Can eLearning really scale

I know this must be on the face of it a rather impertinent question. But I am not talking just the about the “e” in eLearning (of course bits and bytes can float to almost anywhere now), but I am talking of eLearning as a whole concept.

So what am I saying? Let me focus on the WBT (Web Based Training) which is clearly the one invention in eLearning that has arguably made the most significant impact. Has that scaled? In my experience, it has not scaled well. And the reason has been simple – cost of creating highly effective, engaging and interactive WBTs in large quantities is overwhelming.

This is true of companies that I have worked with over the past 10 years. At the scale at which they operate, with pressures of time and budgets, they are simply unable to invest in building good quality WBTs as a general practice. What ends up hitting the learner PC or mobile device are page turners (probably the best page turners there could ever be, but page turners all the same).

Closer home. The Indian government has sponsored the creation of eLearning for ALL higher education. This process is already underway under the National Mission for Education using ICT. As a project that dovetailed into the National Mission initiative, NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) has created 125 courses using WBTs and 129 videocasts covering over 10,000 hours of engineering education learning.

In the next phase, the Mission plans to extend this to more than 32,000 additional hours just in Engineering and Sciences. Meanwhile, the Institute of Lifelong Learning (ILLL) at Delhi University has taken the lead in Under-graduate and post-graduate non-engineering courses aiming to completely cover all under-graduate subjects across arts, commerce, management and humanities over a period of time. The medical education initiatives are perhaps not far away or already underway.

This would, if successful, perhaps make this Indian higher education resource base the largest open courseware initiative in the entire world and the largest repository of video courses in the world. MIT OpenCourseWare initiative has 2,000 courses as of date. OCW has 3,867.

But are these courses worth it? Do they scale for different learning topographies and cultures? Do they scale between slow and fast learners (or other distinctions)? Is there any study on their effectiveness (The MIT OCW 2009 Program Evaluation Findings Summary states that 92% of the site visitors are satisfied with the quality of the courses)? Are they really courses or just supplementary material, like an eTextBook or an eSlideBook or an eLectureNotesBook?

Just looking at the work under NPTEL WBTs alone makes me shut my eyes and wince (ILLL does measurably better) – forget about the quality of what’s written (that may be great), but the presentation and format is just as interactive as a book. Actually, let us not forget about the quality of what’s written down as well, because I can only repeat what a teacher in a State University said to me about some of the content – “My students can’t understand it because it has been made for the best students in India, taught by the IITs”.

Well, why don’t we just run some automated processes and convert the great textbooks we have from authors worldwide, well researched and non-plagiarized content, complete with effective graphics and other perks, into “eLearning open courseware”? Go the Nook way and explode the billion-dollar market for eTextbooks?

I don’t also understand a few things about the “course” in open courseware. Look under the hood and you will find many different meanings of the word “course”. For example, this course, MAS.962, The Nature of Constructionist Learning, is a supporting website for a group of students listing readings and class methodology & calendar.

The “course” actually has to run parallel to a physical/virtual live course – in fact, not even virtual, most readings are from books that would need to be sourced from a physical library – perhaps only within a university or college environment where someone made sure these were accessible in enough numbers.

NPTEL spent about 5 mn USD to create its Phase 1 courses, that is less than 500 USD or so per learning hour on average for an effort of perhaps one man week or two per learning hour (I don’t know how much the SME [read IIT Professor] got paid).

Worse, I think they are about to perpetuate their mistakes by using the same model to create three times or more of content. Perhaps we have 50-100 mn USD in loose change at the moment?

If you count additional complementary efforts like putting the national knowledge network up – upwards of 1.3 billion USD I am guessing, you have one large commitment there that you are not going to be able to leverage.

So it seems that I can’t get any clarity about whether eLearning can scale enough to even qualify to be really called eLearning. It is like that image captured at low resolutions that disfigures when you stretch it.

So if it can’t scale – and is restricted to small footprints at high quality and deep pockets – is it really worth pursuing it?

5 thoughts on “Can eLearning really scale

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  1. Great question Viplav – I struggle with the same question many a times.

    From pure business perspective, I don’t think custom content development can scale – total development cost for creating effective content, time taken for the same, pace of change, and intense competition (because of low entry barrier) would not allow it to scale.

    What would scale are solutions to industry problems, where WBT/Assessment/Virtual Session etc are vital components of the complete solution. We need to build solutions and take them to the customers, and recover cost by distributing them among large customer base – then only can effective e-learning be delivered with real results for the customers.

    Don’t expect Government to do this though 🙂 They do have much more loose change to burn!

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    1. Thanks, Manish. I think that is the real question. If custom content can’t scale, then what are the solutions that can? And how does anything less than a moneyed consortium with a vision undertake large solution creation and amortization, if at all?
      Viplav

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  2. Hi Viplav – what we are trying to do is collaborate with experts in couple of domains that we have some grip in, come up with some interesting ways of trying to address the gaps that exists in performance enhancement and training, and then create workable prototypes of these solutions – which are combination of content (custom, aggregated), delivery software (LMS/VCR etc), and physical real-world support.

    The idea is to get some customers excited enough to partially fund the development of relevant infrastructure (we pitching in the rest of money), which can in parrallel be sold to customers with similar need. So far, we have done prototyping in one area and talked to some potential customers – looks like it can work (you can however never be sure till you see a signature on dotted lines!).

    Can discuss more if you offer a cup of coffee 🙂

    Would love to hear from you/other organizations in growth stage who face similar question, and how are they trying to overcome them.

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