Relearning About e-Learning

If there is one area that has always promised much but has never quite lived up to the hype, it is e-learning. Over a decade ago, I participated in a Mckinsey-led initiative that brought us in contact with thought leaders from the US and we all agreed that using a judicious blend of synchronous and asynchronous technologies, all universities would adopt e-learning as the medium of choice for delivering education to a vastly increased community of global learners in the not-so-distant future.

In spite of being faced with the attractive prospect of a much-touted $11 billion market for e-learning, most practitioners are still saying “show me the money” and only a handful of Indian firms, notably Tata Interactive, NIIT and Mentorix, survived the global slowdown that decimated training budgets. Now that the worst seems to be over for all segments of the IT industry, a clutch of firms have again emerged–Brainvisa, Kalzoom and ManageLearning are three such–in the little city of Pune itself and it is time to address the new opportunities for firms in this space.

“The competition between leading states and a few wannabes for IT investments is not letting up–an excellent sign for the renaissance of the IT sector…”


It is with this conviction that I recently accepted an invitation to be one of the keynote speakers at the annual e-Merging e-Learning conference organized in Abu Dhabi by the Higher Colleges of Technology. Speaker after speaker–professors from crème de la crème institutes like MIT and Stanford, CEOs of major research corporations and consultants from every part of the globe–waxed eloquent on the imperatives and the potential of the future.

What emerged at the conference and, indeed, was also the subject of my presentation was that there is nothing to be gained from focusing on just the technology of e-learning. A holistic approach where all the key factors–learning processes, technologies and human behavior–are all managed in an equitable manner, combined with a willingness of all players–governments, academia and industry–to partner for the common social and economic good is the only way colleges, corporations or even countries can benefit from the immense potential of e-learning.

Back home in India, quite a few universities are making significant progress in their own e-learning endeavors. Some of these are: the Pune-based Indira Group of Institute’s comprehensive e-learning portal that addresses the needs of students, faculty and administrators alike, the Indian Institute of Technology and Management in Trivandrum that has incubated a first-class e-learning product, and the Welingkar Institute in Mumbai which was an early adopter of knowledge management and is now planning a major e-learning initiative. All these and more initiatives provide the confidence to young technology partners that there is light at the end of the tunnel for all e-learning practitioners.

Effective implementation of e-learning in an academic or corporate environment will still need a combination of a world-class LMS (learning management systems), compelling and engaging content designed for the medium, and optimum methods of delivery that are tuned to the needs of the audience and the budgets of the institution. The merger of learning systems and knowledge management initiatives, which is slowly but surely taking place in progressive organizations, is also a trend to watch and will probably be the real catalyst for making this multi-billion dollar opportunity really take off. And if that sounds like jargon, just envisage a situation when a prolonged interaction between a customer and a service representative is not only captured in a knowledge repository but the lessons learnt are converted into learning objects and made available to every new entrant into the firm! But till every CEO in the services business and every chancellor of an academic institution join the ranks of the converted, all e-learning entrepreneurs would do well to heed the advice of Prof Kenneth Morse of MIT. At the conference he provided a slogan–CFIMITYI or Cash Flow Is More Important Than Your Idea. We need to keep that in mind even as this industry finally reaches the takeoff stage!

Ganesh Natarajan
The author is deputy chairman & managing director of Zensar Technologies and chairman of Nasscom’s SME Forum for Western India

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