I’ve presented many times over the past couple years about the excitement and opportunity of the modern e-learning era. The advances in the technology and techniques available have enabled us to move well beyond mere “web-based training” to create truly revolutionary learning experiences.

The Birth of E-Learning

When computer-based training (CBT) first came to light, our computer screens only displayed one color, and we relied solely on mainframes to communicate across a company’s enterprise. “Social networking” occurred at the water cooler. Commercial authoring tools introduced in the 1980s helped larger organizations leverage the personal computer and package online training programs. The evolution of the internet through the late 1990s finally provided ubiquitous distribution of courseware without great cost. Around the 2000s, the triumvirate of LMS platforms, authoring tools and SCORM enabled the interconnectivity required to launch e-learning as an official industry.

Learning Today

Over this extraordinarily fast decade, many new technologies were introduced to our lifestyle, from smartphones to online social networking. These innovations went from rare to pervasive in a heartbeat. We’ve also acknowledged that the endless slideshows of the past three decades are painfully ineffective, so alternative techniques from gaming to adaptive learning have become more fundamental. Finally, the emergence of both millions of millennials and the gig economy have converged to demand that new solutions be produced – and fast!

Visualizing the E-Learning Ecosystem

I started to get my mind around all the possibilities last year and wanted to visualize the expanding ecosystem we live in. What I’d seen published to date just wasn’t providing the full view. I reached out to many of my colleagues in the industry – fellow providers, thought leaders, CLOs and academics – to piece together an illustration of today’s learning ecosystem. It’s not perfect, and every month I tweak it, but it’s become very popular.

In this learning ecosystem, we didn’t limit ourselves to e-learning and technology-based solutions. We complemented the ecosystem with interpersonal experiences and up-front strategic requirements to set context and recognize that the optimal solutions today are blended. We divided the ecosystem into these categories:

  • Strategy – because it should drive the entire ecosystem. Elements of strategy include curriculum planning, learning operations, career mapping, skills and certifications, analytics, and, of course, learning strategy.
  • Personal: Personal interventions include expert facilitation, mentoring programs, virtual instructor-led training (ILT), business simulations and classroom training.
  • Social: Social-based solutions include communities of practice and social learning. This is a rapidly emerging area that I expect to balloon within the ecosystem.
  • On-Demand: On-demand support includes job aids, online help, simulations, embedded performance support and exciting recent developments in geo-present support.
  • Online: Traditional online learning has expanded to include augmented reality, microlearning, games and gamification, intelligent assessments, adaptive learning, and, of course, web-based learning.
  • Mobile: Rapidly advancing innovations include mobile apps and virtual reality.
  • Technology: The vast array of learning technologies starts with the LMS and LCMS and becomes exciting as we introduce portals, search engines, artificial intelligence, xAPI, learning record stores, sensory devices, and more and more advanced authoring tools and templates.

I’m constantly thinking about the ecosystem: what’s in it, how the pieces fit together and pushing our teams to build solutions that leverage the right components. It’s complex, difficult for many organizations to fully exploit and too easy to fall back into past ways of thinking, but it opens the door to more engaging, effective and sustainable solutions.

How do you leverage the full ecosystem?

  • Let your strategy drive your design.
  • Recognize the limitations of your team and your vendors.
  • Recognize the limitations of your toolset.
  • Recognize the constraints of your company’s technical/security requirements.
  • Map the combination of ecosystem elements that form your solution.
  • Document a formal design of each component and interface.
  • Prototype, test and refine the solution.
  • Build a minimum viable product to control your investment.
  • Test it with a willing audience, and refine as needed.
  • Document and build templates for consistent quality.

The new ecosystem holds many exciting opportunities if approached in a disciplined manner. This illustration helps encapsulate the relationship and dependencies of our options and the opportunities that today’s technology and techniques have provided us to produce e-learning, where the “e” stands for “exciting!”