When you were a child and your mother kissed your boo-boo, you could feel the immediate pain relief. It was not because of her magical lips; it was the direct consequence of a symbolic suggestion that created endorphins. (Sorry, mom!)

What does this have to do with e-learning? Today’s e-learning format has a strong symbolic suggestion that does not necessarily create learning or a significant impact on your organization. Some paradigms are commonly attributed to e-learning and unfortunately skew the perception of this valuable training method. You can still work your magic to cure your organization’s training ailments with e-learning by discerning a few key subtleties.

Paradigm #1: E-learning Will Save Money.

Of course, you will save a lot on hotels, meals and travel. You will also save a lot of unproductive time on the road, away from the field. That said, you will only save those costs if you had them to begin with. There are many factors that impact the decision to use e-learning. You need to meet essential conditions to save money with it:

  1. You must have enough learners to generate a good return on investment.
  2. Learners should be dispersed geographically to generate a maximum of return. Consider other strategies if your learners are all in the same location; you’ll save time and money.
  3. Select a type of e-learning that will impact learning proportionally to the development efforts. A short video, a “how-to” or a podcast can create significant impact at low cost. However, gamification is an expensive choice. Choose your strategy wisely if you want to save money.
  4. Your content has to be stable. Updating online training is time- (and money-) consuming. If your content is evolving, like software, consider job aids or help screens to avoid spending your time on screenshots.
  5. You need the expertise to develop strong e-learning. Creating good e-learning requires techno-pedagogues; integrators; designers; and a few essentials technologies, such as an LMS and an authoring tool. Many specialized organizations will charge you for this expertise, but you won’t save any money or develop your internal expertise.

In a nutshell, before exploring the financial savings of e-learning, make sure there is a need.

Paradigm #2: E-learning Is Not for Soft Skills.

Research, as described in Ruth Colvin Clark and Richard E. Mayer’s book “E-Learning and the Science of Instruction,” has shown that e-learning has the same impact on learning as instructor-led training if the same training methods are used. How is that possible? The answer is simple: Bad classroom training is no better than e-learning. Developing a soft skill (or any skill) requires more than a one-time learning activity; it should be part of a process, a learning strategy. The fact is, even with in-person training, you have just put one stone on a much bigger wall to build. Nobody can learn how to negotiate with a one-hour training course, in class or online. E-learning is a media, a vehicle, a transmitter of knowledge – not an end.

Designing a strategy that includes e-learning, in-class training, coaching and direct application on the job is the only way to develop soft skills – and other skills, too. A single learning method is not enough for learning. As instructional designers, we need to see learning as a path, not an isolated event.

Paradigm #3: E-learning Can Replace In-Person Training.

When e-learning emerged, several organizations transitioned from 100-percent in-person to 100-percent online training, and many organizations still have that goal today. However, learning can’t be 100-percent any type of learning; it has to be a little of everything, designed into a journey. E-learning cannot replace any learning activity, just as if you replace the carbohydrates in your diet with whole grain, you won’t be healthier. It’s part of a bigger picture, a complement of other activities that, together, will create results. To create impact, we need a strong blended learning strategy with innovative methods to develop talent before, during and after training. Replacing your leaning efforts with a single method will only penalize learning. Enjoy, instead, the multitude of technologies and human factors at your disposal to bring about development.

Paradigms will continue to be popular in our organizations; it’s our duty to create standards that will generate a meaningful impact on your learners. Design a learning journey that creates a real impact, not just an imaginary one. Take time to analyze your learners and content to recommend the appropriate blended solution to create a journey, not just an event. Some specific conditions allow the placebo effect to work … but you won’t need it!