5 E-learning Strategies To Accelerate Complex Cognitive Skills At workplace

5 E-learning Strategies To Accelerate Complex Cognitive Skills At workplace

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This research study reports 5 powerful e-learning strategies that can accelerate time to proficiency in complex cognitive skills: Experience-rich multi-technology mix, Time-spaced micro-learning content, Scenario-based contextualization, On-demand performance support systems, and Optimally sequenced e-learning path.


Accelerating time to proficiency of the workforce is a crucial business goal. E-learning has made big waves in the past decade. Therefore, it is imperative to investigate the contributions or role of e-learning towards accelerating time to proficiency of the workforce, particularly for accelerating complex cognitive skills. On that subject, back in June 2016, I presented a paper titled “E-learning Strategies at Workplace That Support Speed to Proficiency in Complex Skills” at International Conference on E-learning (ICEL), Kuala Lumpur. In that paper, I presented a conceptual model of a sub-section of my overall findings related to the e-learning themes from my doctorate research (“practices and strategies to accelerate time to proficiency of employees at the workplace”). I will briefly describe the conceptual model and major themes that emerged from my research in this post.

State of e-learning

There is no consensus on what e-learning is and what it is not. e-learning definition changes with endless possibilities every new electronic technology bring for driving learning  (Kahiigi et al., 2008). Long back computer-based training was deemed as e-learning while in most recent times virtual reality is considered to be a new face of e-learning. No doubt that e-learning has emerged as one of the most attractive and cost-effective solutions with the flexibility to support self-paced learning which can be delivered geographically to any place on the earth. 2014 survey by Elearningindustry.com reported that over 47% of the Fortune 500 companies now use some form of educational technology and corporations value e-learning as the second most valuable training method which saves businesses at least 50% cost when they replace traditional classroom training with e-learning (Pappas, 2013). According to the ASTD 2014 State of the Industry Report, 38% of the training is delivered using technology-based solutions. The report also cited an IBM report stating that companies employing eLearning have the potential to boost productivity by 50%. According to their estimates, every 1$ spent on e-learning results in $30 in productivity (ASTD, 2014). However, there is some caveat to these trends. Organizations have not been able to harness the power of e-learning fully beyond one-way informational content. There are some examples of highly interactive e-learning solutions which boast of delivering complex cognitive knowledge and skills in any kind of complex job.

How does e-learning develop complex cognitive skills?

Jobs are becoming increasingly complex in the workplace. A task as simple as ‘calling a customer’ has now become over-complex with considerations like the ability to hold the client’s attention, cultural and situational sensitivity to the customer’s surroundings, ability to connect and relate with the customer’s needs not just in a business sense but in a socio-cultural sense too, ability to think through options and be able to research certain information for the customer. Karoly & Panis (2004) emphasize the changing nature of the workplace requires non-routine cognitive skills. Complex cognitive skills require a different kind of design or approach. It is a general belief that face-to-face instructor-led and on-the-job mentored training have proven potential to develop complex skills in the workplace as well as in educational or training provider’s settings.

Some researchers proposed some specific e-learning strategies which have shown some promise to shorten time-to-proficiency in complex skills. For example, the early studies by Gott and Lesgold (2000) in military settings showed that 25 hours of scenario-based simulation on the computer accelerated the expertise of 2 years of technicians in diagnosing electrical faults in aircraft as equivalent to those holding 10 years of experience. Towards modern-day e-learning, Dror, Schmidt, and O’Connor (2011) advocated an approach of ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’  to facilitate the acquisition of complex cognitive and hands-on skills commonly used in the medical domain using technology to create challenging interactions (p. 293). Another strategy, ‘Problem-based curriculum’ has shown evidence in triggering “active processing” in learners, a key component to accelerating complex skill acquisition (Clark and Mayer, 2011). For example, Hinterberger (2011) used problem-based learning to teach computer science in “digital laboratory” settings to allow learners to acquire skills through the application of software in solving physical problems or phenomena. On similar lines, Clark and Mayer (2013) advocated that scenario-based e-learning has the potential to accelerate expertise at the workplace by stating, “Unlike real-world experience, scenario-based e-Learning scenarios not only compress time but also offer a sequence and structure of events designed to guide learning in a controlled manner.” Arnold et al. (2013) demonstrated that a sequence of cases through e-learning resulted in rapid expertise development of highly complex decision-making in novice-level financial professionals. In recent time, computer-based simulated games (another form of e-learning) has shown great potential in accelerating the development of complex knowledge and skills in topics like cell biology, aviation, transportation, military, and business management (Higgins, 2015).

However, e-learning’s ability to deliver highly complex cognitive skills has come under scrutiny many times. It appears that it fails to deliver results when designers get into a trap of using principles meant for simpler skills to design e-learning for complex skills. I am sure many of you may have seen that happening. Reality is revealed by Wulf & Shea (2002) in their study who argued that “principles derived from the study of simple skills do not generalize to complex skill learning” (p.185). They further emphasized that complex skills indicate the need to approach the learning of complex and simple skills differently. For example, learning simple skills profits from an ‘increase in load’ whereas the learning of complex skills requires a ‘reduction in load’.

Many researchers have even questioned whether or not e-learning is a plausible medium to deliver complex cognitive skills. E-learning also gets questioned about its ‘stickiness’ or effectiveness in transferring skills to the workplace, particularly for complex skills. Sims, Burke, Metcalf, & Salas (2008) state that “In fact, a common criticism of e-learning is that face-to-face courses are directly transferred to an electronic format with the assumption that the courses will be equally effective and accepted by trainees.” (p. 24)

The point here is that e-learning targeted to develop highly complex cognitive skills needs a different set of strategies. Lately, several researchers have proposed different strategies by which e-learning could be designed or administrated to develop the complex skills of the learners. Here are some most common or popular ones:

Can e-learning accelerate time to proficiency?

With the pace of technology, the time-to-market pressures are changing demands on the workforce to acquire these complex skills at a faster pace. Though some of the above strategies or examples indicate that appropriate design could allow e-learning methods to help learners acquire complex skills, however, only a few of the research studies give some evidence or guidelines to design e-learning that could accelerate expertise or time-to-proficiency. Some industry figures substantiate the fact that e-learning holds the potential to accelerate proficiency. According to statistics reported by Pappas (2013) at Elearningindustry.com, e-learning cuts down the instruction time by 60%, increases information retention rates by 60%, and compared to classroom learning, e-learning students are reported to have a 60% faster learning curve. Though this evidence is mostly commercial in nature based on a limited set of surveys, the value of e-learning technologies, platforms, methods cannot be denied in regards to their ability to cut down training length, allow self-paced learning, and reinforcement to traditional training methods (Dongsong, 2005; Clark and Mayer, 2011).

What e-learning strategies have proven to accelerate time to proficiency?

In this study 85 business experts from 7 countries and 42 industries participated in the research. 74 in-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted over the phone and using internet technologies. Participants were asked to provide a detailed account of a project case in which they implemented new strategies or solutions which led to a proven reduction in time to proficiency of employees. The responses corresponding to e-learning-related solutions or strategies were extracted and analyzed using thematic analysis. The analysis of the themes revealed the following five major e-learning strategies that hold strong potential to accelerate speed to proficiency.

1. Experience-rich and multi-technology mix
2. Time-spaced micro-learning content
3. Scenario-based contextualization of e-learning
4. On-demand electronic performance support systems
5. Optimally sequenced e-learning path

Based on the findings, a conceptual model was developed as shown in the figure. This conceptual model depicts the relationship among five e-learning strategies. A strong relationship between these strategies is seen. The way one strategy is implemented could significantly impact the effectiveness of the other strategies, by supplementing or complementing each other. Such interaction is shown by the bi-directional arrows in Figure 1. We hypothesize that the time-to-proficiency of employees can be shortened if organizations develop a shorter chunk of content; contextualize it with real-world problems relevant to the workplace; sequence and organize the chunks in an optimally designed learning path; deliver each chunk virtually or online using several technologies, and making it available through electronic performance systems. Our recommendations are to implement all 5 e-learning strategies to a certain degree to reap the fruits of accelerated proficiency.

E-learning conceptual model

[Conceptual model of e-learning for accelerated proficiency] 


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About Dr Raman K Attri

Dr Raman K Attri is the world’s #1 authority on the science of speed in professional and organizational settings. He is the world's only professional speaker speaking on the topic of the science of speed. He is the author of 23 multi-genre books. As a performance scientist, he has been recognized as one of the leading ‘Transformational Business Leaders’ of 2022. He was named as one of the ‘Global 500 Leaders’ of 2021, alongside stellar leaders like Oprah Winfrey, Gary Vee, Jim Kwik, and Jay Shetty, to name a few. He has made his space as a true accelerated learning guru, earning over 100 international credentials and degrees, including two doctorates in the learning domain, apart from some of the world’s highest certifications. A corporate business manager, he has been featured and cited in over 125 media features in TV/radio shows, magazines, podcasts, and forums.

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