The curse of Captivate

It’s always interesting to meet potential new clients who are looking at implementing an e-learning scheme for the first time. They tend to have an idea that e-learning or CBT (computer-based training, which is e-learning that teaches you to use a particular computer application) might be the way to go for them, but with very little clue about what’s possible, how long it will take to implement and, of course, how much it will cost. There’s another, rather depressing, aspect to these conversations that crops up time and time again; namely, that in most cases, these new clients have been dragged kicking and screaming to consider e-learning – either by a directive from above, by redundancies in their classroom training team, or by some really compelling commercial case. Why’s that? Because, in the experience of most people, e-learning and CBT are rubbish.

The curse of Captivate

The thing is, I agree with them. So I’m often faced by people who have a negative view of e-learning schemes they’ve seen before, and who hardly dare to hope that it can be better. What’s really depressing is that this has been the case for the past decade and is showing no sign of getting any better yet. My first job, then, is usually to make the case for the effectiveness of e-learning and CBT when it’s done the right way.

You might be wondering why this situation gets me down: after all, since I clearly believe that my company produces great e-learning, doesn’t that mean we should be able to clean up? The problem is that the whole subject has acquired such a bad reputation that the market is much smaller than it should be. In my view, multimedia electronic communication should be the principal medium by which learning, marketing and sales messages are propagated nowadays, rather than some last-ditch alternative that’s turned to only once all other avenues have been explored. Electronic communication channels offer the potential to revolutionise the way companies communicate with their staff, customers and potential customers, and yet in far too many cases what’s achieved is nothing more than a very expensive mistake. No wonder potential clients are nervous about committing to it.

I met a new client team just yesterday. It’s developed an extremely sophisticated software application that’s sold to blue chip companies and used on a day-to-day basis by their staff – it’s of a similar nature to a stock management system. Currently, these blue chip customers send key staff on conventional classroom courses, to learn how to use the package from our client’s training team. This is all very well and, presumably, profitable, but there are three problems with learning in this way.

First, the blue chip will want to send the minimum number of staff to the classroom courses, since face-to-face training is by far the most expensive way to train individuals. This means they tend to send managers only, and it’s then left to these managers to train the staff under them in the workplace. The resulting Chinese whispers effect, coupled with the fact that these managers aren’t professional trainers, makes this form of training inefficient. The second problem is that while classroom training is well suited to introducing an application and its main features, it’s virtually impossible to impart sufficient depth in a complex application this way. The third problem is, what happens when trained staff leave? Who trains the new recruits?

Our new clients see an opportunity to supplement their training courses with a series of computer-based training modules, but they were extremely nervous because their experience of off-the-shelf CBT products was the same as mine – not positive. What’s wrong with these products? Perhaps it’s easier to say what makes for good CBT rather than bad, as it’s far easier to find examples of poor training programs. In a nutshell, good CBT (and e-learning) has three essential characteristics. First, all good CBT is interactive: you can’t learn much by sitting and watching, and even less when you’re supposed to be learning some detailed practical procedure. Second, good CBT is closely targeted to practical tasks. And third, all good CBT employs multimedia content.

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