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Back in the mid-90’s (long ago in another century!) my first instructional design job was with a CBT company. CBT stood for Computer Based Training and we created hand-coded training programmes that were delivered to our client’s employees on CD ROMs or even loaded up to laptops which then made the training rounds. Over the next few years as the internet took over our lives, we started calling it WBT for Web Based Training.

Legend has it that it was Jay Cross – noted industry futurist and training guru – who in 1998 first coined the term e-learning. That made sense. It was “electronic learning” like that newfangled electronic mail or email that we had just started using as our de facto mode for all business communication. Elearning – and whether you write it as e-learning, eLearning, or elearning is still a matter of much-heated debate – stuck as a term and has pretty much ruled the day ever since.

Except for all the other terms that one hears.

Change is constant and everyone likes a new shiny object and a new term to latch on to. In my 25+ years in this business I have seen terminology come and go. And especially these past few years as we all retreated to the confines of our home during a global pandemic and our kids started going to school online, the terms have gone more mainstream and have multiplied. It’s like the term elearning and remote learning went into a cave and started to reproduce and mutate en-masse! We now have an even bigger stew of terminology to dip into and sort through to be sure we know what the other person is talking about. It makes it a bit confusing, to be honest.

I talk with a lot of clients and prospective clients looking to solve problems with better training and performance support solutions. They ask for elearning-esque solutions using terminology or jargon I sometimes have never even heard of. Generally, I still get the idea, because that’s my job and it’s ostensibly why they called me. So, we sort through the terminology and make sure we’re aligned and really speaking about the same things.

But that's okay, it’s really just semantics right? Or is it?

Most training and learning solutions these days involve some element of digital content or activities. Even if we’re 100% in a live classroom with a teacher, there’s likely some element of the experience that involves a digital asset. Our kids use online flash cards and maths games; we take our required corporate compliance learning content on our laptop; we look up a plumbing video on YouTube on our phones when trying to fix that leaking tap; we take an online class and watch a recorded video lecture; we complete an online simulation of the sales process and get a score that gets reported to our line manager. You get the idea. Digital is simply part of most learning solutions these days, in some shape or form.

This word cloud illustrates some of the many things we now call our beloved elearning, or places where digital solutions may now appear:

And I won’t bother to list all the product names that people use to define and label the desired learning solution. OK, maybe I will: Captivates, Storylines, Articulate, Brainsharks… I’m sure I missed a few. Please let me know and we’ll add to the list!

So the point is this:

Does it matter that we have so many terms?

Not really. It’s just semantics.

Does it make conversations more confusing?

Yes. And semantics can get us in trouble.

Is it important that we standardise on one dictionary of terms – an industry “canon” if you will?

While that would be nice, I see it as nearly impossible and not a hill I would want to die on, for sure.

Do we need to make sure we understand what the other person is talking about and educate them?

Yes. Absolutely. It doesn’t matter what you end up calling whatever it is that you create, but rather that you create the right solution to solve the right problem.

If you’ve got a performance problem and are looking to build out the skills of your team, reduce risk or change behaviours, give us a call. We can call it whatever we want to call it, but what’s important is that we dig deeply into the problem to ensure we’re designing the right solution that will have the right impact.

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