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Communication Project Magazine

Volume 4.1 Winter 2001

E-Learning: Are You a Tortoise or a Hare?

Marvin Gottlieb, PhD
©2001 The Communication Project, Inc.


You know the story. The eager rabbit tears away from the starting line and in a short time perceives that he is so far ahead that he can focus on a variety of other things and still finish the race well ahead of the hapless, plodding turtle. The single-minded turtle pushes ahead step by step and ultimately wins the race by staying the course. No doubt there is a moral and lesson here that applies to the Internet in general and e-learning in specific.

The January 15 edition of the New York Times Business Section headlined and documented the demise of several dot-com rabbits, and we know there is much more to come. After running separate races, several companies that own content are either partnering with or buying companies providing learning management systems (LMSs). SmartForce is partnering with Docent, DigitalThink bought Arista, THINQ bought TrainingSoft, ElementK is partnering with Isopia, and there are many other consolidations completed or in the works.

This and other newsworthy items are included in the very interesting and informative January 2001 issue of OnlineLearning Magazine ( In one article entitled "The End of the Beginning," Clark Aldrich discusses the challenge of committing to a platform in an environment that is cluttered with competing standards. After stating, "… no one thinks today’s HTML-based content is cutting it," he points out what he sees as an irony. "…creating platform-specific content today would limit the amount a vendor would be willing to invest in an individual course, defeating much of the purpose of e-learning platforms in the first place." On the other hand, if e-learning companies move too slowly, "…they’ll end up with offerings that are built around tell-and-test slide shows with few just-in-time learning, virtual classroom simulation and knowledge management capabilities."

The Questions

Aldrich is speaking to and about vendors of training content and platforms, but the issue is even more complex for clients. These are just some of the questions that become part of the e-learning equation for a company considering an e-learning option:


  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. What do we do with existing content?
  3. What happens to our existing platform?

Let’s address a few of these questions that are most widely shared by e-learning initiates.

1.  Why are we doing this?
B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, is usually credited with the development of programmed instruction. In his classic 1954 article, "The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching," Skinner described the conditions of the typical classroom as particularly adverse to learning. A single teacher can not individually and appropriately reinforce thirty or more students at the same time.

In this article Skinner first conceptualized a teaching machine for the classroom for use by individual students. This machine could present information, reinforce appropriately, and then branch to the next level of difficulty depending on the individual's performance. The roots of computer-assisted instruction can be easily seen in Skinner's teaching machine.

At the risk of ruffling feathers of true devotees, there is only one reason that makes any sense – cost. Perhaps we should say "perceived cost," since most equations simply back out T&E and training materials like workbooks or other visual support items. Some more sophisticated analyses ascribe a value to trainee time and add that to the plus column. The assumption here is that if the e-learning is provided asynchronously, the trainees will get it on their own time without taking time away from revenue-generating activities.

Is this approach a good way to teach? Undoubtedly, there are subject areas and content that seem to fare quite well using electronic delivery. Does that mean it is the best way? While embracing components of the Internet that provide access to an increasing universe of information, most educators resist the practice of e-learning in the contemporary sense largely because most instructional content is still built on the "teaching machine" concept of B. F. Skinner, E. K. Thorndike, and others proposed in the 1950’s (

The need for a more constructivist approach to instructional design has been argued in an earlier edition of this magazine and will not be repeated here ("Foundations of E-Learning"). However, it is interesting to learn what Internet "visionaries" have to say about e-learning. The same issue of OnlineLearning polled six individuals who are referred to as "…’outsiders’ – visionaries who have pondered technology’s place in society but who aren’t considered e-learning gurus…" Each of them had reservations or warnings about the use of e-learning.

The "Outsiders"

"With time people will recognize that e-learning is a fair to middling way of transmitting facts to a lot of people, but it’s not a great way to actually get people inspired and pumped up about a subject."..."The more human the skill that you’re trying to teach, the less applicable electronic means are." Cliff Stoll – Author of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway and High-Tech Heretic: Reflections of a Computer Contrarian.
"I’d love to see dot-edu returning to the plate and seeing itself not just as a consumer of technical content, but creating a [teaching] platform designed to reach a lot of people." Jonathan Zittrain – Asst. Prof. of Law at Harvard, faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.
"In the post-Napster world, packaging something and selling it isn’t the way you make money. Instead, you make money by being the preferred connector of people." Jaron Lanier – Lead scientist for the National Tele-Immersion Initiative and creator of virtual reality programming language (VPL).
"I think the last thing people want is education anytime, anywhere. Who wants to be going to classes and doing homework everywhere, anywhere, around the clock? Education is not fun. Education is work, and it’s about the hardest work people ever do. So we are not going to do ourselves any favors, speaking for the technology and education worlds both, by telling people this is going to be a pervasive thing in their world. Because that suggests that we don’t know what education is and we don’t really take it seriously as something that requires energy and effort." David Gelertner – Prof. of Computer Science at Yale University; chief scientist at Mirror Worlds technology; author of Mirror Worlds and Drawing a Life: Surviving the Unabomber.
"The value added by the Internet is choice. And there is no such thing as Internet learning; there is only in-your-head learning. We’re not going to have this magical training that’s going to make everyone productive." Esther Dyson – Chair of Edventure Holdings; author of Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age.
"…if something was published by Harvard University Press you tended to believe it because you knew it had gone through a serious editing process. Information published on the Net doesn’t give you that feeling of security." John Seely Brown – Chief scientist at Xerox; chief innovation officer of 12 Entrepreneuring; author of Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation; coauthor of The Social Life of Information.

The e-learning community is not the only communication-related segment to seek salvation on the web. The New York Times January 15 edition highlighted an article "Rethinking Internet News As a Business Proposition" about news organizations pulling back their commitment to web-based delivery. The article quotes Eric K. Meyer, a managing partner at NewsLink Associates, which conducts research into online journalism. He could be talking about e-retailing, travel, or other experiments including e-learning when he says, "This has been an industry that has been based on me-tooism and fads. Whenever someone did something, everyone else had to do it."

Internet Grammar

Also quoted is Christopher Feola, chief of technology at Belo Interactive, the online division of Belo Corporation of Dallas. Sounding like a latter-day disciple of Marshall McLuhan, he says, "…a period of overreaching attends the infancy of every new technology. Then you have business plans that bear no relationship to reality. The people who thought that the telephone was going to enable people to listen to symphonies look silly in retrospect."

And, as others have pointed out, sounding like McLuhan is not a bad thing when discussing the Internet. One of McLuhan’s points that resonates with me is the notion that the content of a new medium initially incorporates the content of the previous medium. The content of movies was essentially books, newspapers, and Broadway until Fellini, Kurisawa, Antonioni, and others began to expand the "grammar" of film to create new images unique to the medium that could not be emulated by print or live performance. In the same way, the content of television was movies until we learned that TV is at its best as an extension of the eyes and ears: watching a live sporting event or O. J. Simpson traveling down the freeway with the law in soft pursuit. It is ironic that despite many experiments and millions of dollars spent developing television infrastructures as a vehicle for learning, the best (and most frequent) TV application for instruction is the "talking head."

"An age in rapid transition is one which exists on the frontier between two cultures and between conflicting technologies. Every moment of its consciousness is an act of translation of each of these cultures into the other. Today we live on the frontier between five centuries of mechanism and the new electronics."

Marshall McLuhan

I don’t think we yet know what the "grammar" of the Internet is. But I’m almost certain that it’s not television, or radio, or books. And yet I frequently have conversations with corporate people in charge of developing e-learning initiatives who long for the moment when bandwidth will allow for streaming video that doesn’t jump, and two-way audio without the inherent delay. The longing is pragmatic because (a) we understand the old medium, and (b) we have all this stuff that we’ve already built or bought. Which brings us to the second key question.

2.  What do we do with our existing content?

If you’re talking about training that’s built on classroom or workshop models, you have to ask another question. What is the nature of the content? Are we getting a bunch of people in a room to teach them how to use Windows? To get the sales team up on the new enhancements to a core product? If so, there are opportunities to redesign the material to be presented electronically in both synchronous and asynchronous packages. If, however, the content involves human dynamics like interviewing, coaching, negotiation, and the whole range of management and leadership competencies, you are severely limited as far as what you can do electronically.

Does that mean that you can’t use e-learning for soft skills development? Of course not. It’s just that you’re using it as part of the package and not the whole. In fact, if you have a three-day program that is 1/3 content and 2/3 activity, you can cut one day from the program along with the corresponding costs by delivering the "content" portion of the program as pre-work on-line. The up side is that you deliver to the classroom a participant fully prepared and certified to move forward with the discussion and practice aspects of your instructional objective. The down side is getting participants to do the pre-work.

It is not surprising that the majority of our work in e-learning at The Communication Project, Inc. (TCPI) involves the reconditioning or "repurposing" of clients’ existing material. And after doing it for nearly ten years first on proprietary networks and now on the Net, I can tell you, "it ain’t easy." While there are similarities between programs of the same type, each program and client will have specific requirements or idiosyncrasies that require a custom solution. Is the program being delivered locally? Nationally? Globally? If globally, what are the connectivity problems? What platforms can be supported? If certification of learning is desired or required (as in the case of our financial services clients) how do we collect the data? Store it? Ensure that a test is being taken by the person being certified? Do we allow participants to print out materials? If so, how can we be sure that they remain in compliance if something changes? How will the e-learning platforms integrate with our existing systems (a key concern for our technology companies)? Do we run from our servers or do we need a server devoted to the e-learning platform? If we use a host, what are the scheduling concerns? Security issues? Can the program get through our firewall? How do we promote and schedule the training to ensure a high level of participation (a big issue for our consulting firm clients).

Of course there are answers to these and other questions. It’s just that very often the people driving the initiative have an unrealistic "wishful thinking" view of the ease and promise of e-learning and end up abandoning the whole effort when reality hits. Among those who have had experience trying to solve some of the problems of costs and logistics with other technology platforms, and are, therefore, more realistic about the obstacles, there is a desire to leverage their previous investments; which brings us to the third and final question to be considered here.

3.  What happens to our existing platforms?

What happens to the sunk costs we already have in other platforms and media like Teleconferencing, PictureTel, CBT, electronic white boards?

In some ways, the answer here is simpler. Look at your content first. As part of any training reengineering, it needs to be divided into three categories regardless of platform: (1) content that is current and accurate; (2) content that is important but needs updating; and (3) content that needs complete revision or doesn’t currently exist.

Many organizations driven by the thirst for economy are placing much of their redesign efforts and thrust toward e-learning on content and programs that are currently working well. Clearly there is a need for continuous improvement, but, as Henny Youngman might say, "Don’t do that." You will likely spend as much or more money and end up with a less than satisfactory result. So, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise, you should continue to support the platform the program is currently using.

Certain subjects that lend themselves to a presentation/discussion/polling format can be rapidly ramped up using a thin-client solution like Horizon Live Distance Learning TCPI has developed and presented programs in this mode within a forty-eight hour time frame using TCPI as host and a trainer or subject matter expert on the client side.

The second category offers some opportunities assuming that the content is currently platform independent; that is, it wasn’t created specifically to be presented as CBT or on videotape. Paper-based and classroom programs generally provide opportunities to incorporate electronic enhancements like prework, follow-up, email support, and chat communities to name a few. Since you needed to tamper with them anyway, you might take the opportunity to explore e-learning platform options.

The third category presents the most opportunity for innovation. However, a key driver here is the amount of time you have to get a program to the field. With short time frames you will do best to stay with platforms you already know. As seductive as it seems, e-learning takes a long time to prepare and deliver, and the learning curve on both the presenter and participant side is fairly steep – regardless of the platform.

Weathering the Transitional Storm

"After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man - the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society, much as we have already extended our senses and our nerves by the various media."

Marshall McLuhan

While it’s true that we can do things electronically today, that were part of science fiction lore only a few years ago, we can’t do all of the things we want to. Some day – maybe soon – the Net will connect us so seamlessly that it will stand out as the only logical solution to many of our communication and knowledge transfer challenges. We aren’t there. So, in this transitional phase I suggest the following rules of engagement for companies and their training professionals who are the generals and soldiers in this engagement between technology and teaching.

Rule 1 – Don’t join the stampede.

Many companies who charged out of the gate have stumbled on some key hurdles. While finding that the percentage of companies offering e-learning for employees will double in the next two years, A Forum Corp. survey ( gathered a list of the most common obstacles faced by learning professionals. These included:

Any one of these hurdles will trip up an e-learning effort. More than one will shut it down. Check your environment for the most effective ways to gain acceptance for e-learning technology in your culture.

Rule 2 – Don’t commit to one platform.

It is seductive to envision handling all of your e-learning needs by selecting one of the many vendor platforms with embedded authoring systems. By and large, they all do the same things. Many of the available platforms are feature-rich and enable you to present content in some manner, offer chat or conferencing options, register and track participants, and include a testing engine. However, selecting a platform to manage all of your e-learning needs requires that you conform to the limitations of that platform. I’m willing to bet that the first time you try to put up a program, you will want to do one thing that the platform won’t accommodate. Also, can you be sure that the platform provider will remain at the cutting edge of what’s happening in the rapidly changing environment?

As much as possible you need to remain "platform independent." While this may require more development work on your end, design training that is easily adaptable to different vendor platforms. Avoid complex branching screens and pop-ups that are more the province of CBT, and are usually annoying in Web environments. It is also advisable to have a separate vendor for registration and tracking if you can’t manage the database in-house. This allows you to change e-learning platforms easily, or combine more that one platform in your training – like asynchronous training combined with periodic live training using a thin-client provider.

Rule 3 – Make sure you have the full support and understanding of your stakeholders, and, if possible, your participant constituency.

Every design and implementation process must have a pilot component. You need to assemble a task force that compiles both enthusiasts and skeptics. Provide opportunities for your target audience to interact with the program and provide input. Conduct a force field analysis of your implementation strategy. What are the drivers? What are the restrainers? How can you enhance the drivers and reduce or eliminate the restrainers? E-learning will not sell itself, and giving orders will not make people learn.

Rule 4 – Reach for the moon and settle for the tops of the trees.

Challenge your designers and e-learning providers with your highest goals. Many technical people are resistant to tampering with the machine once they get it running a particular way. However, when presented with a particular request, they often rise to the occasion and come up with excellent solutions. Often your idea will not be technically feasible. However, if you limit your thinking at the outset you are almost assured of coming up with less than you might have if you allowed your imagination to roam.

So, it seems to me that the winner’s cup still goes to the tortoise. Get into the race, but take your time – the best is yet to come.

About the Author

Dr. Marvin Gottlieb is the president of The Communication Project, Inc. in Greenwich, Connecticut. This consulting group provides instructional design for workshops, seminars, self-instruction and e-learning, human resources development, and basic target market and organizational research. Dr. Gottlieb is also an Associate Professor of Communication at the City University of New York, a frequent speaker on communication issues, and the author of five books: Getting Things Done in Today’s Organizations: The Influencing Executive (1999); Managing the Workplace Survivors: Organizational Downsizing and the Commitment Gap, with Lori Conkling (1995); Making Deals: The Business of Negotiating, with William J. Healy (1990); Interview (1986); and Oral Interpretation (1980).

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