The e-learning curve

10th June 2011


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Sarah-Jayne Russell talks to IEMA members and training providers to find out the real benefits and pitfalls of studying online

From its earliest inception, the underlying principle behind the creation of the internet was to share information and now, less than 20 years after the first website was published, millions of people each year log on to study for qualifications to further their career, expand their knowledge or simply enrich their lives.

Gone are the days when you had to take a career break to study for a master’s degree or spend a week out of the office at a training course. Studying online offers the flexibility to study what you want, when you want and however you want.

IEMA Associate and environment sustainability professional Alanna Aqui, for example, began her MBA when she was living in the UK, but has since moved back to Canada without interrupting her studies. “On the distance-learning course, I can do some classes face to face, but the majority of my degree is self-study supported by e-learning.

“One of the reason’s I chose this course was its flexibility. When I started I knew that I would be travelling and needed something I could continue wherever I ended up and it’s been pretty seamless.”

Whether you are looking to complete a degree, a diploma or a short course, wanting to gain qualifications for a promotion, brush up on a specific area or consolidate your skills for your CV, there will be an e-learning course for you.

The broad church

The term “e-learning” encompasses a wide variety of both formal and informal learning opportunities. It ranges from free webinars and discussion groups to degree courses with online lecturers and virtual laboratory sessions.

Each form of knowledge-sharing can offer something of value. Informal learning through webinars, for example, can offer you the chance to gain an insight into a new topic or put your questions to an expert without having to sign up for a formal course. You can also choose your level of participation; if you want to just watch the discussion, you can.

Aqui says the key is to know what you want to get out of a webinar before you sign up. “I began to take part in webinars three years ago. I’ve tried lots of different styles and providers and, in the main, I’ve had positive experiences.

“On the occasions where I haven’t got as much out of such sessions, it’s usually because I signed up for something without checking if I was really interested in the topic. It’s important to understand the objectives of the session and who will be joining it, to make sure it’s right for you.”

Aqui also advises that to get the best value out of webinars it is important to do your homework beforehand.

Webinars and other informal e-learning experiences, such as reading articles online, watching free lectures and writing blogs, can also count towards continuing professional development (CPD). However, different professional bodies will assess CPD differently and it is best to check specific requirements before submitting your activity records.

The right delivery

The past decade has seen a revolution in the way formal distance-learning has been delivered. Many professional qualifications, degrees, diplomas and short courses offered on a part-time, distance-learning basis have evolved from textbook-heavy courses to more interactive online experiences.

Four years ago, the University of Derby began to transfer the delivery of its MSc in Environment Management online. “At the beginning, the course became online by virtue of us sending the course material out as word documents,” remembers Professor Aradhana Mehra, assistant head of postgraduate geographical, earth and environmental sciences at the university.

“We soon began to make better use of the available technology and have slowly introduced a range of different online elements including videos, podcasts, online lectures, discussion boards and wikis.”

While lots of courses incorporate such interactive and engaging elements, not all e-learning courses are the same.

“One of the most important things to remember when looking for an online course is that it’s still very much an immature market,” says Darren Chadwick, director at Brite Green Sustainable Strategy, the strategy consultants and training provider.

“There are still a lot of people trying to write e-learning courses as they would textbooks and there is a marked difference between good courses and bad ones.”

At their worst, e-learning courses can simply present a lot of text online. Andrew Morris, a safety adviser and an IEMA member, studied a master’s degree part time in 2008, and had this problem.

“I spent hours and hours sat reading a screen. There wasn’t much in the way of graphics, videos or any interactivity. I passed in the end but that was more to do with my finding information elsewhere than in the course material.”

Such problems are difficult to assess before a course starts, says former IEMA chair and managing director of Bytesize Learning, Simon Cordingley. “Unfortunately most people won’t get to see what their e-learning course is like until they have paid for it. One of the worst things is that people will buy cheaper courses because they seem like good value, but really they would have been better paying higher fees and getting a course that delivers in a more engaging way.”

When checking possible courses you need to investigate the provider as best you can. Remember that while universities and colleges are subject to inspection by Ofqual, many e-learning providers are private organisations.

“Look for courses with good reputations or visible feedback from former students,” advises Cordingley. “Another possible option is to look for a course that has been approved by an independent third party or a professional body, but be aware such approvals usually only examine course content rather than delivery.”

Dr Robert Beattie, director of e-training and software provider Loreus, suggests talking to the course provider. “The company may be able to offer you a taster session and that would be the best way to find out whether you will get on with the way they have designed the course.”

Working alone together

One of the biggest challenges faced by those studying traditional distance-learning courses can be a sense of isolation in comparison with working within a classroom environment.

“It can feel like it’s just you versus the textbook you’re reading that day,” recalls Chadwick. “That’s why one of the best benefits of a good e-learning course is the opportunity for collaboration. Through group work or discussion forums you can meet a really good mix of people from different countries and with different backgrounds.”

Morris agrees: “The course I completed gave everybody studying it a chance to network. We built up some good relationships and learned from each others’ experiences.”

This online interaction and support is a key benefit of the longer e-learning courses, but also of participating in webinars, professional networks such as LinkedIn, and online forums.

The ability to learn without necessarily having to communicate with an individual face to face is one of the key differentiators of e-learning, and can offer both advantages and its own challenges.

“Many of the professionals who sign up for our e-learning courses are in their mid-30s to 40s and haven’t been back into a classroom for a very long time,” says Chadwick. “Asking them to sit down with a textbook and write essays isn’t the best way to engage with them. E-learning offers more accessible ways to share information and access knowledge and can be a lot less intimidating than walking back into a classroom.”

Chadwick argues that by enabling students to study at their own computer, in their own space, they can feel more comfortable. “Especially with short courses where study is independent, there is no pressure on the student for the right answer and no one is going to think any less of you if you get something wrong. It makes learning much more accessible.”

While such privacy can offer a confidence boost for some, the inability to see other participants in group activities can be difficult for others, warns Cordingley.

“In webinars, for example, people can often be cautious about asking questions because without eye contact or body language it can be tricky to attract a tutor’s attention or know when to jump in.”

A skilled lecturer or host with experience of e-learning can help to manage the conversation, but to get the most out any such experience it comes down to the old adage of “you get out what you put in.”

“In general, people don’t approach training in a good way,” says Cordingley. “Many are sent on courses by their companies and go because they have to. They don’t plan what it is they expect to get out of the course before they go and they don’t usually track it afterwards.

“To get the most out of any training you have to understand what value it is going to add for you and then ask whether you got what you needed to out of it. This is especially important for those looking to study online.”

And for the most part it looks as though studying online is exactly what we will be doing in future. With financial pressures on both education providers and businesses to cut costs, e-learning offers a cheaper alternative to traditional face-to-face courses.

Individuals wanting to study for a higher education qualification face the same pressures, says Professor Mehra. “Changes in personal circumstances and the strained economic climate are encouraging people not to give up their jobs, but study part time on a distance, e-learning basis. We have already seen a big increase in online learners and the majority of our MSc students are studying part time.”

However, despite the flexibility and interactivity of modern e-learning applications, many argue that it will never completely replace traditional face-to-face training courses. “It’s easy to forget that e-learning is just one mechanism of delivering content,” says Cordingley. “It can quite effectively be used as part of a wider course with tutorials and laboratory work, for example.

“While e-learning is definitely going to be a big part of the future of training, it has to be integrated into the wider training toolbox, and people shouldn’t see it as a learning panacea.”

Top tips

  1. Know what you want – Make sure you know what you want out of the course. Are you looking for a qualification, a specific skill, new contacts or just a greater understanding of a subject?
  2. What works for you – Consider your previous learning experiences and what worked best. Are you happy to work alone or do you want more interaction with your tutor and other students?
  3. Do your research – Consider both the content and the delivery of the course. If you want a professional qualification, consider whether you will need an accredited course.
  4. Don’t forget – While universities and colleges are subject to government inspection, many distance-learning course providers are private organisations. Investigate the reputation of training providers and look for feedback from previous students.
  5. Be prepared – Before you start any course set out what you want from it, and then plan to analyse how it went afterwards.
  6. Keep motivated – Set yourself targets and timelines to ensure that you keep progressing through the course.
  7. Make the most of it – You have paid for the course so make sure that you take advantage of all the resources on offer. The bottom line is that you get out what you put in.

Useful links – The government public services website includes a page dedicated to e-learning, explaining the benefits of the medium and has links to free courses. – IEMA’s website includes a comprehensive list of IEMA-approved training courses and providers. – LinkedIn, the professional networking site, gives you the opportunity for informal e-learning by joining sector or interest groups. – The Open and Distance Learning Quality Council is an independent organisation that inspects the quality of distance-learning providers. The website includes a list of accredited courses as well as helpful information and advice on choosing a distance-learning provider.


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