e-Learning in Indian Companies : Are we at a tipping point?

E-Learning, whatever the term may mean, is still a relatively new subject in India. Indeed, the whole discipline of training in organizations got a new lease of life with the economic liberalization and mass mobilization in the service industries, particularly in telecoms, retail and insurance. This led to creation of a significant training infrastructure, development of a sizable training cadre and new ideas and experiments in the field of training. The existing training companies, predominated by IT training giants like NIIT and Aptech, quickly re-engineered themselves to take advantage of this emerging, shall we say exploding, market, and a number of new companies emerged. Demand peaked for trainers, and the salaries reached stratospheric levels.

This party now seems to be over. I have previously written about the contraction in the employee training market and the plight of the training companies. The larger companies are fast running out of ideas and trying to reinvent themselves as something they are not. The trainers, caught in the maelstrom, are trying to close the door - hoping that this will preserve their benefits and perquisites by forming professional groups and associations and making it difficult for newcomers to enter the field. At the same time, many of them are creating entrepreneurial ventures, mostly without any novel idea but based on the faith on their Rolodex. In a gravity-defying belief, they are convinced that they can beat the economies of scale of the larger companies and can offer better training at lower prices. So, in short, things are up in the air at this time and everyone is waiting for the dust, and the debris, to settle.

It is in this impossible background, we are expecting e-learning to thrive. The rationale is that training is needed, more so in recession, and the common sense will prevail among the executives and training will be back in the agenda soon. However, a rationalization is in order, and India is short on good trainers and the salaries have reached unsustainable levels, making the case for an alternative, technology-led, learning stronger.

This argument is simplistic, admittedly. The recovery in the training market is still a paper projection. Besides, whatever is the rationalization requirement, labour intensive trainer-led learning will always score over capital-intensive e-learning in a country like India. Besides, setting up an e-learning facility will require upfront investments - many companies are not sure about their future at this time and they will be wary of spending the money.

Despite these reservations on the contrary, e-learning has been making a steady progress, at least since the middle of last year, on the training agenda. A number of e-learning companies have sprang up, and many companies have commissioned e-learning projects. The competence levels are up, and there is a general, on-principle acceptance of e-learning. In fact, as the discipline of training is relatively new, there is less resistance to e-learning than in Western Countries. In fact, the vested interests that resist e-learning deployment in Western countries, trainers particularly, are facilitating the deployment of e-learning in India, without feeling threatened. One reason for this could be that many of the trainers are of the PC generation, have entered the workforce in late 1990s and may have come from a computer training background in the first place. These people do not feel threatened by e-learning and indeed see it as a new way to preserve the training function in the crunch time.

The downturn also has a profound effect on the supply side. A number of Indian e-learning outfits, which were solely focused on western markets, have suddenly discovered the virtue of a strong domestic base. This has spawned India focused innovation, though this is still inadequate. Indeed, despite the downturn and contraction of corporate training budgets, the real constraint in terms of successful e-learning deployment lies on the supply side.

For example, the choice of and awareness about the LMS remains fairly limited. There are enterprise solutions like Saba and SumTotal, which tops the shopping list, but most people are daunted by the costs. Besides, the deployment model remains complicated - bandwidth in in-company networks remains an issue, whereas there is a lack of faith on how web based solutions work. Besides, the available e-learning content is mostly western, unsustainably priced and unsuitably designed. The western providers loath the idea of allowing their Indian partners tweak the content and the costs of doing so by themselves are too high. Content designed in India still has a limited catalogue and still has a long way to go to match the standards. Also, there is an inadequacy in terms of supplementary tools and activities, like qualifications available online, learning games, online HR tools like competency mapping, assessments that can be integrated in learning etc.

So, in summary, there is a significant scope of innovation in e-learning in Indian companies. There is space for at least a dozen small LMSes, which is light on budget and implementation costs. Outside the practitioner circles, Moodle is still unheard of, and I do think a number of initiatives will be started with a Moodle variant soon. The content needs to be built with a partnership model, and so will be the case with supplementary tools. There will be some disruptive business models soon - free LMSes, free content libraries etc - and this will actually take the e-learning industry forward in India. I know of people who are working on models like the Open Learning Commons, wherein private training can be combined with more public sharing of content, and this will also break into the market soon. Overall - an exciting future ahead; one just hope that the recession recedes now, and let the play begin.


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