Question: Are you aware of any well-known pitfalls that companies should watch out for as they get started with e-learning?

Elliott Masie: Absolutely. As much as I think that learning management systems are a part of the fabric, and that they are a necessary complexity (I won't say a necessary evil), it is important for organizations to really, really crawl and walk before they enter a marathon.

It's really important to go out and have the experiences without buying the infrastructure. Rent it, host it externally, borrow the tool, get them through a content provider. But it's really important to get an internal attitude about what works, what's important, what's valuable, and then go on from there.

Question: Have you taken e-learning courses yourself? What was your experience?

Elliott Masie: I think that e-learning works as well as the classroom works. I know that's a provocative statement. Remember though that there are good, bad, excellent, and inferior classroom experiences and in the same sense there is good, bad, excellent, and inferior e-learning

A cheap classroom course doesn't work, and cheap e-learning doesn't work either. A cheap class would be to put an uninteresting, unfocused, poorly prepared instructor in front of a thousand people, show a million slides, and don't allow questions from the learners. That doesn't work. And we've all been there. The digital equivalent of that is to pull together a hundred slides, make it uninteresting, and make it simply reading, and have the situation where there are no questions possible from the learners. So bad e-learning is going to fail as much as bad classroom training.

Now if I as the student want the outcome, if I'm motivated to get to the end of the training because it's a piece of information that lets me do my job better, if it's a skill that lets me leave my job and go to another job, it takes away pain, it lets me look good in front of my boss, whatever the student motivation is, if the course succeeds at that, to me it works. And e-learning works!

The mistake we make in some ways is to think we can dip learners into e-learning and it's going to work regardless of whether there is student motivation or whether there is good instructional design.

The biggest gains I see are when e-learning gets the mind of the learner going and turns them from a passive viewer into an active participant. And I really see some great ways that e-learning does that, through simulations, threaded discussions, and real-time conversations.

If it gets the mind going, if it creates an activity instead of being just a content viewer, then I think that e-learning can be very compelling. And I think that over time we'll get better at doing that. The early arriver, the cheap stuff where we took an instructor-led course or, worse yet, took a textbook, and just put it online to get a digital page-turner, doesn't work any more than having an instructor read to a class full of students from a book.

As we reveal and get a marketplace hunger for the really compelling stuff, I think the e-learning content will follow. There are not a lot of technology hurdles—of course, there are some bandwidth challenges and there are some firewall issues—but ultimately we'll just get better and better at streaming, personalizing, collaborating, and communicating, and all of those enabling functions that are technology-based. We'll harvest them all for better e-learning.

Question: If you were sharing a taxi to the airport with a CEO of a company who wanted your recommendations about e-learning, what would you tell that CEO?

Elliott Masie: If the CEO asked me whether to use e-learning in his company, I'd say two things.

First, I'd use the best mixture of what you're now doing (formal training, informal training, one-on-one job assisting, and books given out) and I'd add to look for the emerging power of e-learning, which would include online classes, asynchronous content, collaboration, learning communities. I would link it all to knowledge management and look to integrate it into your systems so that people don't have to leave work to learn, but learning becomes part of work.

The final thing I would say is to take a look at your kids (or if you're older, look at your grandkids). They are natural learners. To them the computer is not a place they go to program—very few of these kids program. It's not a computing device. It's a knowledge, communications, and collaboration device. It's a door that lets them get to what they need to know. And just as that executive's children are figuring this out, their parents and grandparents are figuring it out, too.

So this is happening now, but it will increasingly be part of the future. They have no choice. The only choice is whether to do it well.

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