E-Learning: An Impossible Dream?

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E-Learning (web based) has been in existence for more than 12 years, yet its impact in terms of the masses is still relatively low in comparison with other training approaches.

Within the e-learning space, there has been fast adoption with social learning and with mobile learning.  Yet, when you explore the training space as a whole, e-learning is still being seen as the ugly stepchild to instructional led training.

This begs the question, why?


We as training professionals have been brainwashed, due to years of being indudated that ILT (Instructor led training) is the superior and in some corners of the training industry, the best method for learning.

Think about it, when we attended school: HS, college, graduate school – what method did they use to teach you? ILT. 

Some teachers/instructors/professors might have added groups and real life scenarios, but again, this is only a very tiny percentile.

We have been taught that ILT is the only method and thus for the masses, they still see it this way, but the facts do not support the statement, that ILT is the best method for learning.


  • Retention rates for ILT are low, on average 8% to 10%, for WBT (Web based training) rates on avg are over 90%
  • ILT forces the learner to learn at the speed of the instructor, so if the instructor is flying through the information, you as the learner have no choice but to follow that path
  • WBT enables self-paced learning, you choose the pace at which you want to learn
  • ILT requires you to follow a linear path – i.e. A to B to C to D – you as the learner cannot jump around, WBT is non-linear: the learner chooses their own path, Maybe B, then jumps to D, then goes 20 times to E and maybe the following month goes to Y


If I want to learn how to add labels to an Excel spreadsheet, why do I need to hear how to open the file and save it? Yet, when you are in a ILT setting, you follow the path set by the instructor, so until they get to where you actually need to learn, you spend the time starting at your table, checking email, playing with your mobile device – basically anything BUT learning.

WBT: You open up the TOC (Table of Contents) within the course and go right to page or chapter you want to learn. Whammo!  And you can go back as often as you want, as many times as you want. Which leads to

  • Higher comprehension and thus synthesis; not the case with ILT (lower in both categories compared to WBT)
  • For people who are afraid to ask questions in ILT for fear of the “perception of feeling foolish” for asking the question, or do to the dynamics of a small grp, WBT eliminates that. If you make a mistake, no one will call you out for that – for many learners in ILT, the fear of the instructor calling on them is so great, that they are not learning despite them looking at the trainer.
  • WBT offers real world scenarios to be within the course, full interactivity and engagement; sure ILT can do this – but really, how many seminars have you attended that they actually delivered this? In the end, it is a talking head with PowerPoint.

Read It, Believe It

Open up a training publication – any publication (sans an online learning one) and go through the pages.  Count how many pages are dedicated to instructor or classroom training, then count the number of pages dedicated to e-learning.

While the increase of pages dedicated to e-learning is growing (and the best it has ever been in publications), on average more pages are dedicated to ILT – especially with sales, product and technical. 

For education/academia professionals open up your publications. Guess what? Still heavily geared toward ILT.

Attend a professional development workshop (K-12 teachers) and what do you see? When they discuss teaching approaches, what do they focus on? Classroom.

I am not talking about yesteryear, rather this is happening today.

You see in Linkedin groups – go check out the ASTD Linkedin group and see how many times they focus on ILT vs WBT. You will be shocked.  Until a few years ago, ASTD didn’t offer a standalone E-Learning conference, yet e-learning has been around for more than a dozen years.

ASTD is not the only ones. A lot of professional associations in the learning and development inc. SHRM suffer from the same problem.


There is nothing worse then trying to showcase the benefits of e-learning, only to have someone see or find a WBT course that is beyond awful. Static with lots of texts, some pictures, that’s it. So, the exec says “Wow, this stinks” and this is WBT?  Next thing you know, they don’t want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Even worse, they tell others and it spreads.

Sadly, awful WBT (as I just described) is still visible today. Linear (a ILT trait), with as much interactivity as you turning on your computer is all that exists.

Trust me, it does not help, rather it hurts the e-learning industry and to top it off, it offers the cynics an immediate opportunity to state the “no benefits” or “why change” attitude.


Any e-learning inititative is going to cost money, and often the first year you implement is going to be the most expensive. After that though, you have to continue to grow – thus your costs continue as well. 

One of the biggest problems I see in the training industry for those who are going into e-learning is a failure to develop an initial three year game plan, with actuals vs projected for each line item and then posting projections/actuals info on a chart to track, thus you can forecast.

When they fail to do this, who gets the biggest sticker shock? Your boss, who may be the CEO or President of the firm.

Yet, here is the twist – ILT is not cheap, either.

Let’s not forget having to fly people in from around the country, put them up at the hotel and pay food and in some cases conference space for those once a quarter sales training sessions.  

Send someone to learn Excel, Photoshop, leadership development or whatever. This typically incurs travel and workshop costs. 

When you compare ILT vs. E-Learning, guess whose cost is lower? E-Learning. 

If you doubt that, ask yourself what is the cost for each of those trainers you have on your team. Don’t forget to toss in the benefits too, and the cost of space.

For ILT lifers, they tend to forget those factors when doing a cost analysis and as a result, it re-enforces in their minds that ILT is less expensive.

Technology Fear Factor

Talk to ILT lovers and they will often bring up the technological challenges and issues

  • “We only have IE 6 at our company”
  • “They (employees/customers) won’t be able to figure this out”
  •  “We do not have the technological resources to do this”
  • “I’m not tech savvy”
  •  “Our employees do not have the tech skills to use this, I mean look at Bob, he can’t even figure out how to turn on the computer”
  • “We have a limited budget and e-learning costs a lot”

Funny, they never bring up the fact that there are a lot of trainers or people who have been asked to train, who cannot figure out or maximize the power of PowerPoint.

Listen, these statements just don’t hold water.

  • Yes, many systems today require you have at least IE7 even IE8, but there are systems that offer IE6
  • The last time I looked your job was a training exec – director, manager, CLO, whatever – and at least when I was in those roles, my goal was to ensure that the employees and customers were trained, i.e. learned xyz…bottom line..isn’t that part of your job – to help people learn?
  • If you have a computer that is at least from 2000 and can make sure the Flash version and Adobe reader version you need is on the computer, it will work. If you are using a SaaS system, then clearly you must have internet access and the appropriate browser

I have been at companies that removed audio cards from the employees workstations and we were still able to launch a very successful e-learning program. Don’t forget that the majority of employees tend to access a LMS or other e-learning solutions outside of the workplace.

I know of a company who was running Windows 98 and they e-learning solutions.  Now, if they can do it with Windows 98, you can.

Bottom Line

It is 2011. ILT was great for a long time, and over that time, for many people it started to wane – bad instructors, bad trainers, people that shouldn’t be involved in training, were just some of the factors.

In  training, we – as a whole – seem to be stuck.

If we decide to dip our toes into the e-learning waters, we need to have ILT stay in existence. We cannot let go.

We see it in our classrooms, at our conference workshops and seminars. We breath it and live it.

When we try a blended learning approach, using e-learning as a guise to our heavy centered ILT approach, we toss in the words “other media” or “paper” to show we are current, but at the end of the day, we are still ILT driven.

It has always been that way. It is still that way.

Until this changes, e-learning for the masses will still be a dream and those suffering learning nightmares won’t be us.

It will be our learners.

E-Learning 24/7


  1. Hi Craig, excellent piece indeed, and your argument is very well made. In the UK e-learning represents no more than 10% (yes 10%) of corporate L&D spend, and the understanding levels of many decision makers are still very low. This is further compounded by the myths and often mischief propagated by the ILT deliverers.

    The e-learning industry is also a victim of its own desire (often inadvertent) to make solutions more complex than they need to be, and follow “lemming like” many of the latest fads, when as you say at one level the whole thing is stuck…….!

  2. Craig:

    My lucky day! This afternoon’s surfing yielded E-Learning 24/7 and your thought-provoking Impossible Dream posting. It added a new perspective on my experiences with conventional onsite teaching, computer-assisted onsite teaching and fully online teaching. I’m a big fan of Joel Barker’s paradigm work and all three of these modes are part of the ILT paradigm. On-demand WBT however, seems to be a paradigm shift because it meets his key criterion that all the rules go back to zero when a paradigm shifts. Thanks for your clarity on the self-limiting nature of ILT in its various forms.

    Mary T.

  3. Hi Craig

    Thanks for the Blog. It is interesting to read others views and to view different statistical information which I would say comes from where you are working within the e-learning space.

    I work within the Vocational Educational (VET) sector within Australia and find our success rates within contact delivery compared with e-Learn delivery without any face to face content would lean towards a greater success rate within the face to face delivery. This success rate runs at around 70%.

    Admittedly we are in and always will be within a continuous improvement process with both modes of delivery with the hope that participation and in particular completion rates will always continue to improve. The balance of interactivity and budget constraints will always be a challenge to us.

    Face to Face type delivery with many of my areas is becoming a more blended mode that looks at picking up the best of both worlds.

    Certainly my student numbers within the face to face and blended modes of delivery are showing a decline and an increase of enrollment within fully online modes of delivery with the practical considerations being performed and assessed within the workplace. I would in the main attribute this to our 4% unemployment rate rather than just a preference change though.

    Due to our high employment levels e- Learning gives students an ability to study and work a full time occupation at the same time.

    I think the consumer will end up shaping the preference and we will always see a number preferring the contact of Face to Face delivery. Time will tell.

  4. Excellent article, Craig. I think one of the main fears about using WBT is that some students may need additional help or assistance with the material. In a ILT environment they have the benefit of an instructor and other students to work through the material. Traditional LMS systems historically have never given a real classroom type environment. However, in the advent of social media, there are now social LMS systems like Interactyx (http://www.interactyx.com) which infuse collaboration with WBT. I’d love to hear your thoughts about Social LMS platforms.

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