Validating e-learning investment?

Mar 07, 2013

I'm making a pitch for investing in e-learning, and I know my organizational leadership would like to see research that connects e-learning to real behavior change in a learner. Does anyone have a good article they can point me to where I can find some respectable data on this topic?

Thank you!

Trevor MacDougall

12 Replies
Jerson  Campos

I don't know about any articles, but here in my company, we have reduced the training time for one of our positions from 8 months down to 3 months when we switched from ILT training to eLearning. It wasn't overnight of course, it dd take some time. Not only that, but it also provides valuable performance support. Employees can revisit the training at any time to relearn something they have forgotten.

Tim Slade

Hi Trevor...

Here is an article I've used in the past. Also, here in my organization, we've reduced costs by delivering learning to the users directly (via eLearning) vs. them having to travel to our Training Center to obtain it. Depending on the organization, this could be a huge cost savings.

Good Luck!


Steve Flowers

One of the things to consider when you're comparing e-learning to other methods is that e-learning is just a medium. And as a medium, on average, it is no more or less effective than well designed training delivered using any other method. There are things e-learning does well just as there are things face to face does well.

Here's another link that describes some of the commonly held beliefs (some true, some false) about e-learning effectiveness:

One of the bigger traps folks fall into with any method of training is the belief that training is a good method to transfer information from one point (a book or instructor's head) to another point (the "learner's" head). The problem with this is that it conflates information with knowledge and knowledge with skills. Resources are good for information. Training is good for skills development. 

The marker of a skill is a capability that requires practice to attain proficiency. If no practice required to get proficient OR proficiency isn't required for performance, training is quite likely a waste of time and resources. Additionally, a significant portion of our actions are driven from the neck up. e-learning is great for providing practice for "covert skills" and "cognitive tasks". This is one of the strengths of an e-learning solution. Decision practice and feedback can easily be offered by a self-paced / computer-based medium. More complex transformations (changing ways of thinking) may require peer interaction, facilitation, and conversation. Still attainable using e-learning methods, just using a slightly different mechanism.

The other trap folks fall into with training is "bundling" components and engineering (sometimes over-engineering) solutions in packages that can do more TO people than FOR people. This can be mediated by examining what we're actually doing to improve performance. Are we preparing someone to perform? Are we preparing someone for a specific challenge, certification, or assessment? Are we supporting performance? Are we providing an opportunity to practice (supporting an increase in proficiency)?

As for ROI, e-learning should almost never be "the whole enchilada". It's a part of a system. Sometimes that's hard to isolate in reality even when a hard business case analysis might point to significant savings. I prefer value and efficiencies as measures to the typical hard calculation of ROI $$. Just about any strategy offers tangible (now) benefits in addition to intangible (long term / additive) benefits. Just measuring the tangible (now) is short sighted and potentially risky as the intangible (long term / additive) benefits could far outweigh the tangible in positive or detrimental ways. Where are we adding value (productivity, retention, satisfaction, time to market)? Where are we improving efficiency (time to competency, delivery time, costs)?

e-learning has been around for awhile. It's an established part of most business' readiness toolkit. When designed and implemented well, e-learning strategies (just as with any strategy) can be very effective. When not designed and implemented well, any solution will be less than effective.

Daniel Brigham

Steve: You rock.

Trevor: The research suggests that online learning can be effective as that in traditional classrooms. (It can also be just as bad, of course.) See p.13 of Mayer's E-learning and the Science of Instruction which shows the results from two studies:

Bernard et al. (2004) "Electronic distance learning versus face-to-face instruction: distribution of effect sizes"

Tallent-Runnels et al. (2006) Review of online learning

Basically the research suggests there's no measurable distance between e-leaning and instructor-led stuff. Of course, both methods have their strengths and weaknesses.

Most decision-makers aren't wooed by research, but you could stress e-learning strengths:

1. It's cheap to build and deliver relative to instructor-led.

2. You can reach anyone pretty much anywhere with it. Learner can take it where and when they want (often)

3. You can create different paths (in the same course for learners of different skill levels. It can be more individualized.

4. It standardizes content--no flighty instructors, etc.

5. It's easy to track learner progress and how they are performing (did they take the training? How did they do?)

6. E-learning works well with simulations. You can practice in a real-world environment without the danger and expensive of the real world (well, sort of)

I've got a longer list of e-learning strengths somewhere and could dig it up if you need additional ammo. But think about your audience? What logical or emotional appeals would woo them? --Daniel

Eric Nalian

Hey Trevor,

We are currently in the process of replacing our current orientation (it is taught at our Main Office in Southfield Michigan once per month, and we arrange travel for between 10-25 people depending on the month) with a blended approach that will be mostly web-based.

Removing this training allowed us to save over $100K and hire 2 additional team members to support our Learning & Development needs.


Todd Thornton


My response will be less thoughtful than Steve's, but I'm of the mindset people should start moving away from calling it "online learning" at all. It's really "connected learning" by either connecting through Internet capable devices/databases or connecting with individuals/experts through those devices. 

I know it sounds somewhat flippant, but if you've read an email and learned something new you've participated in effective online learning. If you've checked a potential job candidate out on Facebook/Linked In and learned something to help make your decision, you've participated in effective online learning. 

The list could go on including finding a meeting location through online maps, getting a question answered in an online forum, etc. I realize decision makers want data, but sometimes the best data for making decisions is your own real world experiences. They just don't consider it "online learning" now, but I can't for the life of me figure out why going online and learning something you didn't previously know quickly and easily is not "effective" learning whatever name you want to place on it.  To paraphrase Confucius,  

"You cannot access the Internet without learning something". 


Steve Flowers

Todd's view is a good way to look at things. Since your at the beginning of your journey, you may have a better chance at connecting support nodes throughout the continuum than many organizations. Separating interventions into isolated components is really common. 

Ideally, all of these would operate within the same, interconnected and inseparable, ecosystem:

  • Performance support and job aids (pull)
  • Task / job information resources (handbooks,policies, procedure guides)
  • On the job training (including structured OJT)
  • Print-based resources including correspondence materials
  • Self-paced digital components (skill builders, orientations, courses)
  • Facilitated digital components (workshops, seminars, sessions, events)
  • Facilitated face to face components
  • Performance qualifications (sign-offs)

Thinking of e-learning not as a one-off, fire-and-forget mechanism, but rather as a part of a continuum or campaign of support options within an overarching strategy is the right way to go.

Yaba Cisse

As a trainer, I've found a significant behaviour change when transitioning from traditional learning to a more blended online format with my own company.  This can be experienced from both the perspective of the operator and the employer.

I find things can go one of 2 ways,  The learner either tunes out due to the lack of activity or they focus on due to the constant visual stimulation.