Recessions are never good. Businesses falter and people lose their jobs through staff reductions. Investments dry up, and management is forced to postpone projects. The current recession is particularly painful all around. ELearning is not immune, but is there a silver lining somewhere?
We’ve been through this before. The previous 2002 recession crushed an unprecedented boom in eLearning. Cutbacks were everywhere. When the economy goes bad, training is usually the third item that companies cut, after travel and free coffee. In most situations, cuts were broad and indiscriminate; training program cuts came regardless of the format (classroom or online), value or true cost.
The current recession, possibly the worst in decades, still lingers. Like in 2002, we have seen reductions in training programs, and once again, staff reduction. The current woes also affected eLearning initiatives, but not necessarily as much as we might have expected, and not nearly as severely as in the past. What’s different?
The strange thing about recessions is that, as bad as they are, they often surface new opportunities, and the current recession might just be a good thing for eLearning. Tough times can create ideal environments for change. As resources become scarce and technologies become better and more ubiquitous, organizations that value learning – a necessary prerequisite – are seeing eLearning as more essential in lowering costs and speeding up the learning process, and, in the end, improving performance, which is what really matters.
In this recession, organizational cuts were more surgical. Companies reviewed their classroom offerings to be sure that instructor-led programs were absolutely essential. Technologies are better and easier to use. Organizations are leveraging their SMEs and instructors through synchronous (virtual classroom) delivery, and employing new rapid eLearning tools to turn out asynchronous content faster and at less cost. Blended learning models are shortening classroom time. Of course, quality is still important (and too much eLearning still falls short here), but quality is not just an instructional issue; it is also an issue of cost/benefit, speed, accuracy, comprehensiveness, and authenticity of content. Social networking is allowing anybody to get into the knowledge creation business (not always a good thing, of course). New Web 2.0 tools are enabling everyone to self-publish content. Front-line business units are experimenting with learning and communications technologies on their own, sometimes bypassing those training/learning departments that aren’t responsive enough. These are impressive changes, but even more so in a time of retrenchment.
The recession of 2002 was bad for eLearning. Organizations abandoned it and returned to what appeared to be safer, better known and more comfortable strategies, or just stopped doing anything. It was not a time for innovation. When it ended, some reverted to old habits and sought to resume where they left off years earlier, having learned very little. But a growing number of organizations saw that the world had changed, and worked to better tune their value proposition and think anew about the role of learning technology.
It paid off. This recession has been different. In an era of cutbacks, the demand for eLearning – in all its forms – is up. Now, many organizations in the private and public sectors better understand not just the challenges and costs of eLearning, but its promise and potential as well, and want to see it succeed. And this is an important point – we have not lost the need to get learning and information to people quickly and effectively. In fact, the need to get this done in a knowledge-rich and increasingly digital workplace is greater than ever before. The current depressed economy has accentuated this. This has been positive for eLearning innovation, and the field is adapting to the times.
The latest recession hasn’t just changed the eLearning industry and its practices, it has also changed organizational perceptions of eLearning, from “we can’t afford to do it,” to “we can’t afford not to do it.” It may be more balanced between informal and formal approaches. It may not always look like courseware. It may increasingly eschew classrooms for workplaces, instructors for laptops, student guides for performance support, courseware for blogs, and PowerPoint presentations for social learning. And its value proposition may have less to do with learning as an end in itself, and much more to do with how learning contributes to business performance. Not all of us are ready for all of this, but more and more of us are getting there. It’s a revolution, and for many, a matter of professional survival as well.
We need to meet this opportunity head on. This recession is opening a new path for eLearning, but will we take it? The challenge falls to us to recognize the significant and strategic shifts that are taking place in the field and restructure what we do in ways that make us more agile and responsive.
Time is short. Despite the recession, or perhaps because of it, many businesses are putting their feet back in the eLearning pond and once again turning to us for help. But they will not stay for long.