• Mark Gash

Tick Box Training Strikes Back

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

In case you didn’t realise, I work at an eLearning company. We create learning that’s delivered online. The Oxford definition of learn is, “Gain or acquire knowledge of or skill in (something) by study, experience, or being taught.” So essentially, our job is to put knowledge online, that is studied by people, in order to either retain that knowledge or use it to gain a new skill. Simple, right?

e-learning is an amazing tool when used correctly, either as a stand-alone way to acquire new knowledge or as part of a blended programme, with classroom and practical techniques, to gain new skills. We work hard to ensure that the courses we create carry real value for both the client and their end-users. We want people to take our courses and emerge having learned something that will benefit them in some way.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a worrying trend from prospective clients who see eLearning as a cheap, easy route to compliance. In essence, wasting the potential of online training to produce quick and dirty tick-box activities.

It’s not a new trend by any means - eLearning has a long history of misuse and has gained a bad reputation throughout the years because of it. Bad eLearning is typified by screens of text, next buttons and multiple-choice questions. These type of courses only require a tenacious trial-and-error approach to gain a pass and rarely result in any learning actually taking place.

It’s no surprise then that there’s an apathy towards eLearning from trainers, HR managers and staff in countless industries around the globe. It’s why there’s been a swing back towards classroom sessions and practical on-the-job training. It's why eLearning companies like ours embrace blended learning, where the online element supports and complements the real-world aspects. And speaking personally, despite all the reasons listed above, if a course is boring for an end-user to take, you can bet your @ss it’s even more boring for us to build.

So then, why are we getting seemingly increasing requests to create these tick-box courses?

One train of thought is that it’s all down to blame culture. There’s no getting away from the fact that we live in an increasingly litigious society, especially in areas such as Health & Safety in the workplace.

If Sarah chops her hand off on a band-saw, then somebody must be at fault. If it’s proven that Sarah’s employers hadn’t trained her how to properly use a band-saw, then the business and directors are in big trouble. However, if they can show that Sarah ticked a box which indicated she knew how to use the equipment, then the company is absolved of blame and Sarah has to live with her mistake because according to the e-learning, it was her fault. So in this respect, tick-box eLearning is extremely attractive to companies who need to train large workforces on a limited budget. It’s cheap, it can be rolled out to many staff in different locations and it can keep up-to-date records of who has and hasn’t signed their lives away.

The other, less cynical reason, is that companies don’t know any better. As I mentioned above, bad eLearning courses have been around for years and at one stage, tick-box was the norm. Once a company reaches a certain size, any sort of infrastructure change is like trying to turn an oil tanker in a storm. It’s why some companies still use Windows 98 - they’ve always used it, it does what they need it to and they don’t see a need to change. In fact, making a change would just cause a whole lot of pain for the IT department. Training is no different. If the tick box approach is how they’ve always done it and Sarah hasn’t yet chopped off her hand on a band saw, then they might never have considered a different way.

The problem in both cases is that a tick in the box to satisfy compliance isn't a guarantee that compliance will take place. Just as your car passing its MOT is only a sign that it was road-worthy on that particular day, a tick-box exercise only measures how good your users are at getting through the test. It doesn't put any emphasis on them absorbing, retaining or understanding the information. Learning needs to be baked into a course from the start, with defined outcomes and learning pathways. It needs to check and re-check understanding, not just the ability to answer a question 30 seconds after reading a paragraph of information.

At best, a bad tick-box course means that when on the job, your staff might not be equipped with the knowledge to carry out tasks effectively. At worse, it could result in them putting themselves or others in danger because they don't know how to safely undertake their duties. And no matter where the e-learning course points the finger of blame, no company wants dead staff or customers (except perhaps undertakers).

So what should we be doing when a company approaches us specifying a tick box course? Do we send them packing and hope a better prospect comes along, one who already buys into the power of eLearning? Or is it our responsibility to educate these prospective clients and show them a better way?

There’s no easy answer, especially when historical infrastructure, budgets and possible blame issues are in the mix. The only course of action is to qualify prospective clients, with a deep-dive into their training needs, goals and expectations of eLearning. Hopefully, by showing them that intelligently-planned eLearning can deliver real benefit to a business, we can stamp-out tick box training for good and maybe stop a few hands from being severed along the way.

If you’re an advocate of tick box learning and want us to change your mind, get in touch!


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