The many promises and challenges of e-learning from 2000 to 2022

Since starting Gymglish 17 years ago, we have carefully studied the trends and promises of the e-learning market, or “EdTech” as it is called today.

The past two decades of innovation have brought a great number of new tools, formats, technologies and content for online learning. But what effect have these innovations had on our education? Has the e-learning of the turn of this century lived up to its promise? We look back over 20 years of innovation and experimentation.

E-learning in the early 2000s

Like the printing press in the 15th century, the Internet gave rise to new hopes for access to education, and heralded a revolution in the spread of knowledge. As early as 2003, when we were busy creating our online English courses, the e-learning market was already saturated. A wide range of CD-ROMs, online learning platforms and other educational websites offering multimedia solutions already existed. In the online language learning market, telephone lessons and voice recognition tools were thriving. Online PDF documents were also very popular, especially within the academic world.

By breaking down barriers and reducing costs, online learning promised – at last – to democratize education – at least for those with an Internet connection. In 2005, France established  the DIF (Droit Individuel à la Formation – “The Individual Right to Training”). French companies, already required to spend an earmarked budget for vocational training, had to ensure money was allocated equally between all employees, for up to 20 hours of training per person annually. This measure was designed to encourage the rise of computer-based learning , and further widen access to training.

93% of users drop out of online platforms less than a month after their first login

Although many online educational resources were created at the beginning of the century, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were used. In 2004, a multinational company with a homemade online language learning platform said that 93% of their users drop out within a  month of their first login. Their platform is technically sophisticated, and features multimedia content, as well as lots of educational activities for learners at all levels, yet a huge majority of employees no longer use it. The learning incentive failed and the company felt as though investing in online learning was a waste of money. In light of this, where a lack of learning rather than a lack of resources was the culprit, we created Gymglish in 2004 with a very clear goal: the motivation, participation and progress of our online learners.

EdTech in 2022

Here we are, 20 years later, and a plethora of new tools and content have come to light: podcasts, YouTube and other video sharing platforms, MOOCs, online apps, LMS (Learning Management Systems) in the workplace, serious games, virtual reality, Peer Learning or micro-learning, to name a few. The number of new EdTech companies, technologies, content and platforms is increasing fast. On the online English language learning market, not a week goes by without the announcement of a new company, paid or free app, or website. Compared to 2003, there are significantly more educational resources on offer available across an even wider variety of media and accessible to everyone with a smartphone. In 2021, it seems that there is nothing we can’t learn online. If we were to make a comparison with the “offline world”, it’s as if every one of us now has free, unlimited 24/7 access to a library just around the corner.

Unfortunately, just because we have a library just around the corner doesn’t guarantee that we will actually learn anything. We would need to go there on a regular basis, find the right books, read them and probably re-read them in order to learn, memorize and make progress. As was the case 15 years ago, having unlimited access to learning resources doesn’t indicate new knowledge will be acquired. For example, in 2010, MOOCs attracted widespread interest, but today have a huge dropout rate: only 5 to 10%* of students who sign up for a MOOC actually finish their training, and those who do are usually already highly qualified. In the workplace, Learning Management Systems are ever-present and bursting with resources, but that doesn’t prevent the vast majority of employees from abandoning them.

Only 5 to 10% of students who sign up for a MOOC actually finish their training, and those who do are usually already highly qualified

It would seem that only a small group globally is harvesting the full potential of online learning, namely “well-educated” students. Coursea and Udacity for instance, offer several MOOC, but struggle to broaden their target market beyond engineers studying computer programming. User feedback on online learning reported in the press comes mainly from prestigious universities, schools, senior executives and company directors. It appears that straight-A students are the only ones who have truly benefited from the past 20 years of innovation in EdTech – the kind of students who weren’t marginalized by the educational system in the 2000s, and the ones who have no issue learning from a PDF.

Outside of this small group of outstanding students, those eager to learn, satisfied users are far and few between. Not because of a lack of resources, but because there is a lack of participation, and consequently a lack of progress.

Some economists and sociologists confirm this theory. Though wealth inequality has widened enormously in the past decades, cultural and educational inequalities have increased even more. An already vicious circle has become even more vicious than before. Although education is an effective way to tackle inequality, it is not fulfilling its role, even in today’s ultra innovative world of online learning.

The online learning challenges of 2022

How can we transform profuse EdTech innovation into a more efficient training truly accessible to all?

At Gymglish, we have been working for more than 15 years on a recipe for online language courses: a blend of technology and content. Micro-learning (10 to 15-minute daily lessons) via email or app push notification, adaptive learning (active learning and revision customization to help memorize what you have learned) with a dash of cultural, humorous and fun content to help encourage motivation and participation. We take great pride in creating content that goes beyond educational interest alone, and combining it with proven memory concepts and technology. Our recipe is not the only one on the market, and we know it may not be for everyone, but with more than 5 million users over 15 years, our participation rate stands at 80% for long-term training, 9 months for company training,  and 18 months for individuals.

Aside from our own Gymglish formula, we believe that “hybrid” methods – such as blended learning – are very efficient. OpenClasssroms allows users to complement their online experience with coaches or mentors, while altMBA creates a group dynamic between sessions thanks to monthly online “meetings” with other users, experts and teachers. The flipped classroom concept uses online sessions to deal with skill development and learning, while devoting teachers’ time and presence to discussion, deeper understanding and dialogue. Given the rapid growth of smartphones, a focus on concise, fun and entertaining content seems key as well.

Our own experience has shown how important it is to value user experience, and by this we mean the users themselves. Perhaps the scope of resources and the technological aspects of training programs should be less of a priority. We know users have very busy schedules and that they are not always thorough or in a good place to concentrate. Learners (adults or children) struggle to stay focused in front of their computer screen, let alone in front of educational content on a tiny mobile screen. They are less likely to make repeated and regular efforts to learn in the long term, yet that is a vital part of learning and memorizing what they have learned. Internet, technological innovation, artificial intelligence and new formats are all great assets, and we have made considerable progress in taking advantage of them. But technological resources aren’t enough.

Focusing our attention on the user means acknowledging their humanity.

We must remind ourselves that people learn at different paces. Very few have the same learning ability as a Stanford or a Yale student. It might be difficult for them to learn, whether online or offline. By focusing more on the constraints of the user – acknowledging the diversity in our learning style – innovation has great potential to open up education opportunities and to reverse the inequality trend. Once that becomes the norm, we will be proud to have contributed – in our very humble way – to the democratization of education that e-learning has been promising us since the beginning of the 21st century.


Photos: Pixabay.

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