What is most likely to bring the e-learning bandwagon to a halt? Lack of budget? Lack of enthusiasm? No, at least as far as the UK is concerned, more likely it will be a lack of skills. The UK’s pitifully small supply of experienced designers was long ago exhausted. We have the programmers; we have the graphic designers and all other forms of multimedia specialist; we certainly have the brains. We just don’t have enough people who know how to help people learn using computers and networks.
At a conference in June 2000 organised by the e-Learning Network and Technologies for Training, delegates unanimously agreed that the lack of instructional design skills in the UK was a critical problem. According to Jan Seabrook and Nick Rushby, writing in People Management, major UK initiatives such as the University for Industry are likely to be extremely hampered by the skills gap: “It would be astonishing if, given what we know about the lack of competent instructional designers, there were a sufficient stock of suitable learning products in the UK.” The situation exists throughout Europe. A survey conducted in 2000 by the EC body Cedefop also reported considerable anxiety amongst trainers about how to increase their knowledge and skills in e-learning design.
Dr Yoon Yong, of BYG Systems, is resigned to the fact that it is difficult to recruit people with training in instructional design. Instead BYG draw their recruits from related fields – stand-up trainers, cognitive psychologists, developers of learning materials and communications specialists. Ed Hatton, Head of Instructional Design for major e-learning publisher SmartForce (now SkillSoft), looks for an interest in education and technology: “We then provide in-depth training, depending on the role the new recruit will be taking on, as curriculum planners or as writers/designers”.
However, formal education in instructional design is available at the Centre for the Study of Advanced Learning Technologies, at Lancaster University. Says Professor Peter Goodyear: “We are one of the few places in the country where you can study leading-edge approaches to the understanding of adult learning, learning needs analysis and learning systems design. Many universities in North America offer such opportunities but Lancaster and Twente (Netherlands) are the main centres where one can do such work in Europe.” The course at Lancaster makes extensive use of practical assignments. According to course director, Christine Steeples: “It enables learners to build stronger bridges between theoretical principles and their ongoing experiences and practical working knowledge”.
Of course the Institute of IT Training has been making its own contribution in this area. KnowledgePool, winners of the 2001 IITT award for e-learning, has employed the Institute’s five day course to train many of their designers. And e-peopleserve.com, the alliance between British Telecom and Accenture, is just one of many firms making extensive use of the IITT’s Online Trainer course (now part of the Training Foundation’s CeLP programme).
Considering the importance of e-learning for education and training in the UK, these initiatives, whilst encouraging, are not enough. Instructional designers need more than formal training. They need role models to whom they can be apprenticed. They need to feel part of a community that is not just aping US practice; it is building the sort of leading-edge designs that will convert the majority to the potential benefits of e-learning.