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The eLearning Museum

Goldfield, Nevada, is the site of the largest gold strike of the 20th century. Founded in 1902, Goldfield boasted a population of 30,000 during its boom year of 1906. The bar at Tex Rickard's Northern Saloon was so long it required 80 tenders to serve its customers. My great grandfather invested heavily in Goldfield shares; they now trade for pennies and mighty Goldfield is a ghost town.

When I began writing about eLearning in 1998, some of us felt the training industry had struck gold! We were going to change the world and pick up some dot-com riches while we did it. Irrational exuberance? We didn't think so at the time. eLearning was going to make email look like a rounding error. It reminded me of the spirit of Woodstock. People in the business exchanged knowing smiles. "We must be in heaven, man!"

In late 1999, Training and Development magazine interviewed me....

Says Cross, "Successful leaders inspire members of their organizations to work smarter. Collaboration, learning portals, and skill snacks have replaced Industrial-Age training. The Web is revitalizing personalized learning and meaningful apprenticeship. Learning is merging with work."

Here's what lies ahead in our not-too-distant training future, according to Cross:

  • personal software agents that crawl the Web to screen and feed information to personal portals
  • connected gadgets and gizmos that simplify (and complicate) our lives
  • plug-and-play training modularity
  • learning standards that create interchangeable, Lego-like objects that slash costs and development time
  • personal files and programs that run directly from the Internet.

At least I didn't get specific on "not-too-distant," did I? Well, it looks like I did.

According to Jay Cross, information architect of Internet Time Group, "eLearning" is the target model for corporate training in the next three to five years. It will be a key survival skill for corporations and free agent learners and is a convergence of:

  • loosely organized corporate ecologies
  • a business climate of permanent white water
  • technological advances, including high-speed broadband networks
  • a shift of power and responsibility from organizations to individuals
  • emergent best practices, from performance support to training to knowledge management.

What happened? We fumbled the implementation. We naively expected workers to flock to the glowing screens. We thought we could take the instructors out of the learning process and let workers gobble up self-paced (i.e., "don't expect help from us") lessons on their own. We were wrong. First-generation eLearning was a flop. Companies licensed "libraries" of content no one paid attention to. PowerPoint became the authoring language of choice. (Personally, I get more content from a Jackson Pollock drip painting than from someone else's PowerPoint slides.) Dropout rates were horrendous. After-the-fact finger pointing is not productive. I don't use the term eLearning much these days.

Lance Dublin and I wrote a book with our prescription for turning things around: (1) gain stakeholder support through change management and (2) offer worthwhile learning experiences and sell them to the learners. Too little, too late.

I'm moving on to things that work, a set of tools, techniques, and attitudes I call 20/80 learning. They are tied to workflow, immediate need, human interaction, respect for the worker, networking, and more. This page will remain as a relic of yesteryear's euphoria. If my grandchildren ask "What did you do for SmartForce?" or "Why did you spend time at Cisco?" or "What did you speak about at Online Learning in Anaheim?" I'll have a URL to back up my stories.

SmartForce, Learn Fast, Go Fast, pdf (11/99) Disclosure: SmartForce was an Internet Time Group client..

Will Companies Ever Learn? "Learning has got to be connected directly to the business," says Judy Rosenblum, former chief learning officer at Coca-Cola. "The idea is to stay away from a standard 'learning program.' Instead, learning needs to be embedded in processes, projects, and experiences. If you put your energy into people who are ready and willing to join you, and if those people add value to the business, others will come."

eLearning: Rhetoric vs Reality, Gautam Ghosh

Into the Future, a Vision Paper by Wayne Hodgins and Jay Cross (2/2000) for ASTD and NGA. pdf.

Cisco eLearning Disclosure: Cisco Systems was an Internet Time Group client.

The Future of Online Learning by Stephen Downes (7/98), a classic

The eLearning FAQ

Caution: I wrote this in March 2000, before the dot-com bubble burst, and it remains somewhat overenthusiastic. Here's a more current take on what's going on:

The State of eLearning. Guest lecture at the Business School of San Francisco State University, October 2, 2002.

For something more current, see Jane Knight's wonderful Guide to e-Learning at e-Learning Centre


eLearning is learning on Internet Time, the convergence of learning and networks and the New Economy. eLearning is a vision of what corporate training can become. We've only just begun.

eLearning is to traditional training as eBusiness is to business as usual. Both use the net to augment tradiitonal means.

This FAQ addresses corporate learning. In this context, effective eLearning dramatically cuts the time it takes for people to become and remain competent in their jobs. For context, check out the first eLearning White Paper ever written.

eLearning is the convergence of learning and the Internet.

Howard Block Bank of America Securities

eLearning uses the power of networks, primarily those that rely on Internet technologies but also satellite netowrks, and digital content to enable learning.

Eilif Trondsen, SRI Learning on Demand

eLearning is the use of network technology to design, deliver, select, administer, and extend LEARNING.

Elliott Masie, The Masie Center

eLearning is Internet-enabled learning. Components can include content delivery in multiple formats, management of the learning experience, and a networked community of learners, content developers and experts. eLearning provides faster learning at reduced costs, increased access to learning, and clear accountability for all participants in the learning process. In today's fast-paced culture, organizations that implement eLearning provide their work force with the ability to turn change into an advantage.

Cisco Systems

eLearning is dynamic. Today's content, in real time, not old news or "shelfware." On-line experts, best sources, quick-and-dirty approaches for emergencies.

eLearning operates in real time. You get what you need, when you need it.

eLearning is collaborative. Because people learn from one another, eLearning connects learners with experts, colleagues, and professional peers, both in and outside your organization.

eLearning is individual. Every e-learner selects activities from a personal menu of learning opportunities most relevant to her background, job, and career at that very moment.

eLearning is comprehensive. eLearning provides learning events from many sources, enabling the e-learner to select a favored format or learning method or training provider.

Greg Priest, SmartForce, The e-Learning Company

eLearning [is] the delivery of content via all electronic media, including the Internet, intranets, extranets, satellite broadcast, audio/video tape, interactive TV, and CD-ROM.

Connie Weggen WR Hambrecht & Co

We define eLearning companies as those that leverage various Internet and Web technologies to create, enable, deliver, and/or facilitate lifelong learning.

Robert Peterson, Piper Jaffray

eLearning is using the power of the network to enable learning, anytime, anywhere.


Best Practices

Accept no substitutes! Anyone with a web site can claim to provide eLearning. How does one separate the real stuff from the bogus? Legitimate eLearning is more likely to:

  • Focus on the needs of the learner, not the trainer or institution
  • Take advantage of the net: real-time, 24/7, anywhere, anytime
  • Bring people together to collaborate and learn together
  • Personalize, often by combining "learning objects" on the fly
  • Offer more than one learning method, e.g. virtual classroom and simulation and self-paced instruction
  • Incorporate administrative functions such as registration, payment and charge-backs, monitoring learner progress, testing, and maintaining records

eLearning? e-Learning? E-learning? E-Learning?

In the early days, way back in 1998, it was always e-learning, with the hyphen. SmartForce is the "e-Learning Company", and Cisco's John Chambers evangelizes e-learning.

As eLearning matured, some of us are dropped the hyphen (and started "intercapping" the "L".) Microsoft uses eLearn, as do SRI and Internet Time Group. The Google search engine finds:

  • 1221 elearning (no hyphen)
  • 2900 e-learning (hyphenated)

Does it matter?


Change is rampant. It's the Knowledge Era, New Economy, Internet Age, Information Revolution, yadda, yadda, yadda. Brains have replaced brawn.

Networked organizations demand rapid-fire, front-line decisions, and people must be in the know to make them. Everything's converging or already networked, cycle times are speeding up, and competition is coming from all directions. Are you ready?

Staffing for eBusiness is a make/buy decision.

Buying is pricey and shortsighted. (Techies with tongue-studs and purple hair command six-figure salaries, and there are too few of them to go around. We're short half a million high-tech workers, and business gets more techie every day.) Buying talent is not like buying tools. The shelf-life of knowledge has dwindled to the point that a four-year engineering degree is obsolete in, well, about four years.

People once agonized over career decisions for fear of looking like "job hoppers." These days they hear about a new opportunity over lunch and go to work for a competitor that afternoon. Money doesn't necessarily talk to a young person who drives a Porsche. What keeps people on board these days is the opportunity to develop, to build valued skills, to achieve certifications, and to add to their store of intellectual capital.

Learning has become a vital business function, but old-style training can't keep pace with Internet time. Traditional workshops cost a fortune in airplane tickets and time away from the job. In the eyes of many senior managers, off-site workshops have always been somewhere between a total waste of time and a boondoggle, the "great training robbery." Training has grown too important to be delegated to training departments.

eLearning is attractive to corporations because it promises better use of time, accelerated learning, global reach, fast pace, and accountability. It's manageable. It cuts paperwork and administrative overhead. Sometimes it can be outsourced, providing more time for leveraging the organization's core competence. eLearners like it, too.

The Brand Called You

The Future of Work

Hire for attitude; train for skill

Free Agent Declaration of Independence


As human capital becomes the chief source of economic value, education and training become lifelong endeavors for the vast majority of workers.

Peter J. Stokes, Eduventures

We need to bring learning to people instead of bringing people to learning.

Elliott Masie, The Masie Center

Technology has revolutionized business; now it must revolutionize learning.

WR Hambrecht + Co

Information and knowledge are the thermonuclear competitive weapons of our time. Knowledge is more valuable and more powerful than natural resources, big factories, or fat bankrolls.

Tom Stewart, Intellectual Capital

American education needs a fundamental breakthrough, a new dynamic that will light the way to a transformed educational system.

Chris Whittle The Edison Project

Organizations today realize that they cannot use traditional training methods if they want to stay competitive. Because product cycles, competitive intelligence, industry information and corporate strategies are moving and changing so much faster than they need to, companies understand that the only way to get knowledge to their employees is thorough an eLearning initiative that relies on the Internet.

Kevin Oakes click2Learn.com

Education is the next industrial era institution to go through a complete overhaul, starting in earnest in 2000. The driving force here is not so much concern with enlightening young minds as economics. In an information age, the age of the knowledge worker, nothing matters as much as the worker's brain.

Peter Schwartz The Long Boom

Technological changes increase complexity and velocity of the work environment. Today's workforce has to process more information in a shorter amount of time. New products and services are emerging with accelerating speed.

WR Hambrecht + Co

eLearning solutions provide the missing link that allows organizations to effectively measure ROI and the learning to business results.

Dave Ellett Docent

....the number one reason employees leave existing positions for new jobs is not pay but that their employer was not investing in their development.

Thomas Weisel Partners LLC

Learning is what more adults will do for a living in the 21st century.

U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray

Imagination is the most powerful human resource on the planet. Harnessing it and its resultant electronic tools in the service of education is the great hope of the world.

Glenn R. Jones Jones International

Human skills are subject to obsolescence at a rate perhaps unprecedented in American History.

Alan Greenspan

It is estimated that we will need 1.3 million new computer scientists, systems analysts and computer programmers by 20006 in the United States. Yet, currently one out of every ten IT positions, or approximately 350,000 jobs, are open today.

Merrill Lynch

With the aging of the U.S. workforce (median age of US worker expected to increase from 35.3 to 40.6 in 2006) and technology automating a large percentage of unskilled jobs, training is necessary to remain relevant in today's knowledge-based economy.


Knowledge workers require greater flexibility in the workplace. Globalization, competition, and labor shortages cause employees to work longer, harder, and travel more than previous generations. A the same time, these workers require more independence and responsibility in their jobs and dislike close supervision. Today's knowledge workers have a nontraditional orientation to time and space, believing that as long as the job gets done on time, it is not important where or when it gets done. B the same token, they want the opportunity to allocate time for learning as needed. Modern training methods need to reflect these changes in lifestyle.

WR Hambrecht + Co

Discreet training events held off-site in a hotel room that fulfills the "20 hours per year, "check the box" regimen will not suffice.

Thomas Weisel Partners LLC

Drivers of Cisco's Learning and Training Needs

The Objectives

  • Fast, effective deployment of mission-critical knowledge
  • Well-trained and up-to-date workforce
  • Lower-cost learning

The Challenges

  • Geographically dispersed learners
  • Phenomenal growth
  • Difficult/Expensive training logistics
  • Need for Knowledge on Demand

The Pressures

  • Relentless Competition
  • Constantly changing technology
  • Shorter product cycles
  • Shorter time to market
Source: Cisco Systems

How does it work?

Different perspectives

eLearning is like a cubist painting. To make sense of it, you need to look at it from different perspectives.

From the philosophical viewpoint, eLearning is framed by the principles and practices of the eLearning community -- a mix of social concern, instructional design, software savvy, entrepreneurial zeal, and extreme dissatisfaction with the status quo. Another view looks to the components of eLearning -- collaboration, simulation, databases, and so forth. The eBusiness perspective relates eLearning to ERP, supply chain optimization, and disintermediation.

eLearning is revolutionary. As Nicholas Negroponte says, incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy. The Internet changes everything; education and training are about to be changed. Radically. It's time for a fresh approach.

eLearning focuses on the individual learner. For years, training has organized itself for the convenience and needs of instructors, institutions, and bureaucracies. Bad attitude. Think of learners as customers. Compete for their time and interests. Provide them legendary service. Convert them into raving fans. Give them choices. Don't make them reinvent the wheel.

From instructor-centric:

to learner-centric:

eLearning is forever. Continuous education. The forty-year degree. Daily learning. Work becomes learning, learning becomes work, and nobody ever graduates.

Performance is the goal. The objective is to become competent in the least time and with the least amount of training. If people could take a smart pill instead of logging in to class, bravo! How long is this going to take? No more credit for seat-time.

Most learning is social. The coffee room is a more effective place to learn than the classroom. Studies reveal that the majority of corporate learning is informal, i.e. outside of class. eLearning seeks to foster collaboration and peer interaction.

A classic study at Standard found that Hewlett Packard engineers who watched videotaped lectures followed by informal discussion performed better than Stanford engineering students who attended the same lectures on campus. Instead of an on-campus lecturer pouring content into students' heads, the HP engineers were challenged to construct their own interpretation of the subject matter.

Smart pill. Would you prefer this or the workshop?

Most eLearning is personalized. The best eLearning system learns about its users and tailors its offerings to their learning style, job requirements, career goals, current knowledge, and personal preferences. Small chunks of learning (granules, objects) are labeled (metatagged within IMS standards) so systems can automatically mix and match them to assemble and deliver individualized learning experiences. At least that's the dream. Nobody's fully there quite yet.

Hierarchy of Learning Objects

eLearning is delivered in the right-sized pieces. Why take a one-hour class for the five minutes' worth of content you're looking for?

eLearners are responsible for their own learning. eLearning empowers them to manage and implement their own learning and development plans.

Education in the Knowledge Economy

Old Economy Four-year Degree Training as Cost Center Learner Mobility Distance Education Correspondence & Video One Size Fits All Geographic Instituting Just-in-Case Isolated

New Economy Forty-Year Degree Training as Competitive Advantage Content Mobility Distributed Learning High-Tech Multimedia Centers Tailored Programs Brand Name Universities & Celebrity Professors Just-in-Time Virtual Learning Communities

Source: The Book of Knowledge, Merrill Lynch, p. 8


Overview of an eLearning Setup

eLearning is inevitably a mix of activities -- people learn better that way. An eLearning environment generally includes:

self-paced training delivered over the web (although it could be via book or CD or video or what have you)

1:many virtual events (which could take place in virtual classroom, virtual lecture hall, or expert-led discussion)

1:1 mentoring (which might entail coaching, help desk, office hours, periodic check-in, email exchanges)

simulation, because we learn by doing. Learners from all over the globe experiment on millions of dollars worth of routers and bridges at Mentor Labs. Consultants learn about eBusiness from a game developed by SMGnet.

collaboration, either joint problem-solving or discussion among study groups via discussion groups and chat rooms

live workshops (yes, the old way), for some topics are best taught in the real world by a flesh-and-blood instructor or expert

assessment, both for initial placement and for opting out of topics the learner has already mastered

competency roadmap, a custom learning plan based on job, career, and personal goals

authoring tools, to develop and update content

e-store, to pay for learning or post costs against budgets

learning management system which registers, tracks, and delivers content to learners; reports on learner progress, assessment results, and skill gaps for instructors; enrolls learners, provides security, and manages user access for administrators.

Important facets of eLearning

The continuous evolution of the learning industry is hell-bent toward an experience totally personalized to the individual learner. Today, the vertical communities accessed by an individual learner provide a comfortable envinroment to learn skills required in the learner's industry. Tomorrow, access will be through a corporate-sponsored community completely tailored to the individual's needs, with content delivered on demand and technology that will continually monitor the learner's abilities as the learning takes place, adjusting content and pace seamlessly.

Wade Baker Payback Training Systems

Improved collaboration and interactivity among learners. In times when small instructor-led classes tend to be the exception, electronic learning solutions can offer more collaboration and interaction with experts and peers as well as a higher success rate than the live alternative. ...a study found that online students had more peer contact with others in the class, enjoyed it more, spent more time on class work, understood the material better, and performed, on average, 20% better than students who were taught in the traditional classroom.

WR Hambrecht + Co

The magic is in the mix!

eLearning blends the best of:

  • Traditional and new classroom
  • On-the-job
  • Coaching and informal mentoring
  • Reading
  • Standalone technology
  • Online technology
  • Digital collaboration
Elliott Masie The Masie Center

How well does it work?

The cards aren't in yet. eLearning is too new to have produced hard evidence of learning gains. eLearning's top-line upside is speculative; its bottom-line savings are on more solid ground.

Undeniably, eLearning cuts the costs of travel, facilities, administrative overhead, duplication of effort, and more importantly, the opportunity cost of people away from the job in times of great need.

There's no doubt that eLearning can be rolled out fast. The time required to roll out a new product globally can shrink from months to hours.


Sharing and managing knowledge throughout our company...was one of the keys to reducing our operating costs by more than $2 billion per year....

Kenneth T. Derr Chevron Corporation


...learners ...can better understand the material, leading to a 60% faster learning curve, compared to instructor-led training. ... Whereas the average content retention rate for an instructor-led class is only 58%, the more intensive e-learning experience enhances the retention rate by 25-60%. Higher retention of the material puts a higher value on every dollar spent on training.

WR Hambrecht + Co


Motorola calculates that every $1 it spends on training translates to $30 in productivity gains within three years.

A recent study found that corporations that employed a workforce with a 10% higher-than-average educational attainment level enjoyed 8/6% higher-than-average productivity.

Computer-based training and online training can reduce training costs over instructor-led training. A congressionally mandated review of 47 comparisons of multimedia instruction with more conventional approaches to instruction found time savings of 30% improved achievement and cost savings of 30-40%.

Merrill Lynch, The Book of Knowledge

What are the pitfalls?


Whenever the topic of bandwidth comes up, the phone company yowls about ?the last mile,? the flimsy wire bottleneck between their switching station and your house.

e-Learning providers also have a bottleneck, the last yard from the monitor into the learner?s brain. Without motivation, this final connection will never be made.

Professional training via CD-ROM flopped. Why? Because we took instructors and coaches out of the picture. The learning process breaks down when "untouched by human hands." A ringing phone interrupts a standalone learning exercise, and CD-ROM courses morph into shelfware.

Companies that adopt eLearning as a cost-cutting measure and provides no human support will not be successful. eLearning is not training by robot. Learners will live up (or down) to expectations.

Which of these two scenarios presents a better environment for learning? Assume your boss arranged for one of these two learning events for you:

instructor-led, off site


Before you leave, the boss calls you in, tells you this is important, and explains what he expects you to come home with.

You receive an email from personnel.

You fly away to the beach-side resort hotel where training will take place.

You study at home after work.

Your peers know you?re away for learning. (They have to take up the slack.)

No one even knows you?re taking part in training.

You return home, and everyone asks what you thought, what?s new, anything to share?

They still don?t know you?re taking a course.

You learn with members of your study group. After you and the guys finish your lessons, you hop out for a few brews and a game of pool.

You learn on your own.

You hang your certificate of completion on the wall. Or put the paperweight on your desk.

Another email from personnel.

It doesn?t have to be this way. Managers must go the extra mile to pat learners on the back, give them recognition, and encourage them to learn with their peers. eLearners are customers; they continually need to be sold.

Finally, eLearning is not for everyone. Some people simply will not learn outside of a classroom.

Learning to the desktop

This is one of those benefits that's better in theory than in practice. Learning complex subjects requires concentration. Most people's desks are less than optimal for learning (and often for working, too, but that's another matter).

Buddha was right. "When you do something, do it as if it were all that mattered." Get away from the phone. Shelter yourself from colleagues. Go to a learning cubicle. Put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign.

"Ah ha," Dilbert's pointy-haired boss would say. "I've got the solution -- take it all home." As if there aren't distractions aplenty at home. Feed the baby, watch the game, talk with the spouse, have a beer on the patio, or log in for learning? Besides, what message does the boss communicate about the value of learning if he expects people to do it on their own time?


Hurdles to eLearning!

  • Quality and intensity of content
  • Availability of content
  • Habits, customs, and culture
  • Technology delivery -- bandwidth, etc.
  • Pricing models
  • Lack of digital collaboration models
  • Research gap: Does it work?
  • Calibration of expectations
Elliott Masie eLearning Briefing January 2000, Seattle

Certain content -- because of its nature, relative value, or importance -- is not suitable for technology-based delivery. While online training is especially well suited for the acquisition of IT skills, it has certain limitations in the arena of soft skills training. Other educational content that does not translate well into a virtual environment is material requiring significant hands-on application, with a strong emphasis on peer review and collaboration.

WR Hambrecht + Co

Update in mid-2002:

A horrific pitfall has turned out to be cajolling workers to participate. One third to one half of workers never register to take part. Half to three-quarters of those who start a program drop out before completing it. I've just completed a book on how to improve employee participation.

What are the trends?

Short term

Corporations increasingly outsource training to Learning Service Providers (think Application Service Provider + Learning).

Standards-based learning management systems assemble large-grain learning objects on the fly. (XML meets learning).

Learner relationship management mirrors customer relationship management.

ERP and CRM vendors replace learning management systems as learning is recognized as an enterprise application.

Longer term

"Intelligent" interfaces learn about the eLearner over time. (Apple's Knowledge Navigator finally arrives, only twenty years late.)

Learning becomes imbedded in work processes and equipment.

Economies of scale will development of "cool" learning using rich media, popular entertainers, and game interfaces.


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