Are confidentiality concerns holding back the e-learning industry?

by Viv Cole on October 14, 2014

If e-learning has a creation myth, it is that the e-learning industry was born out of the dotcom crash at the turn of the century – swarms of freshly unemployed web designers and developers started applying their skills to changing learner behaviour rather than consumer behaviour.

The exchange of ideas between e-learning and web design diminished as the e-learning industry sought to distance its public perception from the failed dotcoms. Judging by how much e-learning seems to be borrowing from web design it seems that e-learning has fallen behind in terms of innovation.

So what has e-learning ‘borrowed’ from web design?:

• Navigation e.g. Next buttons moving to halfway up the screen (like the BBC website)
• Rating systems (e.g. stars from Amazon, likes from Facebook)
• Consumer-grade user interfaces (look at any old LMS to see how badly the e-learning industry got this wrong)
• Adaptive/ responsive publishing (the same code responding to the device that is showing the screen content to ensure that the format is optimised for the device)
• Analytics (detailed analysis of hits on each webpage, used to inform design – look out for split run testing with tin can in e-learning case studies one day)
• Use of imagery e.g. background full screen photos and the early culling of clipart

I’m sure there are more ‘borrowings’, but let’s move on to identifying why web design has evolved faster than e-learning.

There’s the money argument: marketing generally gets more budget than learning and for businesses like Amazon the website is central to the business strategy. However, for me the root cause is the difference in approaches to confidentiality. Websites are fundamentally in the public domain, e-learning tends not to be. Therefore it is easier for web design good practice to be shared and poor practice to be eliminated.

The e-learning industry has an ambivalent approach to confidentiality. When potential customers ask vendor for examples of e-learning they’ve designed, this could be for a variety of reasons:

1. Proof. But of what? Showing a few screens of a module proves that the provider has not invented their client list and that the screens are demonstrating a variety of interactions, and well-designed menus but not much more.
2. The desire for ‘shiny’. Let’s see what high visual impact treatments are available that we could shoehorn into our project. I’m curious that I’m rarely asked about choices that I made in the learning strategy or for the evaluation data for behaviour change which I think would be stronger evidence of my effectiveness as an e-learning designer.
3. The confidentiality ‘trick question’. If we’re about to commission an external provide to create something confidential, let’s see if they cave in and show other people’s confidential information.

#3 provokes the question of how much confidentiality is actually appropriate. Does knowledge of Belbin team types give an organisation a competitive edge? I doubt it. If any edge arises it is because of how the organisation has applied that knowledge into its working practices.

Universal disclosure of e-learning would allow buyers to do #1 and #2 at a less superficial level and get more value from their questions. The is the important caveat: learning cannot simply be ported from one organisation to another with different organisational culture, learning needs and performance gaps.

If organisations were willing to publish/ share non-competitive edge learning they would benefit from better quality, lower cost e-learning in the future.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve Penfold October 20, 2014 at 10:16 am

Totally agree Viv. This is a subject very close to my heart. There are very few resources sharing best practice with real e-learning examples and this is most definitely holding the industry back. Another way that the web industry is ahead of the e-learning industry is in terms of measurement and analytics – ie. using data to analyse the effectiveness of the content and then using that data to ‘iterate’ and make the content even more effective. This is something that we are working with our clients to improve and given this is now prolific in the web industry I expect this to grow substantially in the e-learning industry too – particularly for courses that have a long shelf life.


Jennifer Valley October 20, 2014 at 7:07 pm

My brain is running wild with the what if’s and what haven’t we’s. Very good article!


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