The best of times or the worst of times for e-learning?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to Heaven, we were all going the other way.”
Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities.

So what does the economic disaster spell for learning in the corporate world – doom and gloom or happy days? Training budgets are being slashed quicker than the price of pick and mix at Woolworths and those in learning and development are uncertain what their department will look like next year.

One thing’s for certain, change is coming and it’s coming fast. With cost-cutting number one on the list of business priorities 2009 could be, as Clive Shepherd points out, the “turning point for learning and development.”

Despite the huge advances in technology, progress in e-learning up to now has been slow. Organisations have been taking cautious, baby steps towards using technology to support learning for over a decade, experimenting with the odd e-learning course here, flirting with a serious game or two there. But even those companies with a well established tradition of using technology within their organisation have not even begun to take full advantage of the opportunities available. Ultimately, it may be the fear inspired by the economic crisis that drives organisations towards taking full advantage of what e-learning has to offer.

What has been holding people back is the belief that formalised, instructor-led training is the best way, if not the only way, for people to learn. Even if some people still hold that belief, in 2009 they may not have the luxury of upholding it – the money simply will not be there. Jay Cross calls for us to “Stop talking about training. Forever. Talk business metrics.” Taking learning away from trainers and putting it in the hands of the learners themselves has always made sense from a cost-cutting perspective and is increasingly seen as desirable from a performance perspective. Give people the tools they need to learn and let them do the rest, that’s the goal.

2.0 technology means the tools for self-directed learning are there – blogs, wikis, networks, serious games, simulations, mobile learning – and so are the methodologies – blended, informal and situation-based learning – what’s missing is the courage and the motivation to make it happen. The economic crisis may give us all the push required to move away from instructor-led training and towards self-directed learning once and for all.