Recession and the challenge to e-learning

A colleague in an area of business other than the learning industry asked me a few days ago; “Do you think that e-learning will survive the recession?”

My initial response to her was “well, it’s survived thus far…!” Later, I reflected on the implications of the current economic slowdown for the e-learning industry.

The dialectic I am presenting here can be summarised in the following manner: do the positive economic, organisational, and social value of e-learning outweigh traditional human responses to recessionary times? What strategies can we use to ensure the survival of and even the growth of e-learning as an industry in these changing times?

So what’s changed in the e-learning industry since the last recession in 2001? I’ve outlined some discussion points below:

  1. First of all: Traditional business practise
  2. Developments in Infrastructure & Hardware
  3. The E-learning Hype curve
  4. Refinements in Content Development Methodologies
  5. The Rise if the Read/Write Web
  6. The Playstation Generation – Digital Natives in the workplace

Scroll down to find out more about each of these points.

Traditional business practise
Historically, when a slowdown or company rationalisation occurs, the first against the wall are the folks in the PR, marketing, and training departments. Typically, individuals and organisations revert to previously-learned behaviours in tough times; this usually means going through the process of carrying out tried-and-tested, though not necessarily logical responses to the problems put in front of them. The rationale is as follows:

  1. Profits are down
  2. Revenue projections aren’t great for the next 12/18 months
  3. We need to cut our costs
  4. We need to keep the guys that make the widgets (we need to have product to sell)
  5. We need to keep the managers of these people (or productivity will go down)
  6. We need to keep Human Resources in place to manage everyone obviously (it’s just a coincidence that I – that is the decision-maker – work in HR!)
  7. What about those training people? High travel costs for the ILT guys, they pull people out of work for 3 days to go on courses. Large budgets spent on implementing and maintaining an LMS/LCMS, third-party e-learning libraries, custom courseware etc, but they do seem to add value to the organisation. And let’s face it, they don’t really improve the quality of our product, because they never convince us with their ROI metrics…
  • Outcome: tea and sympathetic chat, and the Training team get their pink slips / P45s.

Sadly, I reckon that this has been the approach used by a significant number of organisations over the last few years. However….

…and it’s a big however.

Let’s look at the evidence for factors that have changed in the e-learning industry since 2001 and the recession following the Dot-Com crash.

Infrastructure & Hardware
More-or-less general availability of high-speed internet access just wasn’t there in 2001. To take the example of the company I worked for at the time, our high-quality courseware was developed in Authorware and Director and delivered to customers on CD-ROM for distribution via their intranet or accessed directly from the disk. Our on-line courseware was a ‘lite’ version of the CD material – not out of choice, but because of the limited functionality that could be provided to a user via a 56k connection.

Over-compressed images, poor animation, and very poor audio – hardly the immersive learning solution that e-learning flattered to promise at the time. Assuming the learner could access the content successfully, the chances were that the PC (for it was always a PC) that they were using to view their content was processing and displaying the date at a rate that we wouldn’t find acceptable on a modern PC, laptop or mobile device (screen-size excluded). Pentium or pre-Pentium processors, 8-bit sound cards, 16 colours, 800×600 pixel displays. And so on.

In short, we could see the potential, but our imaginations exceeded the available technology.

The e-learning hype curve
This brings me neatly to the e-learning hype curve (see Figure 1). Kevin Kruse described 2001 as the year that

…brought the harsh, steep slope of unfulfilled promises. Several high-profile providers shut their doors while many more announced large-scale layoffs in the face of missed revenue targets and crashing stock prices. E-learning advocates retreated to the more defensible ground of “blended learning. This year [went] down as the Trough of Despair.

Figure 1. The 2001 E-learning Hype Cycle (source: Gartner)

I would suggest through familiarisation and use, learners expectations are more reasonable about what can be achieved (and perhaps more importantly how it can be achieved through digitally mediated delivery). Given this environment, organisations are now more willing to invest in e-learning as part of their overall training strategy. But is it perceived as a necessity or a luxury?

I can’t answer that question right now. I suspect that I will be able to answer it 12 months from now, because there will be evidence as to whether decision makers consider e-learning to be a core requirement that effectively meets organisations’ training needs.

Content development methodologies
Without going into the history of this too much, the development of (relatively) easy-to-use authoring tools like Captivate, Articulate (and a whole raft of others), Rapid E-Learning development methodology and the disintermediation principle means that e-learning has fewer up-front costs associated with it than at the turn of the century.

Similarly, if it’s done correctly at the outset, ongoing maintenance and support costs are lower than they ever have been. By developing content with smaller, more flexible teams, the value proposition of e-learning has been enhanced, and the total cost of ownership has been significantly reduced. Outside of e-learning, the take-up of podcasting and streamed media on sites like Blogger and YouTube demonstrates that this ease-of-use of tools and technologies has extended into the community at large.

The Read/Write Web
Who would have thought in 2000 that social networking, blogging, wikis, YouTube, and podcasts would be as big a part of life as they are now? At the start of the century, the Web (and e-learning) could at best be described as a half-duplex medium; it was pretty much all one-way traffic. The development of information platforms has facilitated knowledge-sharing, folksonomies, social interaction, and, key to all this, reciprocity.

We now live in a multiplex world of many voices and ideas, mediated by the internet. At the forefront in using these web technologies is the e-learning industry. By using these tools to develop content I feel we can demonstrate quite effectively that e-learning has a value now that it did not have a decade ago. I would assert that this is particularly true if you take a social-constructivist approach to learning. By the way, I’m happy to entertain debates about the role of formal as opposed to non-formal and informal learning in this environment.

The Playstation Generation
Concomitant with the read/write web is the Playstation generation that have grown up over the last number of years. In his seminal essay Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001), Marc Prensky declares:

…students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.

Today’s students – K through college – represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age. Today’s average college graduates have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV). Computer games, email, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging are integral parts of their lives.

Extending from this, there is a generation of workers who are comfortable with and practised in the concepts and use of e-learning – take a look at the resources available on, an initiative for second-level students in Ireland. I was involved in the development of the first iteration of this site, and it’s changed a lot (for the better) since we took those first steps creating it 8 years ago. Similarly in third-level education, there have been significant developments in on-line learning, and I think that it’s fair to say that it has become quite embedded in the pedagogy employed by universities: tools like Moodle enable students to upload coursework, take tests, build their own knowledgebases and wikis, and have on-line discussions through a single point of access.

This generation is in the workplace right now. It will expect to learn new skills as their careers develop using the tools that they have always learned on in the past: that is, by using e-learning.

I’ve left loads of stuff out here; this is a blog entry, not an essay. But consider other factors including transport costs and training in the era of $100 a barrel oil and the value of virtual classrooms; the ROI of e-learning as opposed to traditional methods; even the impact of traditional ways of teaching on the environment (“e-learning” becomes “eco-learning” anyone?).

I may well return to this topic again. But at this point I want to put the question out there: how do you think e-learning will fare in the next 18 months, particularly if there are tough times ahead?


Kruse, K. (2002) The State of e-Learning: Looking at History with the Technology Hype Cycle. [Internet] Available from: [Accessed 12th February 2008]

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrats. [Internet] Available from:

Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf [Accessed 14th December 2013]


December 23 2013 09:00 am | e-learning

10 Responses to “Recession and the challenge to e-learning”

  1. Anonymous on 22 Feb 2008 at 7:39 pm #

    hey brilliant article…!!!

  2. Michael Hanley on 27 Feb 2008 at 11:52 am #

    Thanks for your comment (whoever you are!)

    I while I completely agree with your assessment; the challenge as I see it is for e-learning practitioners to address traditional/institutional ways of thinking in organizations about how to leverage the benefits of e-learning – break the habits of a lifetime in a sense. Most decision makers (i.e. c-level executives) in organizations are from a generation that would not have extensively used e-learning during their formative years. In my experience, they become much more risk-averse during economic downturns and push back on what they see as innovation in tough times.

    I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a VP about two years ago. I was working on a proposal to introduce an on-demand pre-classroom training module for a ILT course – a bit of blended learning to reduce the workload on instructors to ensure that learners were of an appropriate skill level to actually attend the course in question. His response to the proposal was along the lines of “it’s all very well being leading edge, but we don’t have to be bleeding edge.”

    Now, this was hardly an all-singing, all-dancing 3D PLE we were proposing here, just a little 30-minute Flash-based presentation, but I think that it represents that we have to be cognisant of more conservative attitudes that exist in the workplace and need to develop strategies to counter these lines of argument.

  3. Eamon on 27 Feb 2008 at 2:19 pm #

    very interesting. I have been a fan of the gartner hype cycle. I wonder is it generalizable? Does one need to pay gartner for an expensive report or can we tell where we are with a given technology on the curve ourselves ?

  4. Jeff on 01 Apr 2008 at 2:53 pm #

    Great article. I look forward to your update of the e-Learning Curve. As an association employee, I’ve noticed that nonprofit associations have embraced e-learning in the past couple of years in full force. Some have been using e-Learning for several years now. Organizations like ASAE, MPI ( and others have made e-learning front and center and typically, the associations are the last to follow the corporate world.

  5. Michael Hanley on 01 Apr 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks Jeff, I appreciate you taking the time to comment on my article.
    I’ve just taken a quick look at the two sites you mentioned and they certainly seem to be advocating an online content / Web-based approach to delivery of learning materials.
    I have a question that perhaps you could answer: as an association employee, has your experience been that the push to embrace e-learning has come from your subscribers requesting content in certain formats or via online delivery channels, or that association leaders, sensing a change in their members’ needs, have willingly begun to include a-learning as part of their service / value chain?

  6. dmcoxe on 22 Apr 2008 at 1:55 pm #

    Fascinating post. I wonder if you have given any thought to a changing structure for elearning? My sense is that presenting an elearning course in smaller (say 10 minute or 10 to 15 screens) chunks rather than one-hour pieces that have bookmarking capability should be the direction we move in.

    Making modules shorter with richer metadata so that individuals can quickly decide whether the information is material they need is the direction we need to move.

    We probably also need to provide an easier means of access other then having to log into an LMS. If we want a limber workforce we need to reduce the hurdles to get the knowledge they need to do their job. And that requires management to take that leap of faith that training is worthwhile and not demanding to see ROI.

  7. John Zonneveld on 19 May 2008 at 10:26 pm #

    Great article Michael. I discussed this exact topic last month. The part where you discuss the Playstation generation provokes some interesting thoughts. I agree that this generation is much more comfortable with the tools and technologies used to deliver e-learning. But I believe there is more to it than comfort with technology. I believe this generation is also accustomed to instant gratification by way of this technology (i.e. – get your answer, when you need it, all you need is Google).

    Add to that the fact that the body of knowledge an individual is required to learn to make it through life is increasing exponentially, the retiring Baby Boomers and the tightening economy and it’s plain to see why unstructured or informal learning capabilities are in such high demand right now.

    In my humble opinion, I believe that K-12 education will not be completely reinvented to suit our new, tech-savvy generations (we still need to establish the basic building blocks on which to build this vast body of knowledge) but I’m already seeing drastic changes in higher education programs and how much more of the learning taking place is subjective as opposed to the traditional prescriptive approach.

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