How effective is E-learning as a cost cutting exercise

E-Learning Evaluation

By Alana Inness, Research Associate, Crelos Group Ltd

According to David Wolfson, Chairman of the British Learning Association, in 2005 despite the Economist Intelligence Unit stating that e-learning can save up to 70% of training budgets, face-to-face delivery still accounts for well over 90% of all adult training in the UK. He states that e-learning is not the answer to saving costs and saving time but is a way of delivering learning online that requires the same attention to objective setting, precise learning outcomes and clear instruction and feedback as the best face-to-face programme and the most sophisticated distance learning courses. However, e-learning has the added complexity of technical demands and it takes more resources to develop.

Giguere and Minotti (2005) state that the most common misconception surrounding online learning is that it is cheap; skilled designers and facilitators are required in order to design, create, monitor, instruct, and evaluate the training, which is often more costly than using face-to-face delivery. It is estimated that the cost of the converting a traditional course to e-learning methods is from $25,000 upwards for a two-hour course (depending on the kind of interaction needed) and a new course of similar length costs more than $65,000 (Giga Information Group, 2001). Development of an online course is labour intensive, both subject expert and technical resources must be identified and committed at an early stage in order to make e-learning successful (Haynes et al, 1997).

If we build it, will they come?

A key finding of the 2001 ASTD/Masie Center study, where information was gathered for over 700 learners in 16 different organisations, was that only 32% of individuals take up voluntary courses and this only increases to 69% when the course is mandatory and when surveyed only 38% of these individuals preferred on-line training over “classroom” training. The survey also showed that 58% of those surveyed felt that they had not had adequate interaction with either instructors or other students.

A benefit that is frequently stated of e-learning is that it shifts that control from the bureaucracy and instructor to the learning, however, how the learner will utilise this opportunity will depend on their eagerness and ability to learn independently and online; studies undertaken by Sun Microsystems found that only 25% of employees that undertook online self-study completed the course (Rossett and Schafer, 2003), it would seem that many employees don’t know how to be effective self-learners.

E-learning for “soft” skills

“E-learning may be able to teach people the concepts, background knowledge and theory but face-to-face interaction is necessary to practice it and get feedback from real people”. Yeung, 2004 Many graduates from Harvard and Stanford business schools reinforce the view that face-to-face contact is vital for learning. They anecdotally report that much of the learning goes on in informal groups during coffee and that the networking opportunities are vital in sharing ideas and opinions, this is difficult to achieve where only e-learning is used. It seems this is a common view held by learners; a study undertaken by Harris et al (2004) found that 88% of learners agreed or strongly agreed that group work was very useful to expand their own thinking on a subject, whilst 83% thought that working in groups was a good initiation for teamwork in society.

It is difficult to engage delegates in group work via e-learning, even the most diligent and enthusiastic tutors can experience difficulties stimulating participation and sustained interactive conference discussions using this media (Littleton and Whitelock, 2004). Honey (2004) concurs with Yeung, saying “E-learning can take people to competence but it may not be sufficient to take people to mastery of a skill. After all, no one has done all their pilot training on a flight simulator or all their car/lorry training on a vehicle simulator and then done the thing ‘for real’”.

According to Yeung, the most effective soft skills development comes from guided learning, where individuals are exposed to different learning approaches in order to suit their own needs; these could include workshops, mentoring, e-learning tools, etc. Research conducted by the Campaign for Learning, KPMG, UfI and Honey (2000) showed that although 43% of employers stated that e-learning was tailored to individual employee’s needs, only 7% of learners claimed that this was so.

Results of a survey by DDI (Development Dimensions International) showed that respondents rated their organisation’s effectiveness in using e-learning for soft skills as 3.9 on average (where 1 = not effective at all; 10 = extremely effective), a total of 139 organisations from 15 countries responded to the survey.


Charles Breeding, former ASTD (American Society for Training and Development) President, says “The bottom line is, both instructors and students still prefer traditional classroom training and classroom training still yields better results, according to the Garter Group”

It would appear, from the research available, that e-learning is only effective when used in a “blended” approach providing students with a mixture of learning opportunities; the blended learning method combines e-learning with traditional workshop style learning. A report by the ASTD in 2003 showed that U.S. respondents selected blended learning as the most efficient training method, 65.4% cited blended learning as either generally efficient or very efficient (Sparrow, 2004).


ASTD/The Masie Center (2001) E-Learning: “If We Build It, Will They Come?” Alexandria: ASTD.

Bernthal, P., Weaver, P. and Wellins, R.S. (2003) The State of E-Learning: Developing Soft Skills. Bridgeville: DDI

Breeding, C.A. (2002) The E-learning Phenomenon. Retrieved on 24 February 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Campaign for Learning, KPMG, UfI and Honey, P. (2000) Attitudes to e-learning. Retrieved on 24 February 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Giga Information Group (2001) Taking the first steps in e-learning. Retrieved on 24 February 2005 from the World Wide Web:

Giguere, P. and Minotti, J. (2005) Rethinking Web-Based Learning. Training and Development, 59(1), pp.15.

Harris, R., Bolander, K., Lebrun, M., Docq, F. and Bouvy, M. (2004) Linking Perceptions of Control and Signs of Engagement in the Process and Content of Collaborative E-learning. Paper presented at a conference organised by Lancaster University presented at the Network Learning Conference, Lancaster, 2004.

Haynes, R.M., Pouraghabagher, R. and Seu, A. (1997) Interactive distance education alliance (IDEA): collaborative model delivers on demand. The Journal: Technological Horizons in Education 24(8), pp.60-63.

Honey, P. (2004) Can soft skills be delivered effectively using e-learning? Paper presented at a conference organised by the eLearning Network, London, September 2004.

Littleton, K. and Whitelock, D. (2004) Guiding the Creation of Knowledge and Understanding in a Virtual Environment. CyberPsychology and Behavior 7(2), pp.173-181.

Rossett, A. and Schafer, L. (2003) What to Do About E-Dropouts. Training and Development, 57(6), pp.40.

Sparrow, S. (2004) Blended is Better. Training and Development, 58(11), pp.52.

Wolfson, D. (2005) What’s Holding E-learning Back? Training Magazine, January 2005, pp9.

Yeung, R. (2004) Can soft skills be delivered effectively using e-learning? Paper presented at a conference organised by the eLearning Network, London, September 2004.