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Elearning Adoption & Marketing

Elearning Course

October 27, 2002

The following is a summary of "content created" as a result of Week 6 of discussions using a non-traditional approach to learning (participants of "elearning noncourse"). This article is best understood as a collage of thoughts, rather than a cohesive essay.

Contributors to the discussion: Jennifer Cowley, Sharon Chanley, Stephen Downes, Lisa Holstrom, Dawn Ressel, George Siemens, Mitchell Weisburgh

Models of Adoption and Change
Who, Why, What, How of elearning Adoption
Internal Plan
External Marketing

Designing, developing, and deploying elearning resources are only part of the elearning battle. Actually getting employees and prospective students and instructors to use elearning is a challenge on its own. In this article, we explore the adoption of elearning as it relates to student, instructor and organization.

Models of Adoption and Change

The prevalence of technology and learning tools does not directly result in effective use and integration with existing processes. Elearning programs can overlook this crucial element by focusing only on the technology and infrastructure. An interesting exploration on this subject can be found at: New Insights on Technology Adoption in Communities of Learners

"In 1962, Everett Rogers published the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations. In this seminal work, an innovation was conceived of as an object with five perceived attributes--relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability--that help one to explain its rate of adoption. The decision by a user to adopt or reject the innovation is an event--a point in a linear process--with time as an independent variable. The process of adoption consists of a series of actions and choices over time, based on internal factors within a social system. Rogers' diffusion studies addressed innovations such as new types of grain, water purification systems, and birth control clinics in underdeveloped countries."

Participant comments:

"I think that Rogers Diffusion of Innovation can be seen in the adoption of the Internet. While the Diffusion rate was much more rapid than that seen for TVs or automobiles it still follows his curve of adoption.

I disagree somewhat with the authors. While the internet and its technologies are constantly changing and you have to continue to gain knowledge about these changes, I don't see this as being much different from new types of automobiles coming out each year.

The learning/adoption model, may be an appropriate description for the adoption of on-line classes...because this adoption process is much more complicated. However, at the same time I don't think that Rogers model ever meant to describe adoption on the teachers. For example, the rate of diffusion model explains the adoption of the TV by individuals. However, it does not explain the process by which individuals who are involved in the production of television shows adopt the separate technologies which are much more complicated.

So, my response would be diffusion still explains adoption of the internet but the Learning/Adoption Trajectory better explains adoption by the instructor.

I have mixed feelings on the learner through. I'm not sure either of these models are a perfect fit for learner's decisions in mass to sign up for on-line courses."

Marketing Elearning In-house (.pdf file) explores issues of change management (based on each participants mind set and needs) and proposes a five stage process of change:

  1. Anticipation of change
  2. "Reality" of change sets in
  3. Letting go of old
  4. Refocus on new
  5. Integration of new

The then explores marketing as a similar process:

  1. Market research
  2. Segment and positioning
  3. Developing marketing mix
  4. Implementation
  5. Feedback

Finally, consideration is given to the various roles played in elearning: market, business, customer (learner):

Elearning Marketing Company Viewpoint Learner Viewpoint
Offer/learning environment Product Wants and needs
Priority Price Cost to learner
Delivery Place Convenience
Promotion Promotion Communication

Participant comments on the above strategy:

"I found that the Jay Cross/Lance Dublin presentation had a lot of information, but presented too detailed a case to be useful for a marketing/adoption strategy (unless one were a full time marketing consultant).

I think of marketing in terms of five steps.

  • You start with "names". These are some population that might consider buying whatever it is you want them to, but you do not know anything about them and they may not know much about you.
  • As you find out more, you start targeting groups within them, called "suspects". These are people who you believe have a need for whatever it is you are selling and you have some plan for reaching them.
  • Your next goal is to convert a number of these suspects into prospects. These are people who you have had contact with and have communicated some interest in your product/service to you.
  • Next are "hot prospects", those who not only need what you have, but have indicated that they are going to do something (perhaps nothing, but most likely either what you are offering or what someone else is). Your sales goal is to match what you have to their needs and minimize the importance of their requirements that you may not match.
  • Finally, there are the customers, those who have bought what you are selling. Your goal there is to turn them into repeat customers.

This process is often called a funnel, because the number of people goes down as you go through the process. Marketing is coming up with strategies to increase the numbers at each one of those stages.

In elearning at a university, you may actually have three different selling/marketing jobs. The one most of us think about is to get the students, but you also need to attract enough faculty and get the support of administration.

Any of the three could be thought of as somewhere in the funnel and your goal is to advance a substantial number of them."

Who, Why, What, How of elearning Adoption
Elearning adoption (or any other form of adoption - knowledge management, technology, etc.) has four main categories: who, why, what, how.

These are the various parts of elearning that play a role in some kind of adoption. For example:

  • Organization - as a whole, the organization must make some decision of the degree to adopt elearning. This may be informal like fostering an environment for interested instructors to move resources online, or it could be a formal strategic, enterprise-wide initiative.
  • Instructor - Within an organization, the instructors must make some decision about adoption (though in some cases it may be mandated)
  • Learner - In many situations (unless it is organization-wide learning - i.e. meeting new government regulations), learners decide if they want to take an online course (or program)
  • Society - determines the viability and credibility of elearning as an option/process (in reality, the changes of business/society are the critical drivers for elearning development this far...and this trend will likely continue).

Next question is "why would these various components (organization, instructor, learner, society) want to adopt elearning. Here's some thoughts:

  • Organization - reduce costs, remain competitive, activate strategic plans that require common views/clear communication, grow knowledge, meet government regulations, etc
  • Instructor - improve learning, better access to students, better access to quality resources, ego (hey...it works...:)), greater control of learning material (i.e. more robust/rich/vibrant), more compatible with learning theories (brain-compatible, learning styles, multiple intelligence, emotional intelligence)
  • Learner - access to resources, greater quality (i.e. online course from different parts of the country), cost (which is actually rarely less expensive - though it should be), better learning, more flexibility
  • Society - one of the highest goals of education is to improve quality of life. As educational resources become available to a wider audience, the needs of society are met...and society itself is transformed (ideally)

If that is a small list of "who" and "why", the next logical question is “what are the critical aspects of an adoption process"

  • Awareness - the existence of elearning needs to be communicated. Organization/instructor/student/society all need to know that elearning exists
  • Accurate understanding of what it is - after the components of adoption (org, institution, etc.) are aware elearning exists, an accurate image of what elearning really is and what it can achieve needs to be created. Elearning is not the "new utopia"...but it is also not completely useless...it is a tool - great for certain tasks, horrible for others.
  • Motivation - the various components need to be motivated to embrace elearning based on possible benefits (the why)
  • Experience - components of adoption actually need to see elearning in action. Anything new has little value unless it is concrete and experienced - until this happens, people/organizations try to link new ideas to existing understandings. Through experience (take a course, see the initiative in action) existing beliefs are challenged and the true value of elearning is experienced
  • Value - this is critical...and relates to motivation...but the benefits of elearning have to be realized. If not, people lose interest. If elearning is supposed to make an instructor more effective, give the learner better access to quality learning materials, or save a corporation money/make them more competitive - these must be realized in order for continued elearning support.

"How" refers to the various aspects of implementing the the adoption process. Here are a few simple suggestions:

  • Success - small early success is important to first see the value of elearning, and second to sustain momentum
  • Kickoff campaigns - when something slowly seeps into an organization, it is in danger of eventually being seen as irrelevant (or at least not important). Kickoff campaigns/ posters/ etc.. are a good way to gain organizational awareness.
  • Marketing - at every stage of adoption (and every component in the process) the real issue is one of marketing - connecting/aligning perspectives with the benefits/value of a product. Marketing approaches to changing perceptions are very valuable/critical
  • Change management - elearning adoption is more about change than technology. Anything "different" causes many people to increase resistance or get suspicious. Elearning adoption is social. Big-budget staff development of technical resources (while very important - well not "big budget"..but staff development) is a secondary stage in adoption - social issues and change management are first. Most organizations don't realize that...


Students need to derive value from (and see benefits in) elearning in order to take courses. Some aspects of elearning that are generally appreciated by students:

  • Convenience
  • Ability to revisit resources (in a lecture, the learning is "gone"...online, resources can be referred to frequently
  • Meeting and interacting with other students
  • Helpful instructors and staff
  • Relevant courses - adult learners need to see relevance in order to take courses. Creating a series of relevant (i.e. immediate benefit) courses can enhance adoption rates.


  • Billing process - often in Higher Education, elearning is created as an "overlay" to existing activities, and, as such, still requires students to pay in via conventional channels, rather than online.
  • Registration blocks - similar to billing process. Registration can be cumbersome.
  • Complications of paying bill
  • Computer goes down - this is not a controllable by the institution...but, learners don't often draw clear distinctions between problems that are institutional or personal. The whole experience is lumped under "elearning"
  • Network is down
  • Erratic internet access

One participant stated:

"My primary job is marketing our degree program, so I spend a lot of time at trade conferences and in the field. Prospective students tell me continually that they're afraid they won't be able to keep up and they're afraid of using computers regularly.

It takes A LOT of explaining, hand-holding, and demonstrating to convince a low-tech person that the flexibility and convenience of distance ed are worth the trouble of learning a new trick (our average student age is 37!)"

Marketing to faculty (to get them to teach online) is another concern. Some institutions are marketing to students but continue to have limits on the number of courses that can be offered – that seems like a marketing error. Faculty are hesitant about teaching online vs. on campus; but, more than that it is a feeling that if they (faculty) agree to teach a course online or put a program/minor online then the on campus courses/programs/minors will be dropped. The first issue could probably be resolved through marketing; the second, not so much.

Some institutions have a informal agreements that do not permit marketing on-line courses to the local area (administration doesn't want "cannibalizing" their ground courses). However, word of mouth being what it is, local students discover and enroll in programs...many of those are taking a blended approach - some via on-line and some ground. Disability services offices also refer students to online courses.

Comments from a participant:

"We have a formal business plan that was drafted by our business-minded dean, and approved by every level that exists in the university. It's primarily our 5-year budget, that shows how we spend money and how we make money - the university paid our start-up costs, but we're expected to make a profit and pay it back.

It's the "making money" that's tricky. How the heck do you predict enrollments? You may show a profit at 3000 students, but do you really want 3000 students registering, ordering books, calling the help desk? Do you have the capacity to handle 3000? And what if you plan and staff for 3000, and only 300 show up? (Tennessee Board of Regents planned for 300 and had over 1700 enroll in their first year's offerings.)" I'd advise talking to experts who work with your target population, do some needs assessment and make your best guess. And make sure you leave lots of room for revisions!

Additional participant comments:

"At a recent Women’s studies program meeting here, there was a discussion of the possibility of offering online courses in women’s studies, perhaps those that would allow online students to earn a minor in WMS. There was a lot of concern about it – I argued that it seemed to me that whichever “group” of women we would be serving (mostly women) whether on campus or online really didn’t matter so much as that we served the most we reasonably could. The response to that was that with online students we wouldn’t be able to form a feminist community here – this is a largely commuter school and so whatever feminist community exists on campus is pretty small. It seems to me more important both in our on campus courses designed for those commuter students AND in our online courses, perhaps a better way to get at the substance of what we mean by feminist community would be to empower students to have that in their own lives and communities.

Internal Plan
An internal plan for marketing includes four levels: vision, values, mission, plan.

Vision and values generally do not change at all, they get put together once. Basically, people either subscribe to them or they should not be in the organization. The mission does not change often. The plan gets revised at least yearly.

Vision: what the organization does. "We teach life skills." "We create products to relieve pain."

Values: how people should interact. This is a balancing act. Is individuality critical? or is teamwork? what's the balance?

Mission: a goal that the organization is trying to reach and a timeframe for that goal. One of the best mission statements is JFK's "We're going to put a man on the moon by 1970." Dollar figures usually do not work well as part of the mission statement.

These first three items are what unites the people of the organization. It gives people a context in which to evaluate what they are doing.

The plan primarily involves picking one or more intermediate milestones and timeframes and how you are going to accomplish those in that timeframe.

Participant comment:

"I found that this process energized the entire company. Part of the result was a new employee orientation program that communicated the first three parts of the plan to new employees, and that seemed to help new employees orient themselves in the company."

External Marketing
Marketing elearning to external customers (learners or potential organizations presents additional challenges as well. Selling "content" is often a greater challenge than selling infrastructure, software, or access. A system, however, without content presents its own problems. As a result, WebCT and BlackBoard's partnerships with education providers may create a closed marketplace.

Participant comments:

"Our system is not for all types of learning, but for skill development (some would say training, not education). One type of application is to help prepare for assessments, certifications, and compliance.

The end result is that we want learners (or people who assign others to learn) to adopt our PILOT system because they will learn faster. But our issue is that all we have is the system, while you need the system AND the content in order to make an effective offering. We feel that there are three components: the system (ours, hopefully), the content (learning content and practice exercises), and ready access to people who need the training (the market).

So what we've been looking for is organizations that we can partner with. We've talked to traditional publishers. A publisher would be interested in making money off of their content. It's our belief that we can build lessons based on existing content faster and more effectively with our system than they could do it with other systems. Currently, publishers are not making money off of online lessons. In fact, they are usually giving online practice questions and lessons away to people who buy their books.

We are also just starting to talk to large school districts (like state or large urban districts). We would basically let them have the system for the first year free (just defray our hosting costs). We will train them how to put up their own content for either professional assessments (like teacher certification) or student assessments (like the 8th grade tests, or, in the case of NY, the Regents tests). Future years would be billed based on the number of students, so it would not be free, but our whole purpose is to come up with an inexpensive solution for schools."

Another participant stated:

"We often find that we must sell distance education first before we begin to sell our program. Selling distance ed certainly continues throughout the process that Mitch outlines, but particularly the "you have some plan for reaching them" part. The plan must not only convince them that they need YOUR widgets, but also educate them as to what widgets are and why it's good to have ANY widgets.

I think that could be a great opportunity to collaborate among institutions that offer distance ed courses. It would sure cut down our marketing costs if the distance ed industry did a better job of marketing the benefits of ANY distance education."

Generally, when discussing adoption, most organizations focus on "getting the learner to take a course". This is a critical component, but doesn't present an accurate overview of the elearning marketing and adoption. Marketing and promoting elearning happens on many levels (internal, external, to educators, as a business, etc.) and involves many aspects (infrastructure, content, systems, etc.). At each stage, the issue is one of social resistance, change management, and promotion.

Interestingly, the technology itself is secondary to the situations and needs of the client or learner. Rarely is the discussion focused exclusively on technology. Most often, the question being asked is "what can I do with this that I cannot do without it". In elearning, the answer usually centers around access, cost, convenience, and learning effectiveness.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License