Deconstructing E-Learning

Advocates of web-based training have learned a big lesson: Classroom interaction matters.
Jason KaraianMarch 1, 2003

No sooner had Luis Sanchez Navarrete, director of training and knowledge management at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA), launched a bold training initiative using web-based technologies, when things started to take a turn for the worse. In 2000, a E10m project dubbed Plan Conecta was greeted with enthusiasm, as the E309 billion (in assets) Spanish bank pledged to provide subsidized computers and free internet access for three years to all of its 30,000 Spain-based employees.

But it wasn’t long before Sanchez, whose E-learning initiative was a driving force behind the plan, saw course take-up rates plummet and drop-out rates escalate. Not only had the novelty of E-learning worn off quickly, but staff also complained that they missed the interaction of a classroom to help them stay motivated.

That’s fairly typical of other corporate attempts at “E-learning.” In fact, a survey conducted last year by Jane Massy, an independent U.K.-based E-learning analyst (in conjunction with research firm Alphametrics and publisher Bizmedia), found that 61 percent of the 433 western European training professionals polled said the overall quality of their E-learning programs was either fair or poor.

After all the ballyhoo about web-based training, companies are learning a basic truth: online training on its own doesn’t make the grade. As Enrico Camerinelli, a Milan-based analyst at Meta Group, puts it, E-learning offerings are often little more than conventional training courses translated into HTML-in other words, it’s easy for “E-learning” to be reduced to “E-reading.”

“You still need action, communication, discourse, practice and reflection to have effective learning,” adds Massy. That’s why companies have begun pairing online training components with traditional face-to-face classroom sessions. In industry parlance, the term is known as “blended learning.”

“There isn’t a set formula, but our courses are about 60 percent online and 40 percent face-to-face, on average,” says Joaquin Uribarri, director of IE Learning, a new dedicated E-learning division at Madrid-based business school Instituto de Empresa.

Schools of Thought

But a word of caution: designing and managing blended learning courses requires a lot of legwork and can be even more complex — not to mention costly — than either classroom training or online courses on their own.

“When programs are face to face, companies rarely become very involved in terms of course content,” says Uribarri. “I don’t know why, but when there’s an E-learning component, they want to examine the content for every session and lead extensive beta-testing with pilot groups. It really extends the content-creation process to result in very close collaboration with our clients.”

Back in 2001, Uribarri got a call from BBVA’s Sanchez asking him to help rescue the bank’s faltering E-learning initiative. It took the better part of the following year to conduct consultations with BBVA managers and professors at the business school and then design a new program. The initial plan was to provide three E-commerce courses for middle management, which included an online segment followed up by classroom sessions at Instituto de Empresa.

Today, in addition to the courses developed with Instituto de Empresa, BBVA’s corporate university provides 65 online self-study courses, which have been expanded to offer training in foreign languages and management skills. All told, this year the bank allocated around E3m — or 15 percent of its training budget — to E-learning programs.

So far, it appears the bank is getting its money’s worth. “In terms of effort and workload, our blended E-learning methodology demands a lot more from the participants than residential training,” says Uribarri.

Students are assigned to small working groups of five people or less and work on course assignments together via a web-based platform accessed via an intranet. At the end of each course, students are assessed by a professor from Instituto de Empresa, on the basis of a final exam and the quality of group projects. “We find that there is more interaction among people during [blended] E-learning courses than face-to-face programs,” says Sanchez. “Given our increasingly global operations, this is a welcome discovery.”

To date, nearly 500 employees of the bank have passed its blended E-learning courses, with only a 3 percent drop-out rate. BBVA plans to offer the same sort of courses to managers at its Latin American operations later this year.

Plenty of Room

It’s not just what gets taught but who gets to be taught that’s stirs up debate in E-learning circles.

At Hilton International, the £4.1 billion (E6.2 billion) U.K.-based operator of the hotel chain’s non-U.S. properties, the E-learning program has cast a wide net, including as many of its staff as possible. “We try to make E-learning as inclusive as possible,” says John Guthrie, head of international management development at Hilton International. “We want, quite deliberately, to jump over the heads of managers and give people the opportunity to apply themselves.”

Hilton launched a virtual corporate university last year, and plans to spend £120,000 on an E-learning library of 94 self-study courses this year. “Hilton has an historic reliance on classroom-based instruction. E-learning is only part of the university,” says Guthrie. “The web site, however, is the fulcrum.”

Most of the 94 courses are based on off-the-shelf software; Guthrie reckons that it costs less than £10 per employee per online course.

Blended learning can also be found at Hilton and in many cases, web-based courses are offered as preparatory tutorials before face-to-face courses. For example, online finance courses were recommended to a group of senior managers as way to brush up on the basics before attending a residential program entitled “Commercial behavior” at IMD, the Lausanne-based business school.

In other cases, however, Guthrie is happy to use traditional E-learning.

Consider finance. The empirical nature of the discipline lends itself to online self-study, says Ken Scott, CEO of London-based Intellexis, which provided 21 E-learning finance courses to Hilton. After the Intellexis courses were piloted with small groups in Germany in 2001, they were customized before launch last year, mostly in order to use vocabulary specific to the hotel business. For example: “incremental conversion” replaced “marginal profitability,” while “revenue per available room” was substituted for income.

Today, five of the ten most popular online courses at Hilton are finance related. In fact, “Introduction to financial statements” is at the top of the list.

Guthrie now wants to expand the reach of the program further, and has earmarked £50,000 this year to develop customized management courses for sales and reservations employees. As far as Guthrie is concerned, using a combination of classroom courses, E-learning and blended learning gets top marks.