Skip to contentSkip to navigation

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.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

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.

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.

Opportunities by Sector
The greatest opportunities for e-learning lie with the corporate and professional segments. Corporations spent more than $30 billion on training in 2000, ranging from job-specific skills to more general ones like writing. Many of these are perfect for e-learning because they’re bite-sized and supplemental. What’s more, online education can significantly reduce corporate travel expenses for training.

“Corporations spent more than $30 billion on training in 2000, ranging from job-specific skills to more general ones like writing. Many of these are perfect for e-learning.”
E-learning products for the K-12 classroom will be designed not to replace teachers and textbooks, but to make them more effective. In the short-term, digital classroom materials will be used primarily for presentation purposes, with teachers accessing content clips or simulations to enhance lectures and illustrate key concepts. Longer term, individual students or small groups of students will use learning software more.

Electronic assessment and diagnostic tools are promising products to identify weaknesses of individual students and to help create custom assignments and tutorials. In addition, there is an opportunity to position e-learning tools to test a teacher’s competence. To succeed in this market, however, e-learning companies will have to gain accreditation with the department of education of individual states to ensure that offered courses can be used to fulfill training requirements.

As in K-12, e-learning in higher education will play a support role in full-time higher education programs, primarily providing supplemental materials, such as electronic syllabi, course materials, and tests.

The University of Phoenix Online has set the standard for part-time adult continuing education in cyberspace. The for-profit, publicly traded institution offers accredited degree programs for adults in such fields as business and technology. The University of Phoenix Online has been successful largely due to its narrow focus and its ability to gain scale through a nationwide roll-out; courses are developed centrally and then offered to students anywhere on the Internet, maintaining quality control while cutting costs.

“The milk industry revived stagnating sales with convenient single-serve containers for people on the go. Similarly, e-learning companies can offer single-serve products focused on one subject.”
But Internet-enabled e-learning may not be offered as successfully to lifetime learners, who take courses simply for fun and enrichment. (Such extension courses, historically delivered to post-college adults in a classroom setting after work or on weekends, have been popular since the 1940s.) The huge range of topics covered by such courses makes scale difficult to achieve. Plus, adult education courses typically play a social role in students’ lives that can’t be duplicated using e-learning.

E-Learning’s Destiny
As it evolves, e-learning is destined to find its largest audience outside traditional educational institutions. It’s best customers will be corporations, working adults, and people preparing for certification and examination.

But it’s clear e-learning will never replace classroom-based teaching. Instead, it will help existing institutions teach students in new ways, using a wider variety of tools and a more customized approach. The Internet could become the catalyst that allows traditional educational methods to extend their impact far beyond what they could ever do in a conventional classroom setting.

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.
Get s+b's award-winning newsletter delivered to your inbox. Sign up No, thanks
Illustration of flying birds delivering information
Get the newsletter

Sign up now to get our top insights on business strategy and management trends, delivered straight to your inbox twice a week.