E-learning and Online Business Training Comes of Age

“Webinar.” In our entire lexicon, is there an uglier way to save a syllable?

“Webinar.” In our entire lexicon, is there an uglier way to save a syllable?

The portmanteau of “web” and “seminar” is, in case you’re wondering, a presentation, lecture or workshop that’s transmitted over the Internet. Encompassing meetings that take place in real time (a university class, say) as well as those recorded for anytime-anywhere playback, it’s part of a much-touted evolution – by businesses and various other organizations – toward e-learning and training. At BCB we’re packing our suitcases and jumping on the webinar bandwagon too: the digital team now pays $375 for an annual subscription to Lynda.com, which provides video web tutorials that keep us up to date on more than 450 computer programs.

The bandwagon, to be honest, was slow to gain traction. In 2000, at the peak of the tech bubble, the corporate e-learning market in Canada was worth just $145 million, according to IDC Canada Ltd. Tech analysts at the time saw it as a particular disappointment, with IDC’s Julie Kaufman telling a 2003 gathering of training-industry professionals that investment in computer-based training had “fallen off the face of the earth.” But then things took off. By 2005 IDC was valuing the Canadian e-learning market at $2 billion, a jump of 1,300 per cent. Globally, e-learning is now estimated to be worth some $59 billion (according to “conservative estimates” from the European Commission): in other words, nearly as much as the global coffee market.

As with many technologies, universities and colleges were pioneers in the e-learning field – to the point where, these days, less than a third of professors teach solely face to face, according to a 2006 McGraw-Hill report. This summer at the Canadian E-Learning Conference, held at the University of Calgary, educators from across the country – 187 of whom attended seminars discussing topics ranging from the value of Wikipedia and podcasting to making authentic connections online – planned academe’s next step into the future. And although B.C.’s universities rank well in terms of technological advancement, the real movers and shakers are back east.

At the brand new University of Ontario Institute of Technology, for example, each student receives a laptop pre-installed with all the software he’s likely to need at school (or later in the work world). Professors wander around with tablet PCs, and the beating heart of the campus is a learning commons replete with docking stations, laser printers, DVD burners and plasma display monitors. While the steady creep of acceptability for Web 2.0 is no longer novel or note­worthy, it’s still amazing for someone like me – who grew up in the Bronze Age of handwritten college papers – to think that I can now take an MIT physics class without ever leaving my bedroom. We are, for good or for ill, Generation Download.

So what will become of textbooks and binders and classrooms, you ask. Or soulless seminars in darkened meeting rooms of suburban motels? Some of all that will – and should – disappear. But to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the old technology’s death are greatly exaggerated. In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted that within a decade motion pictures would replace textbooks – an idea not half as bright as one of his prototype light bulbs. Management guru Peter Drucker was caught swinging for the fence too. “Universities won’t survive” the next 30 years, he claimed in a 1997 Forbes article about the burgeoning e-learning movement.

In the future, Drucker went on to say, the world would need only 60 or so professors, whose lessons would be converted to electrons and then distributed for consumption by the Internet masses. Drucker, who died in 2005, may yet be proven right. But as we lope into a digital economy, a few things about the web are now clear (or becoming clearer): what was slow will become fast, what was discrete will become connected and what was passive will become active.

I took my first class – one of 40 three-minute-long video clips – on Lynda.com the other day, and things are becoming clearer for me too, about the coding language HTML, in particular. (Next up: getting beyond my mom-on-a-skateboard comfort level in Photoshop.) And though it’s an obvious trajectory of improvement for me as a digital worker, and for Canadian e-learning in general, I may never evolve to a point where “webinar” isn’t a dart in my ear. Some things just can’t be taught.

John Bucher is digital editor of BCBusinessOnline.ca. Join him for a discussion of technology and new media at The Newsroom.