Sep 6, 2019

By Tom Butters

The Human Touch Relying only on online learning leaves a voidAs the IES is on the verge of launching its new E-Learning Management System, it causes me to reflect on how much lighting education delivery—as with all aspects of education—has been transformed by our ubiquitous connection to all things Internet. While the opportunity to reach more people, anytime, at a moment of their discretion, is exciting, the words lamenting and concern more closely describe my most prevalent emotions.

Where once we were limited to the size of a classroom or auditorium, we now can reach hundreds or thousands at one time. Our monthly webinars typically bring in an audience of 800 1,200. And, that does not include those who view the recorded versions. That has to be good, doesn’t it? The convenience is fabulous—I learn what I want to learn when I want to learn it. But, there is still something missing. Something akin to the smell of books.

In 2008, one lighting manufacturer alone had 16 educational facilities in the U.S. and Canada. Nine that were operated with full-time staff and offered lighting education along with product training and another seven that had experienced sales and marketing individuals who would provide product training to customers. By 2018, that number had dwindled to six: two fully staffed education facilities and four set up for product training. Ten years, 10 fewer places for the industry to obtain lighting education. The savings in overhead is substantial but again something seems to be missing. Something like the opportunity for relationship building with customers.

Let’s look at some numbers involving online learning, purveyed from, of course, websites. A December 2017 article for reported that by 2022, the global online learning management market will surpass $19 billion, up from $5.19 in 2016, and that 98% of businesses will provide some form of online learning. In “5 Key Statistics That Will Impact the LMS Market and eLearning Industry in 2018” (January 2018) on, it is also predicted that a major increase in the LMS market will occur and that we are just getting started.

SOME OFT QUOTED NUMBERS detail the advantages of online learning, claiming less time required and more learning by employees, higher information retention rates, and of course lower costs to the employer. Online learning, it is said, can increase revenue, productivity and employee engagement.

Online is more inclusive; one can do it after all the kids are asleep or on that long commute to a job you hope to leave behind. The commitment is different. The timing is flexible. There can be a far better work-life balance. Online education reaches far more people. Online learning gives opportunities to those who may not be able to experience them given financial or geographic restrictions. Online learning has made many of us better cooks. We can tackle that DIY project to rebuild the bathroom. We can focus on what interests us.

People can now learn what they want, when they want, where they want and probably most importantly how they want. We used to have places where one could go and learn what they want, albeit the convenience of instant learning wasn’t there. Nor, did we have the option of how and to a lesser extent where and when. We called those places libraries.

We gain convenience with e-learning. We save time. However, we do lose out on a specific experience, specific sights and specific sounds in exchange for convenience. I can see myself making that decision often. However, I still would like the option of sitting outside in my chair on a bright sunny day reading a book. Tough to do with a tablet or computer. Downloading a ton of books on a tablet doesn’t help when you are on a beach.

ONE OF MY CONCERNS WITH E-LEARNING being the exclusive mode for education is the lack of feedback. What if I don’t know what I don’t know? The interaction between the student and the instructor is missing. What if my curiosity takes me away from the cookie-cutter specifics of what I am learning? I can always go to the “If you like this, then try this” suggestions, but I often find them restrictive. How can I challenge what I’m learning? Who is there to question my understanding?

Also missing is the collaboration among the participants. That is why opportunities like the IES Annual Conference, LIGHTFAIR and the IES Street and Area Lighting Conference are such critical options. I have learned an awful lot from the attendees that I have taken courses with. The interaction of fellow learners who approach issues, problems and tasks differently than I would coming at it from a totally different angle. That paradigm shift is so critical for deeper understanding of the topic. My knowledge has gained depth that I would not have experienced if it were merely me and my electronic device.

With e-learning, there is also a lack of that interaction, which allows you to strengthen your knowledge by having your ideas respectfully challenged. This “quickening” has gone the way of the Great Auk. One needs one’s ideas to be challenged to ensure that they can hold up against debate and others who view things totally differently. I’m looking at you “Flat Earthers.”

Another drawback is that everyone is expecting to be instant experts on whatever subject they study online without putting in the required time and energy. If “instant experts” was a stock, it would be soaring.

I certainly love instant learning. It is far easier for me to quickly Google something to find out about a certain topic or a word that is ummm…. escaping me. What I did growing up was look it up in an encyclopedia or a thesaurus. I had to get up from where I was and go to my bookshelf, grab a heavy tome and take my time to look it up. Online is way more convenient and quicker. And, I love it. I most certainly do a vast majority of my learning online. However, when depth of knowledge is required, I need to go to books, and not just one, many. I need to discuss these topics with experts, with peers, with others that share my interest, if not my opinions. For depth, I can’t rely on e-learning. I also need human interaction.

Now I have to go, I think my cat needs an operation and there is a YouTube video on how to do it.

So, what say you? I’d like to hear from you. Is there a place where online and face-to-face learning can co-exist?


Tom Butters

Tom Butters, LC

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