relevant articles, or mini-tutorials. Mostly, alumni desired these knowledge updates to keep current professionally, and most people were willing to pay for these services.
  • Principle 2: Fill gaps in the traditional education market. Traditional channels will continue to play a dominant role in the lives of most young learners in the pre-secondary market (i.e., students under 22 years of age). They offer immersive learning experiences and fill a critical socializing role for young adults, a role that could never be duplicated online.

    “Early e-learning initiatives have taught us that electronic education is not a substitute for real teachers in real classrooms.”
    For these full-time students, e-learning will succeed only to the extent that it supplements and fills gaps in traditional educational channels. Supplemental learning has existed for decades. (Remember correspondence courses?) Supplements emerge when traditional education channels are unresponsive to a need. Examples of learning that thrives on the margins today are test preparation programs, continuing professional education, vocational and technical training, and part-time degree and extension courses.
  • Principle 3: Provide better delivery devices. In health care, a delivery device is the mechanism through which a given therapy is administered, for example, a syringe or an I.V. tube. Like therapeutic substrates, new thoughts and ideas are introduced to a learner through such educational “delivery devices” as lectures, textbooks, workbooks, and videos.
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  1. “Business Schools: Fighting the Enemy Within,” by Paul O. Gaddis, s+b, 4Q 2000. Click here.
  2. “E-Education Is the New New Thing,” by Michael Barker, s+b, 1Q 2000. Click here.
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