Two Ships Passing in the Night: Corporate and Non-Profit eLearning

I’m in the unique position of straddling the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors and seeing the way that each approaches eLearning. I have worked in both sectors. I now serve clients in both sectors, and speak to prospective clients in both sectors. And what a study in contrasts this presents. It is like observing two absolutely different cultures, and two completely different ways of approaching a problem. In short, they are so different that it is like watching two ships passing in the night.

Corporations (for-profit sector) tend to approach eLearning as an IT problem that needs to be solved. There is an inordinate focus on software systems (e.g. learning management systems, learning content management systems, etc.), software tools (e.g. course authoring, content creation, testing tools, etc.) and technical standards (e.g. SCORM, AICC, etc.). Every day my email inbox is inundated with the latest studies directed at corporate training departments about which LMS or LCMS is rated as “best of breed,” or which content creation tool will cut eLearning development time in half. In all of this, it seems that there is an assumption that if you choose the right technology, everything else (including learning) will take care of itself. I liken this to a sort of techno-fetishism.

By contrast, most educational organizations, professional associations, advocacy agencies, etc. (not-for-profit sector) tend to approach eLearning as a way of solving a particular learning challenge (e.g. meeting defined learning or competency objectives, increasing reach, providing more flexibility for targeted learners). They tend to start with thinking of creative ways of solving learning challenges, and then work back to the types of technologies that will help them achieve their goals. Because of this, they are more open to looking at alternatives to expensive software expenditures such as build-your-own approaches and open source solutions. Because they generally have tighter budgets than the for-profit sector, they have to be more creative in finding solutions. This can be a good thing.

We recently met with a professional association about their eLearning efforts. They apologetically mentioned that they do not use an LMS, and that their eLearning was very basic. They created a rudimentary HTML template for the organization of content and tacked on a link to very basic discussion board software. However, their eLearning was good because they took care to ensure that it is based on principles of active learning and learner engagement. They invested a lot in learning design, and very little in technology.

Many corporations invest a fortune in complex eLearning technology, only to underutilize it. For example, they may use a tremendously expensive and complex software suite to post static content, test on it, and record who has competed what. It is much like buying a Hummer for trips to the corner store. At the same time, I have seen not-for-profits hammer together a beater with used parts, yet drive it across the country.

Of course, these are generalizations based on personal observation. There are always exceptions both ways. However, my experience shows me that not-for-profits are spending less on technology, yet getting better results from their eLearning. In other words, they are profiting more from their eLearning investments than the for-profit sector. Ironic, no?

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