Did you know that eLearning is around 50 years old? Yes, you read that right. Teaching is one of the first uses that organizations found for computers: researchers at Stanford University experimented with using computers to teach children math and science back in the early 1960s. And yet, one of the situations I occasionally encounter is that, while one department may be starting an eLearning initiative, there is a strong resistance to this “new” model elsewhere within – or maybe throughout – the organization.

Overcoming objections is an important part of making any eLearning initiative successful, and luckily, eLearning’s long history gives us plenty of knowledge of how to make our case. Here are some of the tactics I’ve used in dealing with these objections.

Objection: eLearning is too expensive

It’s true that eLearning development projects can cost a lot of time and money. But you must also take into account the amounts saved in efficiency.

Organizations often adopt eLearning when they are looking to decrease training costs. This is particularly true of organizations that have a large or geographically dispersed workforce. On the other hand, if your organization has very low turnover, it may not make any economic sense to convert large parts of new hire orientation to eLearning. E-Learning Uncovered: From Concept to Execution by Desiree Ward and Diane Elkins has a unit on this very topic: calculating the costs and benefits of instructor-led training (ILT) vs. eLearning. I’ve found this unit useful because even though all of us know how to add columns of numbers in Excel, it’s common for planners to not take all of the costs of either instructor-led training or eLearning into account.

One of the hidden costs that’s easy to forget about with ILT is the extra time that it usually takes, compared to eLearning. While every project is different, my company has found that on-ground courses that move to eLearning take about half the “seat time” in their eLearning format. Often this is because eLearning designers are more successful at eliminating “nice to know” information, whereas the instructor-led version of the course may have been created by a SME who, in an effort to prepare learners for all of the possible scenarios they could encounter on the job, put everything but the kitchen sink into the course. Depending on how many learners you are designing for, the time efficiencies in eLearning can be huge. The short story is that sometimes it’s worth it to move a particular initiative to an electronic format and sometimes it isn’t. Do the math and find out.

So, how to overcome this objection: Calculating efficiency is quick and easy, so efficiency should definitely be part of your case. Also, if you’re planning to use a vendor to create custom eLearning, shop around. There are plenty out there that will try to oversell services that you don’t need and which may actually detract from the effectiveness of the learning experience. Plenty of others will try to convince you that their solution is best simply because that’s the only thing they do. Beware if it seems you’re getting a cookie-cutter solution.

Having said that, depending on your organization’s needs and budget, you may decide to try some out-of-the-box courses instead. Maybe solutions that you can find on Lynda.com, OpenSesame, or SkillSoft are a good fit. That’s fine! Save your development budget for training that is unique to your organization.

Objection: eLearning isn’t as effective as instructor-led training

It’s common for people to view eLearning as less effective than instructor-led training and you have to credit those who make this objection; at least they realize that all the cost efficiency in the world won’t matter if the training doesn’t effectively influence skill acquisition and behavior change. In fact, though, in research studies, eLearning stacks up to ILT quite well or even exceeds it in measures of effectiveness. A good approach, design, execution, and situation-appropriateness matter far more than whether a trainer is present.

My early software training days come to mind as a somewhat extreme example. I often had second- and third-shift employees of a large computer manufacturer in my classes. Their company had noble intentions in offering them development opportunities; unfortunately, though, the employees couldn’t persuade their internal clocks to change for a day, any more than they could persuade me to show up at midnight to teach Excel. The constraints of the classroom made sure no learning was happening at all. If the employees had the option of eLearning, they could have accessed lessons when they were ready to learn – or at least awake.

How to overcome this objection: Citing research studies is good, but sometimes sharing examples communicates better what eLearning can be ... especially to someone whose previous experience with eLearning has been limited. I’ve found that a great example is worth way more than a thousand words in communicating the difference between same ol’ eLearning and an effective and engaging learning experience.

The opposite can also work. Sometimes the person who claims that eLearning isn’t effective just doesn’t like what they’ve seen before. Dig up examples of bad eLearning, review it together or in a larger meeting, and talk about what they don’t like. Get those objections out on the table. Let them be heard, make sure they know you understand their objections, and be ready with your great examples so you can balance out the gripe session and start forming an idea together of what the company wants its eLearning to be.

Objection: We don’t have the infrastructure

This is one of the better informed of the common objections to eLearning, and I agree that launching any initiative you can’t support will almost definitely backfire. But that doesn’t mean that your organization has to have an expensive suite of development tools, a LMS, or even an intranet to have eLearning.

How to overcome this objection: Find tools you can use. They do exist.

Though it’s far from my top-choice authoring tool, you can use PowerPoint to create good eLearning. Or you can code in straight-up HMTL. You can record audio (if you need it) with free tools like Audacity. You can record screencasts – and host them free – with Screenr or Jing/Screencast.com.

If you want LMS functionality, you can outsource. For easy solutions, look up Kineo’s Totara, Moodlerooms’s Joule, Trivantis’ Coursemill, or Litmos, or ... . There are lots of well-reputed, LMS solutions on the market now, and compared to the cost of supporting your own internally, they’re worth checking out.

If bandwidth or support for audio, video, and Flash are a concern, remember that eLearning doesn’t have to include multimedia to be effective. Don’t include bells and whistles solely because of a previous notion of what eLearning is. Do design and write well, be respectful of your audience’s time, and make the final product appealing and easy to use.

Objection: We’ve tried eLearning before...

A prior history with bad eLearning is difficult to overcome. Previous courses may have been hard to use, irrelevant, targeted inappropriately, unattractive, or just boring. Stakeholders may turn to it again (usually to cut costs), but that doesn’t mean employees will embrace it.

How to overcome this objection: There’s nothing like good work to show employees that this eLearning will be different. Your first courses out of the gate should be awesome, or your attempt to start an eLearning initiative will likely crash and burn like the ones before it. Don’t skimp on analysis, good writing, interaction design, graphic design, and usability testing.

But even so, how will people know how great your work is if they never see it? Here are a few ways to spread the word:

  • Create something small, great, and easy to share. Embed a link and encourage people to send it to others. If your LMS requires a sign-in and other steps to get to the course, host it outside of the LMS. Yeah, you heard me. The idea is for it to go viral or at least to get shared, so you need to lower the barriers to people taking the course.
  • Do an eLearning course that is mandatory for as many employees as possible. Compliance training is a prime target here. Do compliance training in a fun, memorable way, and everyone in the organization will thank you and be interested in what else you’re capable of.
  • Create a marketing campaign around your course. Full-scale promotional materials can be effective, but so can writing hints about what’s coming on all of the conference room whiteboards. Then try to launch to as many people as possible – perhaps through a link on the organization’s intranet or in an internal organization blog.

Objection: eLearning will eliminate trainers’ jobs

This can be one of the hardest objections to deal with – especially when that may in fact be part of the reason the organization is exploring eLearning. What I’ve found, though, is that often organizations are interested in moving trainers to other areas – possibly including eLearning development – or in reducing their training departments through attrition rather than layoffs or firing. Unfortunately, though, sometimes they haven’t communicated this plan well to the training staff beforehand.

How to overcome this objection: Adopting eLearning is rarely a cut-and-dried matter of transferring all classroom courses to online versions. Organizations often go for a blended approach to leverage the advantages of each training method. Share some ways in which eLearning projects can make the in-classroom task easier. A few ideas:

  • Performance-based pre-assessments can identify which learners qualify to take particular classes and which learners can even skip classes. Result: Classes have learners who are all at the appropriate level of skills and knowledge ... a dream for a trainer.
  • Pre-work can give learners a base level of knowledge before coming to class so that trainers spend less time teaching boring topics like terminology. And if the trainers also do a short review of those topics in class, learners get a bonus in retention.
  • In-class or between-class practice exercises and drills can help learners cement information and skills, and if you can report their analytics back to the trainers, they can help hone in on gaps in knowledge.
  • Performance-based post-assessments can determine whether learners achieved the goals of the training.
  • Follow-up activities can keep skills sharp and information easy to recall.

All of the above can be performed without leveraging eLearning, but eLearning makes all of them easier to measure, more consistent, and even automatic – in short, eLearning can make these great training practices more effective and more likely to get done. And that’s all without doing any instruction via computer.

And that’s not the end of objections, of course

The resistance outlined in this article isn’t necessarily just for the traditional desktop courses that we have come to associate with the word eLearning ... it could be for mLearning, electronic performance support, virtual live classrooms, or pretty much any method in which computers are used to support learning and performance.

In each case, if the method you’re trying to bring to the organization is suitable for the need, there will be a reason it’s suitable: there will be payoffs in terms of efficiency, effectiveness, scalability, consistency, or some combination of these. And that’s probably the biggest key to overcoming objections: Make sure what you’re selling actually solves a problem or leverages an opportunity for the organization. If it doesn’t, the organization is right to object to your plan.

Finally, be prepared to keep selling your initiative within the organization, probably for a few years after the first course has launched. Adopting eLearning is a cultural change as well as a technological one, and all of the changes required to make it accepted and expected can take time.

What other objections have you seen within organizations? How have you overcome them?