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Relearning e-Learning: Principles for Success

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Like many of the overhyped e-revolutions, Internet-enabled e-learning has fallen on hard times. But looking back at the recent click-and-drag curricula and virtual classrooms, it seems clear the problem lies not with the concept of e-learning, but with its execution.

What did the dozens of failed e-learning businesses spawned by the Internet do wrong? Above all, we have learned that electronic pedagogy is manifestly not a substitute for real teachers in real classrooms. Rather, e-learning will realize its true value only as a supplement to and enhancement of traditional methods. By relearning e-learning, businesses can leave behind irrationally exuberant visions to follow a more rational path. In the next phase of the journey, three business principles can guide e-learning providers 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 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 a single 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 information technology staff on a customized software solution.

Sometimes the bites come in larger chunks. A Booz Allen Hamilton–led study 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.

For these full-time students, e-learning will succeed only to the extent that it supplements and fills gaps in traditional education 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.

In some instances, e-learning can provide a better, more interactive, and more cost-effective delivery device. In particular, e-learning tools are a viable substitute for print media. Advantages include easier customization, greatly expanded indexing and word-search functionality, and supplemental multimedia features, such as video and audio clips, hypertext links, and real-time test scoring.

In the near term, the greatest opportunities for e-learning providers lie within the professional and corporate segments. The best customers will be corporations, working adults, and people preparing for certification and examination. E-learning will also help existing institutions teach students
differently, using a wider variety of tools and a more customized approach.

Bits and bytes will probably never replace the classroom-based educational tradition in our society, but it will allow that tradition to molt and adapt to a new world in which learning is a part of each one of our days.

Reggie Van Lee,
Reggie Van Lee is a Booz Allen Hamilton vice president and the managing partner of the firm’s New York office. He has extensive experience developing and implementing major growth strategies and change programs for media and high-tech companies.

Sumita Bhattacharya,
Sumita Bhattacharya is a principal with Booz Allen Hamilton in New York. She works with education clients to develop and implement e-learning business strategies.

Tina Nelson,
Tina Nelson is a senior associate with Booz Allen Hamilton in New York. She works with education clients to develop and implement e-learning business strategies.
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