Enter your email address to receive a twice-weekly newsletter on learning/technology.

Powered by ymlp.com

| Starting | Enabling | Doing | Evaluating | Managing | Resources | Home

A Learning Development Model For Today’s Students and Organizations

George Siemens

September 19, 2002

Executive Summary
What is Needed for Elearning to Thrive?
The Role of Technology
The New Student
Why is a New Model Needed?
What is Needed?

The New Model
How Will Resources be Developed?

Executive Summary
The success of any organization is determined by its ability to accurately assess (and meet) the wants and needs of its potential marketplace. New philosophies of learning need to be explored to determine possible impact. Personalized learning, learning objects and repositories, prior learning assessment (PLA), media formats, work/learning integration, electronic performance support, knowledge management, and technology assimilation with regular instructional activities are often described as the future of learning. These learning formats are intended to address the needs of tomorrow’s learner – independent, non-traditional, and focused on immediate use of learning.

New approaches to learning may cause intense disruption to traditional higher education institutions and corporate training departments. Views of courses, learning outcomes, modules, and course credits need to be explored and evaluated for relevance in the new learning climate. These trends, however, are often not pronounced enough to dictate a complete change of activities in most organizations. Focused, innovative, low-risk, small group exploration can offer much insight into the actual need of these new learning resources.

Current trends in society (globalization, technology, life-long learning requirements) are pressuring existing models of education and learning content development. Unfortunately, due to lack of recognition of (or responsiveness to) these trends, universities, colleges, and corporate training departments are acquiescing control and direction of learning to newer, more agile for-profit organizations..

A rapid shift has occurred in the needs of students and organizations at three levels:

  1. The student has different needs. Learning must be available without disrupting work and family routines. Learning must be relevant and integrated with work.
  2. Organizations need employees who are skilled at continual learning. New trends and technologies develop quickly. An organization needs capable employees to meet new challenges and opportunities.
  3. Flexible entry and learning personalization based on combination of experience/informal/formal learning. Prior learning needs to be acknowledged

These educational shifts are further impacted by rapidly evolving technologies, globalization, and increasing infiltration of education into all corners of organization activities through development of knowledge management and performance support systems.

What forces are driving elearning? What has changed that makes elearning necessary? The following are influences:

  1. Students have changed. Students are no longer traditional students - 18 - 25 year age group. The student population is aging, taking courses part-time, studying off campus, and is viewed as a "customer" of the learning organization (or department).
  2. No longer lifelong employment, but rather lifelong learning (see Life Long Learning
  3. Knowledge as a competitive tool. A well-trained, efficient workforce is a critical strategic advantage for organizations. Training is no longer a "necessary evil"...it is an investment in the future success of a corporation
  4. Learning for improved performance - not necessarily a degree. Learning must be linked to improved performance on the job. Most learning that happens in corporations is not to "earn a degree"...it is to improve work performance. Education institutions need to understand this fundamental shift in WHY people are learning...if not, they risk becoming obsolete as corporate universities fill this gap with "just-in-time", "just-for-me" learning.
  5. Evolution of education theory. The teacher as lecturer and "distributor of knowledge" doesn't work in a society over run with information. Current educational theory (instructional design principles and exploratory learning) reveals the importance of an instructor as a facilitator...
  6. Information overload…too much information...I'm breaking up...I can't hold on...it's overwhelming. Unorganized, unlinked information is worse than no information. Online learning can help to keep employees/students informed and up to date on the information relevant to their job.
  7. Development of digital communication tools and course management tools. WebCT, BlackBoard, web conferencing, streaming media, collaborative software are creating a resource base that is beginning to make technology transparent so that learning can happen. Instructors and students can now communicate across time and space with limited technical knowledge...and this is critical for widespread adoption of elearning. Most people are fine with technology...as long as it makes things easier.
  8. Globalization. The world seems much smaller than it did even a decade ago. Education institutions used to compete geographically...i.e. whoever is close to us. Now, the Internet has changed that. Access is critical...can your students access your content from anywhere? If not, chances are, you will find institutions from across the world willingly to educate "your" students...
  9. Speed. Everything is faster. Development times for products...idea to conception...information to customers...educating staff of new policies, procedures, and regulations. Businesses find that the more quickly ideas result in products, the better the competitive advantage. Classroom learning has difficulty keeping up in this climate. And things don't appear to be slowing down.
  10. Learning organization. The notion that an organization also "learns" is important. How are innovators perceived? How is transformation created? How do organizations stay fresh, vibrant...equipped to change with the changing world? An organization that learns is an organization that values employees who "walk different paths"...and provides them with room to make mistakes, recover, innovate, and re-create the entire organization. Idealistic? Yes...but, integral to future success.

What is Needed in an Organization for Elearning to Thrive?
Before discussing an elearning model, it’s important to note some of the characteristics needed in order for elearning to thrive in an organization. This list is not exhaustive, but it presents seven critical aspects that must be present:

  1. Commitment from the top.
  2. Environment that encourages experimentation, and accepts failure
  3. Collaboration/resource sharing attitude
  4. Availability of resources for those instructors wanting to "play" with technology and learning
  5. A change management strategy to ensure elearning is adopted with "minimal discomfort"
  6. Development support for instructors - i.e. a place to go to have questions answered, to receive development help
  7. Student support - resources to help students succeed.

The Role of Technology
Technology does not alter the core of most industries or fields. It enhances processes, increases accessibility, and creates a knowledge base/history. For example, email did not alter the nature of communication – it altered the process. Suddenly, what used to take days/weeks can now occur in minutes.

Is this the role of technology in education: to improve the process, increase accessibility and create a knowledge base? What does this mean? Are the core elements of learning unchanged?

  • The student
  • The instructor/trainer
  • The organization – providing learning and benefiting from the skills of the learner (may be the same organization – corporations often have their own training departments. In other cases, it may be a college that educates a student, and the corporation that hires the student is the beneficiary of training).
  • The content.

Technology has two potential impacts on society. It enhances (but does not alter significantly) core functions of an organization, or it creates new opportunities and avenues that did not exist before. Technology, when applied to existing industries/organizations, plays a supporting role to existing functions.

For example, the “dot com” craze revealed that existing industries must apply technology within the parameters of their industry. Technology can enable and improve processes, but not alter (in most cases) the industry itself. Technology may permit Walmart to operate more effectively through supply chain management, inventory processes, collaboration, etc. However, the heart of the retail industry is unchanged. Walmart existed before technology.

Amazon, on the other hand, is an example of a company that exists because of technology. If the Internet disappears, so does Amazon. In this model, technology is no longer an enabling process – it is a core function.

What is the role of technology in elearning: to enable or to cause learning to exist? The answer to this question has significant implications – if technology causes elearning to exist, then the learning process is secondary to technology. This impacts (obviously) all aspects of education. Teaching skills, pedagogy, instructional design, etc. become less relevant to technical/computer skills.

If technology serves to enhance education, then existing principles of education remain, but the process is altered. Learning, however, is still the core function of elearning. Different organizations (corporate and education) are answering this question in various ways. IT departments would like to see education follow object oriented programming (hence the popularity of discussing learning objects). Education institutions maintain that the learning process is central, and technology is secondary (while allocating increasingly larger budgets to IT).

Many organizations, almost by default (or perhaps by lack of understanding of technology by administration) have elevated technology as a core function in the learning process. Raising technology to core function creates significant issues – the greatest is adoption at a user level – instructor/student.

Specifically, the “is it about learning or technology” debate impacts the following:

  • Skill set of instructors
  • Progression of technology integration (a tech focus results in a much more rapid introduction of new tools)
  • Skill set of the students
  • Resource allocations – technology or learning processes

The New Student
Increasingly, traditional education facilities are at risk of being by-passed by students. Current offerings often do not meet the needs of tomorrow’s student. Companies like ThinQ, Element K, SmartForce are capturing a significant portion of non-traditional students. These organizations are not competing directly with traditional colleges and universities (yet), but they are meeting the need of “today’s students”.

The “future student” is often described as a non-traditional student. Tomorrow’s student will be involved in a career, will need flexible, convenient learning options, will be motivated, and will explore global learning institutions. Learning and work will no longer be separate, compartmentalized tasks – they will be seamlessly blended. Essentially, lines that currently establish learning boundaries will be blurred as students move seamlessly from high school to college, or add “knowledge components” to their skill base to advance in their career.

Education providers have the opportunity to meet new challenges through blending technology and curriculum to truly function at “Internet speed”. Much of the existing curriculum is needed by industry. The concern for today’s students and organizations is not lack of content – it is the method of presenting and accessing content.

High school students also approach learning at various stages of competency – only to find that they have to review and revisit much of their earlier learning. Repackaging existing learning materials produces two significant benefits: greater learning and greater access for a variety of students (corporate, college, high school).

In short, education facilities are not meeting the needs of all of their learners, nor capturing the entire potential learner market. A current concern for most students is not with the curriculum – it is with flexible access to curriculum that reflects the needs of today’s workforce.

What if the current model is effective and significant changes may jeopardize an effective model? The ability of an institution to experiment and innovate, on a small scale, is needed.

Why is a New Model Needed?

  1. Transformation. Today’s changing market place requires a different approach to education. Continued viability of existing education structures in face of rapidly developing alternative education options, will require organizational transformation.
  2. Meeting the needs of the “new student”. Many education facilities are missing the needs of emerging students. Mature, motivated learners need to have the ability to learn outside of existing classrooms. These students have a global buffet of learning options available. Completing a certificate or a degree is no longer geographically limiting.
  3. Increased learning in the classroom. A significant benefit of distributed learning is the ability to improve the learning experience of both traditional and non-traditional learners. As online resources are developed, students in a physical classroom and on the Internet have access to the quality resources.
  4. Growing the “pie” – provincially, nationally, and internationally. The current drawing of students is often geographically limiting. However, an already emerging trend is the ability to take courses from institutions around the world. A great opportunity for institutions to draw from a larger base; and a potential threat from other colleges to draw from our potential market base.
  5. Too much talk, not enough actual results (in the entire field of elearning). Outside of University of Phoenix and Athabasca, few institutions have succeeded in this area. Much of the discussion of learning objects, personalized learning, “embracing the new learner” is limited to theory.

What is Needed?

  1. A model that addresses today’s climate – low-cost, effective, collaborative. A hazard exists when a fundamental change in any society occurs. What if existing leaders fail to comprehend the change? What if yesterday’s solutions are imposed on today’s problems? Today’s business climate is driven by a different approach to doing business. Large centrally driven decision making has been changed to individual groups mandated with the task of achieving a particular outcome. A model is needed that duplicates the team-based approach to problem solving in an institution.
  2. Connection to provincial/state networks of like-minded individuals. Successful collaboration requires communication with individuals from various organizations. High schools that have experience with certain technologies, professors that have expertise in a certain area – these resources may not be found in each individual institution. To access these, it is often necessary to reach beyond our walls.
  3. Standardization. In order for an organization to move decisively, it is critical that all instructors are following an establish standard. Haphazard development results in much confusion as complexities aries.
  4. Process. Following a process has great value in accelerating development time and reducing the learning curve. Once a group, has gone through the process of innovating curriculum and delivery, they will produce a simplified, well-defined model for others to use.
  5. Learner focus. The development of granular online resources creates a repository that can use to improve the quality of curriculum. Students can access their courses digitally when convenient. Learning objects also set the foundation for creating personalized instruction.
  6. Instructor support. By providing a repository of learning objects, organizations have the ability to greatly assist instructors with developing online resources. Beyond this, the experiences gained from this project can assist instructors as they move resources online.
  7. Market definition. If the notion of “tomorrow’s student”, as outline earlier in this paper, is correct, explorative projects will be the equivalent of “market research”. Is it true that student’s want flexibility – courses anytime, anywhere? Or is it an over-hyped concept? The market needs to be assessed and defined.
  8. Grassroots level – allow interest and momentum to swell on its own (not mandated). Technology is intimidating to many people. Instructors in particular fear that technology will replace them, or at best, that the use of technology will result in ineffective, impersonal instruction. If college staff see an initiative that evolves from their own ranks, resistance may be less pronounced than if change is mandated.
  9. Organizational awareness. Administrative awareness of this initiative is important. Minimal direct financial resources are needed. The greatest need for small-group exploration is protection of the direction agreed to by main participants.

The New Model
To effectively embrace new opportunities in learning and technology, organizations need to begin experimenting. The following process can be employed to explore the relevance of learning trends:

  1. Small Group Exploration
    It is impractical for organizations to commit significant resources to unfamiliar concepts or new trends. However, it is foolish to ignore rapidly developing technology. Organizations should establish a “fringe group” to explore and play with new technologies, trends, and concepts. This creates safe environment for interested people to experiment and evaluate potential organizational impact of new developments. A “cookie cutter” model for elearning development doesn’t (or at least shouldn’t) exist. Each college/university/corporation is a vibrant organization with a unique culture. Applying processes from different organizations may not result in successful learning adoption. A small group, through exploration and experimentation, can create a model that meets the needs of each organization.
  2. Evaluation of lessons learned
    After the experiment group has finished experimenting with new concepts, the process and results need to be evaluated. What worked? What didn’t? Why? What are potential implications? Can we adopt lessons learned? How can we distribute our knowledge across the organization?
    These answers help to prevent large scale implementation “blunders”. The lessons learned can be shared with administration and management, allowing for practical (rather than only theoretical) planning of next steps.
  3. Large scale implementation of successes
    Once learning concepts have been evaluated, the experience should be used to create a formalized, funded implementation of elearning. This doesn’t necessarily imply “large budget”. It may still be a grassroots, lower cost initiative, but if it is to be the organizational model, endorsement is needed that ensures adoption. This will usually require some funding.
    Part of the implementation process should include support and resources for instructors or trainers moving material online. A change management strategy is critical at this stage. Resistance to technology is more about natural resistance to change than it is about technology.

Several different approaches can be utilized in designing learning resources:

  • Foster an environment. This is an informal approach that makes resources available to early adopters. No formal mandate for technology integration has been established, but resources are available for interested parties. The early adopters may become core members in small group experimentation.
  • Set a strategy. Establishing a strategy requires a more formal provision of resources and training options. Workshops, seminars, and courses may be offered to achieve goals. This is typically still an individual process – instructors can move resources online based on personal interest.
  • Mandated requirements. If organizations have successfully evaluated learning trends, the next step may be to create detailed organizational goals requiring a minimum level of online courses in a program. This is typically the stage of large scale implementation.

How will Resources be Developed?
Developing elearning resources requires many different skills – instructional design, graphic design, technical, media, etc. It is impossible for individual instructors to acquire these skills as they move resources online (it is also an incredible waste of organizations resources – the same specialized learning curve is repeated numerous times). Following models of software or website development can improve the process.

The most effective model for elearning development offers centralized technical and design support, with decentralized content development, and a centralized planning group.

For example: An instructor wants to move a psychology course online. Instead of learning instructional design principles, Dreamweaver, Flash, digital photography, etc., the instructor approaches a centralized planning group. The planning group could consist of established online instructors and developers. This group could help the psychology instructor evaluate goals, objectives, and intentions of moving online. A skeleton model of an online course could be presented, as well as basic forms of interaction and media.

After evaluating goals and objectives, the psychology instructor approaches the technical team and details desired interactions and support needed. Media and interactive components could then be scheduled.

The instructor, in consultation with the planning team, develops content and plans assessment strategies. These resources are then forwarded to implementation people on the technical team. Content is integrated with graphical and media elements and uploaded into the course management system.

This centralized-decentralized model accelerates course development, reduces costs, and ensures quality and consistency. Organizations must develop a model that does not make each online course a specially funded project. To move an entire college online requires creating processes that utilize existing resources in a new way.

Planning team:
Instructors and staff who have moved resources online would participate based on a desire to provide assistance (don’t laugh – people like that exist!). In a large college or university, a partially funded position may be needed coordinate activities.

Involving various departments (Distance Education, Continuing Education, Industry Training, International Education) will help to disseminate experiences and more rapidly across the institution.

Information services (information architecture, libraries) may benefit from participating in the planning committee to ensure and understanding of potential needs.

Technical Team:
The following skill sets are needed:

1. Instructional Design
2. Media – video, audio, streaming, animation
3. Graphical Design
4. Programming

The “core” group of instructors and developers would be actively involved in content creation. Regular meetings of the entire learning group would be involved to ensure that all areas and concerns from different departments are addressed.

The goal of this experimentation is to create a truly innovative and responsive organization that addresses the needs of the profiled future student, tackling the notions that exist of what is needed to succeed as an education institution in today’s society.

The courses would be created in a granular format that will allow for prior learning evaluation, just-in-time learning, and a personalized learning path.


  1. Low cost exploration of online learning.
  2. Driven by individuals who want to see elearning succeed. Elearning can play a vital role in eliminating barriers to education access, and in improving the quality of learning.
  3. Safe – even if the pilot group really messes up, the organization is not viewed to have failed. This is one of the biggest benefits of this approach. Organizations do not need to invest significantly; rather it is innovation that will drive these efforts.
  4. Exemplifies current Internet models – i.e. an organization transformed through the fostering of innovative groups, responding to meet the needs of today’s training needs
  5. All departments – Full-time academic, Distance Education, Continuing Education, Contract Training, and Distance Education need to be involved. By involving departments from across colleges and universities, all significant needs and considerations will be factored into development work.
  6. Connection to larger provincial models/organizations. The current information age requires access to resources and information that resides outside of any single institution. The goal is to connect with existing initiatives provincially, and to form an informal users group of instructors and designers to allow for greater sharing of experiences.
  7. Connection to national and international models/organizations. As elearning evolves, institutions need to rely on (and benefit from) the experiences international institutions. By collaborating with these organizations, efficiencies can be harnessed.
  8. Diffusion of knowledge across the organization. The cross-departmental nature of this type of project will ensure that experiences and knowledge do not reside solely with one group. Information will be taken back to each department, and integrated across the organization.


  1. Template/structure of online learning for other instructors to follow. By carving out a process for developing responsive, flexible curriculum, a process is created that allows other instructors to move resources online.
  2. Template for course design. There is no need for instructors to become technologists – teachers teach, designers design, programmers program. Using a template creates support for existing organizational initiatives and fosters rapid adoption.
  3. “Capacity creation”. Many online learning tasks are in an embryonic stage. Experimental projects can significantly advance online learning, resulting in a group of capable instructors and developers – the base of which is needed to hit the “tipping point” for entire organizational adoption.
  4. Networking structure with other departments. A broad mix of staff and departments encourages cross-department collaboration. This networking structure may be of value if small-group initiatives continue beyond the scope of this type of project.
  5. Network structure of other like-minded instructors/designers provincially.
  6. Repository of learning objects. A repository of learning objects will benefit instructors and designers alike. While many departments do not have resources to create a complex learning object database, existing resources can still be used to evaluate learning object reusability...which can be valuable if repositories are used in the future.
  7. Culture that encourages and supports the integration of technology and curriculum to ensure effective learning
  8. Partnership with high schools. Profiled future students expect recognition of previous learning, and smooth integration into new learning opportunities. By partnering with existing secondary institutions, groups can accurately assess ideal models to achieve this.
  9. Partnership with corporations. A significant market segment that is not addressed by post-secondary education is the student who is not looking for an additional certificate or a degree. These students are involved in a full-time career, and their need for education is to be able to better do their work. Granular learning content can provide for this need.
  10. “Knowledge trail” – website/blogging. Transparent communication. A website should be created to track progress and activities. Any interested person could access these online journals and review direction and development. This may serve as an effective “anatomy developing online courses” for others to read and follow.
  11. Efficient utilizations of existing resources

Original small group exploration is grass roots, user driven. As such, initial downsides are not significant. However, several potential downsides should be noted.

Organizational resistance. There is a very real possibility that the organization as a whole will react with some resistance to this initiative. One of the concerns that many staff have with change is “How will this impact me?”. The scope of this project need not be threatening to others, as it is an experiment on a small level that affects limited staff. If the project is successful, a well-mapped change strategy would need to be devised by administration to “sell” the concepts to staff.

Stepping on other’s toes. Small groups should involve a broad range of staff in an effort to ensure effective collaboration and knowledge diffusion across the entire organization. Small groups do not create strategies – they experiment. Even with this understanding, some staff or departments may find this type of project threatening.

The group fails miserably. There is a possibility that this will not be successful. That is the value of taking a small-group approach. In fact, even if a group is not successful according to the standards that are listed in this document, the experience of the process will offer much to future online learning development. Failure is a natural aspect of experimentation.

Integration Organizationally. This is an informal users project – it should augment the formal vision and strategy created for elearning at a college, university, or corporation. This type of project is an opportunity to play the “idealist”, and in the process, test existing views and theories of online learning. There is sufficient skill, knowledge, and commitment at most organizations to pursue this vision.

One of the main focuses is to experiment with “new Internet model” for sharing information, creating value through the use of collaborative, committed, and responsive small group. As such, it is important that initiatives function harmoniously other departments and staff in an organization.

The future of learning is changing. Students, organizations, and society as a whole, have needs that are not adequately met through existing educational structures. Approaches that have been effective in the past need to be evaluated.

A new model of instruction and curriculum development is needed to address the new environment. A pilot project like the one outlined in this document is a safe, effective way for organizations to explore and embrace the potential opportunities, while minimizing potential threats. In the process, organizations can position themselves to meet the needs of students and instructors.

The current model of “you don’t know any of our curriculum, so now you must learn it all” is destined for obsolescence. It is based on the needs of students and society that no longer exist.

Questions or comments about this article? Contact the Author

Subscribe to Elearning Resources & News


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License