I The ROI Methodology. A Credible Approach to Evaluating Your Learning Through Technology Programs

Learning Through Technology: Trends and Issues

It's hard to imagine a world of learning and development without technology-based solutions. Imagine a U.S.–based technology company with 250 product launches each year and a need to train the sales team to sell the new product. Bringing the sales team into the classroom environment would be prohibitive in terms of cost, time, and convenience. It is unimaginable that we would do that 250 times during the year with the entire sales team. Technology makes learning easy, convenient, and inexpensive. Imagine a logistics company with 300,000 employees and a need to make all employees aware of a new compliance regulation. The regulation requires some evidence that each employee actually knows this information. A live, face-to-face briefing or an email would be out of the question. Technology makes it happen.

Imagine employees in remote locations in Alaska who need job-related learning. The cost of either bringing them to the classroom or bringing the classroom to them would be prohibitive, and it would also be inconvenient and time-consuming. Technology makes it happen. Imagine that women at a university in the Middle East, unable to attend a live class because it is taught by a male instructor, have no opportunity to take the course. With online learning, the same course is possible for women.

These types of situations are multiplied thousands of times throughout the global landscape. It is difficult to imagine a world of learning and development without technology, and investment in technology continues to grow at astonishing rates. These investments attract attention from executives who often want to know if they're working properly. Executives who have sales teams participate in new product training are concerned that the learning translates into new sales. “Does it make a difference? How does it connect to the business? Does it really add the value that we anticipated? Is it as effective as facilitator-led learning?” These questions and others are fully explored and answered in this book. It's all about how to measure the success of learning through technology. This opening chapter describes the trends and issues for technology-based learning and the need for accountability.


Technology has been integrated into our lives, both at home and at work. It has dramatically changed how we communicate, how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we work, how we play, and how we find out more about the world in which we live. But what does this mean for corporate learning, training, and development?

Learning technologies have been used in the workplace for more than 20 years, but it is only in the last few years that their impact could be described as a “fundamental change.” This book explores some of the more recent evolutions of learning technology and how it can bring significant change in how we grow and develop our current and future employees.

For as long as we can remember, companies have been training and developing employees, helping them master the skills needed to do their work. What originally started as apprenticeships evolved toward more centralized training as companies grew in size and complexity. Experts were brought to classrooms full of employees to teach them the skills needed to do their jobs better. Much of this early training followed the traditional “knowledge broadcast” model, with the expert on the stage presenting what he knows. Early learning technologies such as projectors, digital presentations, and training videos fit this model well.

In the late 1990s, the rise of the Internet gave a huge boost to “digital content.” Suddenly, it was much easier to create and share content around the world. This led to the growth of two very different types of stakeholders: content specialists, who developed and sold learning content in their areas of expertise (for example, financial management); and systems specialists, who developed learning platforms or learning management systems (LMS), which allowed companies to deliver online learning to employees around the world at any time.

Broadly, this was a success. Companies were putting more and more of their training online and were able to reach an increasingly diverse group of learners. The next 10 years were vibrant days for learning technologists, with companies investing heavily in e-learning, excited by the potential cost savings of no more face-to-face training. During this time, hundreds of new e-learning companies formed, merged, and were acquired. Digital content became commoditized and was increasingly bought in segments, either by the hour or by an amount of content. There was little regard for the learning quality itself. Unfortunately, as with many new technologies, a large number of overly enthusiastic training departments forged ahead with this technology trend and mistakenly thought that some badly—e-learning courses would somehow be as effective as expert face-to-face training sessions—they were not!

From the mid-2000s the e-learning market started to mature with the addition of three new ideas and associated technologies:

1. Shift from training delivery to talent management: Some of the leading LMS vendors started to add enhanced features to their platforms to appeal to HR and training departments. These platforms evolved into “talent management platforms,” which included features like employee development plans and talent management tools. Their popularity grew rapidly, since both companies and employees were becoming increasingly dissatisfied with using “course completions” as a meaningful criterion for successful employee development.

2. Increased use of blended learning: Digital content and LMS-style platforms don't work just for remote learners. In fact, they are most effective when used in combination with a face-to-face classroom experience. After an initial frenzy of “do it all online,” many training professionals discovered that the best use of these new technologies was to enhance traditional training, not replace it. The technologies didn't change much, but how they were used did!

3. Virtual classrooms, video streaming, collaboration tools: As the use of social media grew and video tools like Skype and WebCT entered the mainstream, trainers were able to mix more of the benefits of a face-to-face training class with the reach of a web-based learning platform. Students from all over the world could log on together to a live session and participate in online discussions.

These three ideas helped e-learning evolve into a more useful business tool and consolidate a small number of big players, who offer platforms that can deliver on all of these features. But this only gets us to 2010. Who are the learning technology leaders that are prepared to replace these big players? What are the emerging innovations in learning technology?

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