The future looks blended: What will it take to win in the online continuous learning space?

1. September 2020
by Lian Boerma, Irvin Faneyte and Oleg Tschernizki

The closure of corporate offices and training facilities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic has forced corporations and trainers alike to move many courses online - even courses that were previously deemed unsuitable for the digital space. And with success. The lockdown has thereby accelerated the digitization of corporate training, resulting in market research agency Arizton almost doubling its e-learning market growth forecast from 8.5% to 14% per annum for the period 2020-2025. For providers of corporate training, this triggers the question: what does it take to win in the continuous learning space?

Corporate investment in learning and development has been on the rise for the better part of 30 years. Continuous learning has developed from a ‘nice to have’ to a necessity for employees to maintain (and update) their skill sets, and for employers to attract, develop and hold on to talent. In fact, a survey by Accenture showed that 25% of recent college graduates considered training opportunities the most important fringe benefit, second only to interesting and challenging work.

US Corporations spent on average $1,286 per employee on training in 2019 alone according to the Training Industry Report, an increase of 31.7% compared to 2014. About a third of this amount is spent on off-site amenities such as travel, meals, and facilities. On top of that, opportunity costs are often considerable and exacerbated by the (often) full-time nature of off-site training. Many corporations have thus been looking for efficient digital learning solutions as a way to provide more training without exploding their budgets.

As a result, only 35.5% of training was delivered in a classroom setting in 2019, down from 42% the prior year, making the corporate segment the fastest-growing end-user segment in the e-learning market. So far, not all types of training courses have proved equally suitable for shifting online, with most successes achieved in moving mandatory and compliance training from the “classroom” to self-paced digital options: the well-defined, clear objectives and a clear distinction between right and wrong answers making it relatively easy to move them online.

That being said, the ban on group meetings and the closure of offices in an attempt to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has left corporations little choice but to move more complex training, such as onboarding and soft-skill training, online as well. Traditionally, these courses were in-person and instructor-led and thought to be unsuitable for the digital realm due to their “secondary” purposes such as networking, learning from peer-to-peer feedback, and team bonding. Forced by the crisis, these views have been changing, as videoconferencing has since proven to enable group instructions, virtual break-out rooms have shown to allow participants to practice and have discussions in small groups, and digital “happy hours” have replaced in-person networking at least to some extent.

Now that employers have experienced that most courses can be taught online, it is unlikely we will ever see the same levels of in-person training as before the COVID-19 crisis. In response to the current reality, market research agency Arizton has adjusted its e-learning growth forecast from 8.5% to 14% per annum for 2020-2025.

For learning providers to win in the continuous learning market, this likely means taking a critical look at their propositions, and – probably! – building out their digital offering. When thinking about this, it helps to keep in mind the “success factors” we found present in most successful plays in this space:

1. Design for digital delivery

Transferring knowledge and skills in a digital setting requires course formats that are different from traditional ones. Digital learners face more distractions than in-classroom learners. Therefore, developers of digital courses must carefully evaluate which learning activity can best captivate their audience, and design their courses around this. Otherwise, one runs the risk of students dropping out, as providers of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have learned the hard way: 2012 was dubbed ‘the year of the MOOC’, but despite the enormous attention MOOCs were receiving, only 5% of students enrolled in MOOCs ultimately completed them. Part of the reason was that MOOCs were delivered like classroom courses, which led to screen fatigue and attention strays. Nowadays, MOOCs are (once again) thriving, after rigorously changing their instructive instruments into short videos, as well as interactive sessions and tests.

2. Offer personalized solutions

Using digital tools allows for adjusting the content of each course to the needs of individual learners and jobs. Feedback can be personalized, as can recommendations for future (e-)learnings. Personalization can improve learners’ motivation and retention of the materials learned. Offering a personalized, adaptive solution, however, requires e-learning providers to capture data on learners’ progress and individual needs, and using such data to inform decisions on what to show the learners. The more data is collected and actively put to use, the better the personal ‘match’ and the greater the lock-in effect: other providers lack this information and are thus less well-positioned to offer similar degrees of tailoring. Hence data collection and personalization create competitive advantage as value to users rises and the risk they switch to other providers diminishes.

3. Deliver proof of engagement and mastery

Whereas in the past employers could only hope that employees would internalize and apply what was taught, having to rely on seat time as a proxy for mastery, digital tools can measure mastery, engagement, and even application of learned materials. Corporations expect e-learning providers to prove their courses are effective and that their employees are actively using insights they acquire, for instance by setting performance targets for their employees concerning e-learning and scheduling regular refresher courses.

Learning providers can deal with this challenge in several ways: for example, the learning platform Good Habitz has created an overview page indicating the time actively spent on their learning materials and the number of tests passed. Another digital learning provider, Skills Town, has set up a learning management system (LMS) in which employers can monitor the progress of employees. In fact, 83% of companies say they currently use an LMS, making it the most common learning technology used by corporations. Ensuring compatibility with popular LMS systems is, therefore, an important feature for corporate learning providers.

4. Blend learning solutions where appropriate

It is unlikely that all courses will be moved online as in-person training is still perceived by many – employers and employees alike – as more immersive and fun. Besides, a change in location and setting can help learners concentrate and thereby contributes to the effectiveness of training. However, employers are likely to expect some of the benefits of online training – such as proving that learning objectives have been met – from in-person training courses, as well. Consequently, providers of “classroom” courses should consider blended solutions to harness the advantages of both in-person meetings and e-learning. Lepaya is a good example of a provider who is doing just that, combining classroom sessions with e-learning modules. Before classroom sessions, learners use an app to familiarize themselves with the theory and complete an intake assessment. During classroom sessions, the majority of time is spent on peer discussions, role-playing, and feedback. Finally, over the following weeks, participants are encouraged to put their learning into practice through gamification and other challenges.

5. Provide cost-efficiency

Employers expect e-learning to result in cost savings compared to in-person learning, or at least generate more “bang-for-the-buck”. However, e-learning methods are not necessarily less expensive, as providers need to develop or license software for hosting the courses in addition to developing course materials (which given the involved nature of digital learning is by no means less of an investment than developing off-line materials). This can become quite a significant cost, as illustrated by the fact that roughly half of the 600 employees at the popular MOOC platform Coursera are tasked with improving and maintaining the platform. To profitably offer digital courses, taking advantage of scaling opportunities in digital training is paramount. Hence, providers should opt to use or create platforms that support easy creation and arrangement of materials, and develop modular content that can be used across multiple settings or courses.

The most effective way of getting to a cost-efficient solution is however by knowing your customer and saving the employer valuable time and resources. For example, FL Technics reportedly saved Boeing one month of training time per mechanic and pilot by using VR technology as part of their blended learning solutions. By means of virtual reality, mechanics were taught the location of mechanical elements, practised with tools, and received feedback from trainers. In addition to saving time, these VR methods reduced the need to keep expensive aeroplanes on the ground for training purposes.                  

Undoubtedly, the winners in the continuous learning space will be the (e-)learning providers who figure out how to harness the power of technology and employ it to make learning engaging, efficient and rewarding for employees, while offering employers cost benefits and insight into the development and training needs of their talent pool. While these changes aren’t easy, the e-learning of the future promises to be better, cheaper, and (hopefully!) more fun.

EY-Parthenon has a broad and global experience in the education sector. Want to know more? We welcome opportunities to discuss the potential impact of the above in more detail, please reach out.