E-learning Popular but Not Effective

By Stephenie Overman Apr 28, 2014

What works best in career development isn’t necessarily what’s most often used by companies.

While e-learning was one of the most-used employee career development methods in 2011 and 2013, it ranked low in effectiveness, according to the 2014 Employee Career Development Survey Report published by Insala, a provider of online talent development.

Coaching ranked as most effective for directors and above in 2011, while 360 feedback and assessment had the highest ranking in 2013—the two periods compared in the report. For all other employees, mentoring ranked as most effective both years. Traditional training, defined as classroom experience conducted by an instructor trainer, ranked second both years for employees below directors.

Traditional training saw a slight decrease in frequency of use and effectiveness between 2011 and 2013. Eighty-seven percent of respondents reported using training in 2011, compared to 78 percent in 2013.

“Self-directed career development methods—methods that employees themselves select and which allow employees to determine the area and direction of their development—are popularly used and ranked as effective as per our data, as in the cases of tuition reimbursement, training, mentoring, informal learning, employee-initiated career discussions and networking events,” according to report author Amanda Polewski, Insala’s marketing coordinator.

E-learning ranked in the top five most effective methods for only one population—director and above—and only in 2011, Polewski said. Sixty-eight percent of respondents reported using e-learning in 2011, compared to 70 percent in 2013.

If e-learning is less effective than other learning methods, why does it remain so popular? “It does seem easy to implement e-learning on a broad scale, compared with the things that are most effective,” Polewski said. “There’s a lot of focus on e-learning but it doesn’t sound like there is a lot of discussion of what is most effective. Or we’re not taking it into consideration. That should be challenged.”

In the report she noted that “Technology is an indisputably convenient and popular means of sharing and distributing information—but perhaps more emphasis needs to be put on its sharing rather than its distributing capabilities.”

“It is perhaps not a question of to incorporate or not incorporate technology in employee development strategy; technology is already an integral part of our working lives, and excluding it from learning strategies would be counterintuitive. It is a question, however, of providing employees with a social and collaborative context for their learning, and the ability to choose how, when, and what kind of learning to engage,” she said in the report.

Putting employees in charge of their own career development gives them not only greater ownership but also greater latitude to let their career paths follow the paths of their lives, according to Polewski. “At the root of self-directed career development, you’re really a) asking your employees to constantly refresh their views of themselves, and b) offering them the tools and resources to develop themselves.”

To corroborate and elaborate on the report’s findings, Polewski also looked at research conducted by U.S.-based American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), and U.K.-based Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD).

CIPD found that 74 percent of organizations use e-learning, “but only 15 percent report that it is one of the most effective learning practices available to them.”

CIPD reported that the vast majority of respondents believe that e-learning is more effective when combined with other types of learning, and nearly three-quarters agree or strongly agree it is not a substitute for face-to-face or classroom learning in their organizations.

“One only needs to look at the CIPD’s statistics … to know that e-learning, at least as it is currently used, is not effective on its own,” Polewski wrote in the report. “And the fact that social and/or collaborative learning methods dominate our own lists of most used and most effective career development methods (as in the cases of mentoring, special projects or situational challenges, training, coaching, and informal learning) may indicate that e-learning is best used when it can be adapted to employees’ social and collaborative learning and communication styles, or else when limited to supplemental use.”

In the 2013 survey, 35 percent of the respondents described themselves as working in HR, organizational development, learning or training, while 12 percent described themselves as a senior leader—either C-level, director or vice president. Just over 12 percent described themselves as working in HR, personnel, inclusion, recruitment or administration. In the 2011 survey, 53 percent of respondents reported that their role was HR, organizational development, learning or training, and 12 percent were senior leaders.

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer in Reston, Va.


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