Down the E-learning Rabbit Hole

Separating Fads From Trends is the Key to Wisely Investing in Your Corporate E-learning Program

Alice fires up her laptop for a 3-D virtual world training session. She hasn’t been in the 3-D virtual world environment in a long time, but the session is one she’s been looking forward to.

Alice decides to use her two-year old laptop for the virtual world session, because her PC operating system won’t “play nice” with the 3-D virtual world platform. While waiting for the virtual session to start, She glances at her two main work monitors where she has six tabs open across two browsers, a conversation she’s wrapping up on Skype with a co-worker (who’s in another office), and a second conversation, about a new product, which has been going on all morning with several people on her company’s social network. She notices three notifications in her e-mail of responses to a comment she made yesterday in her business unit’s online forum. Meanwhile, waiting for people to get settled in the 3-D virtual world session, she closes the feed reader she started scanning earlier in the morning for her daily updates.

Just as the 3-D virtual world training session starts, she sneaks a peek at her iPhone she’s holding under her desk and smiles when she opens the mobile app and sees that she’s just moved up the leaderboard in a social learning game.

Does this scenario make you feel a bit like Alice, tumbling down the rabbit hole? If so, you’re probably not alone. E-learning’s farther down the “rabbit hole” than it’s ever been.

The narrative above isn’t as farfetched as it would have seemed just five years ago. Yet, it’s the type of scenario that’s playing out in the workplace today, leaving many learning leaders wondering just where they should invest their training budget and resources. 3-D virtual worlds? Social networks? Mobile gaming? What is just a fad and what is an actual trend?

Let’s first try to understand the difference between a fad and a trend. A fad “catches on” when the number of people adopting it begins to increase rapidly. A fad only becomes a trend when time is factored in. Fads are short-lived while trends have staying power. Simple, right?

Paul Saffo, the managing director of foresight at Discern Analytics and teacher at Stanford University, has spent more than 20 years exploring the dynamics of large-scale, long-term change. “We have a tendency to over-estimate the speed of short-term adoption and under-estimate the long-term impact of new technologies,” he says, adding that most big technology trends take 20 years to develop.

This might explain why, in spite of all the buzz about social media for instance, a recent social computing adoption survey by the Corporate Executive Board is reporting that social content technologies such as wikis and social networking are falling short of adoption targets in as many as two-thirds of organizations.

Our Elearning! and Government Elearning! User Survey, which included 740 respondents, also indicates the slow adoption rate of social networks while also providing a glimpse at trends. Virtual worlds, for instance, were used by a small percentage of respondents, but a higher percentage planned to purchase them. Significant growth was also reported for wikis, blogs and forums; and products and services with the highest plans-to-purchase scores were mobile learning and games.

The drivers for first generation e-learning (often called “Web 1.0”) have been cost reduction, increased access, scalability, value to the business, efficiency, consistency, keeping up with business needs, flexibility, meeting compliance needs, and security (among others). Solutions that focus on the delivery of training courses and content remain critical today.

The drivers for newer, social, mobile and collaborative e-learning technologies (“2.0”), on the other hand, have been less course- and content-centric. They address the need to connect colleagues within the organization to more easily find information, to address specific content and topics within business units, to support informal learning, and to keep up with rapid changes. The focus is on connecting, collaborating and mobility.

Here are five e-learning trends with staying power that support these new drivers:


No doubt you’re familiar with Apple’s trademark “there’s an app for that”marketing
term. Apps are simply application software designed to perform tasks.One in four adults in the U.S. currently uses mobile apps. Among respondents to our Elearning! and Government Elearning! User Survey, 24 percent used, and 37 percent planned to purchase, mobile learning solutions, up significantly from prior research.

App development groups focusing on corporate training content for mobile learners and the LMS; and BlackBoard, which recently developed an iPad application called Mobile Learn, are just a few examples of mobile learning apps in use. BlackBoard turned to mobile learning because it needed to address the changing landscape of its learners’ use of computing devices. Enter the mobile LMS.

Daniel Burris, technology forecaster and author of “Techno trends,” sees a progression from mass-market apps (i.e., Facebook and Pandora) to enterpriselevel apps (i.e. Citrix Receiver, Yammer). He compares the computing software revolution we are experiencing to the disruption MP3s brought to the music industry and digital photography brought to the photography industry. However, not limited to any one business (like music and photography), he sees customized business apps as a trend “tectonic in size to be taken seriously.”


Social networks are used at work so people can connect with co-workers. They really started to move into the enterprise in 2009, and, and they took their place alongside other collaborative technologies in 2010. Social networks in the enterprise are being adopted slowly compared to public adoption. Security issues, misunderstanding of use, and the lack of an open, collaborative culture are oft-sighted barriers.

Social networks in the enterprise fall into three categories: those that exist inside the organization and behind a firewall; those that exist outside the organization “in the cloud”; and those that exist as hybrid solutions, combining delivery models. Each use supports different goals.

In our Elearning! and Government Elearning! Social Network survey, we identified several trends in the adoption, use and functionality of social networks in the enterprise. Of those using social networks, roughly 25 percent of respondents use custom- built or in-house systems while others use consumer social networks like Facebook. Seventeen percent of organizations are taking advantage of social networking tools as part of their LMS.

In our survey of buying intentions, 29 percent of respondents (33 percent public sector) already purchased social networking tools and 36 percent (27 percent public sector) planned to purchase them over the following 12 months.Organizations would be remiss to ignore the rapid adoption of public social networks in their future plans despite slower adoption in the enterprise.


E-learning in 3-D casts a pretty wide net. It includes immersive virtual environments, virtual worlds, 3-D simulation and 3-D gaming. Our User Study indicates both virtual worlds and games are experiencing growth. This is particularly true in the public sector where 3-D/simulation are used by 46 percent of respondents and virtual worlds are used by 14 percent of respondents (up from 6 percent the year prior). The percentages are lower in the corporate sector with 3-D/simulation used by 20 percent of respondents and virtual worlds used by 6 percent of respondents.

SunMicrosystems’ Project Wonderland is a good example of an open-source solution
for building 3-D virtual environments for education, visualization and business collaboration. Another is OpenSim, which has been described as a viable, flexible alternative to SecondLife (at a fraction of the cost) that is in use at IBM.

Claire Schooley, senior analyst at Forrester Research, says 3-D virtual worlds have a great future but we are not yet there with intuitive development processes, engaging content, participant ease-of-use and simple access. “The experience must be almost instinctive especially to non-game or tentative users, [because] they give up quickly when they are uncomfortable,” Schooley says. “Learning processes like emergency medical training, equipment maintenance, and meetings using multiple media types show the rich possibilities, but 3-D worlds are still looking for that niche that makes them a must-have to the business.”

Elif Trondsen, Ph.D., director of virtual worlds at @Work at Strategic Business Insights, says “availability of Web-based tools and technologies will dramatically boost capabilities of virtual worlds by leveraging what is currently available on the Web and what will emerge.” He sees the tipping point for 3-D immersive environments just around the corner.


When you hear “social gaming,” Facebook’s Farmville or Mafia Wars apps may come to mind. For work, they’re not very serious. Social games for corporate learning, on the other hand, are frequently called “serious games” because they serve a business purpose, usually solving a problem.

IBM is using video game technology and the virtual world of the Internet as a global onboarding tool for thousands of new employees. The idea is to engage the social network capabilities of the Internet to break down the barrier of distance and satellite office environments.

Another social learning tool, Ribbon Hero, is a game for Office 2007. Learners earn points by completing commands and playing challenges. It is integrated with Facebook where a leaderboard showing friends’ scores is displayed. Two weeks after it was launched,Microsoft saw over 32,000 downloads, 25,000 challenges
played, and over 650 Facebook fans. Who would have thought that PowerPoint and Excel training could be fun?


Among collaboration tools, e-mail, Web conferencing, and live online training are still at the top in terms of usage and have been firmly in the DNA of corporate learning for a number of years.

Newer collaboration tools show much promise, especially the use of collaborative portals such as SharePoint. Presence technologies, blogs and microblogs, and new tools for video conferencing like desktop videoconferencing and telepresence are also gaining traction. Our recent collaboration research list other tools being used for e-learning.


To be sure, we’ve moved into new territory as we add more tools to the training and learning mix. Perhaps the rabbit hole isn’t such a curious, out-of-the-way place.

Alice, while watching her sister read a book, said, “What is the use of a book, without picture or conversations?” She was probably imaging today’s interactive e-book.

—Watch Alice for the iPad at

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