Beyond the Hype of E-Learning: An Interview with Leap of Reason’s Katie Paris

March 06, 2014Alec Green


E-learning is one of the hottest trends in both education and corporate training.  According to, $35.6 billion was spent on self-paced e-learning in 2011.  By 2013, that figure had grown to $56.2 billion, and is expected to double by 2015.

To explore this trend in greater detail, Katie Paris and Mario Morino interviewed over 100 e-learning practitioners across academia, government, and the private sector.  Published by The Leap of Reason Initiative, their new report entitled The Beyond-The-Hype Potential of E-Learning  makes the case that e-learning, done right, offers the potential to fundamentally change how we transfer knowledge in all aspects of life.

The Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation team was honored to contribute our perspective and experience to this report and pleased that the authors mentioned our Gift of Learning program as an example of an e-learning resource specifically developed for the nonprofit sector.

The report serves as a good resource for anyone looking to better understand the current state and potential of e-learning.  We reached out to Katie Paris to learn more about her research and explore some of the most important findings for the nonprofit community:  

Tell us a little more about your background and how you got interested in this topic.  

Katie Paris Leap of Reason

My background is in working with political leaders, issue advocates, and the faith community to tackle tough public policy issues. I joined the Leap of Reason team, which exists to advance high performance throughout the social and public sectors, to explore how e-learning could benefit this pursuit. E-learning was a new topic for me, but the process of diving straight in to learn from as many perspectives as possible was familiar. I’m a generalist at heart, so the opportunity to understand how e-learning is transforming not only formal education but also many other aspects of life and learning was immediately appealing to me. The cross-sector applications are endless. If nothing else, I hope we’re able to help broaden the conversation about e-learning.

Based on your research, how do you define e-learning, and how do you distinguish it from online learning and distance learning?

As we say in the report, we yearn for the day when we don’t have to put a prefix or adjective in front of “learning.” In the meantime, we used the broadest definition possible for e-learning—encompassing online learning and distance learning, but also all forms of technology that may be used for content delivery and access, digital collaboration, and coordination. Our definition includes learning occurring through social media and a myriad of online community approaches such as Twitter, Skype, and Pinterest, all of which appear on the Top 100 Tools for Learning. We also include “serious games” and simulations, which offer some of the most exciting opportunities for learning under scenarios that are difficult to rehearse in real life.

What are some of the key takeaways from your research for the nonprofit community?

More than anything, we hope this report helps to inspire leaders in all sectors to start thinking about how e-learning applies to their life and work.

E-learning is already beginning to alter in fundamental ways how individuals develop skills for workplace readiness. We are convinced it could do the same for how social-sector organizations recruit, retain, and develop talent. In terms of developing talent, e-learning could be a great tool, just to name one example, for educating practitioners on the collection, analysis, and use of performance data for progress monitoring, course correction, and continuous improvement.

We’re also convinced e-learning can improve program and service delivery for nonprofits. In the same way we look up a restaurant on Yelp, a lesson on YouTube, or a movie on Fandango, imagine a teacher finding a video on his smart device to help a struggling student with a difficult concept; a home caregiver seeking tips on helping her 6’4” husband back up after a fall, any time of day or night; or a caseworker looking up a tailored resource for dealing with a specific drug issue at the moment of need.

This won’t happen overnight; change is hard. But it’s time to put e-learning on all of our agendas.

Can you give some examples of great e-learning resources that nonprofits can take advantage of?

If you’re reading this, I think you’re likely aware of the nonprofit e-learning resources the Cornerstone OnDemand Foundation provides access to at no cost. Here are some others that impress us:

  • New portal sites such as SkilledUp, Noodle, and Knollop can be helpful for accessing and navigating e-learning content (ranging from Khan Academy lessons to
courses provided through Coursera, edX, Udacity, Udemy, and MIT OpenCourseWare to professional training via Lynda). Udemy for Organizations also allows businesses and organizations to create customized learning libraries and courses of their own for internal use.
  • For advice on how to create engaging video content, log on to edX101: How to Create an edX Course and go straight to the “Producing Videos” section for guidance from the head of edX’s media department and Khan Academy founder Sal Khan.
  • If you’d like to try on-screen recording or remixing content, here are two free tools: Screencast-o-matic (the easiest free tool out there for screen recording and voiceovers) and OERPUB (a free publishing tool that allows you to bring together all the content you want, edit and adapt, and publish in a unified format).
  • Also check out the Learning Concierge Society, which learning guru Jane Hart set up in 2013 as a new network for workplace-learning professionals. 

What have been some of the barriers to widespread adoption of e-learning in the nonprofit community?

Widespread adoption takes time, and it’s still early. But we suspect most of the action is at the grassroots level, especially among those familiar with distance learning and/or network technologies. Social media guru Beth Kanter has been helping nonprofits use online peer learning for years to learn from each other and spread best practices. We hope to learn more in the next phase of our work, which will look more specifically at how e-learning could be meaningfully applied to advance high performance for nonprofits. But based on what we've observed so far, there have been some clear failures from which we can learn.

Deficiencies in how e-learning has been approached in the social sector so far include: 1) targeting audiences that are not yet ready; 2) working through existing staff rather than developing or bringing in talent with web design, production, social media, and other skills necessary and thus ending up with content or delivery systems that don’t fit the bill and/or; 3) not realizing the need for professional packaging, marketing, distribution, and support—assuming that if they just make it available all is solved.

We’re optimistic about the potential of e-learning, but for most, it’s going to take more talent, funding, planning, and research than expected.

What new trends in e-learning are you most excited about?

Open source, cloud computing, and mobility are converging to make possible access, speed, agility, and adaptability of a magnitude materially different from that of any previous era. It is in this context that disaggregated or “chunked” content—short, modular, available to anyone where they are, when they need them, for what they need, multiple times, and at little or no cost—introduces the possibility of remixing at every level. Realize that you are already creating content every day. By capturing everything from written procedures to videos to charts, you will develop a repository of bite-size chunks of knowledge that can be pulled together and edited into tailored educational content for your organization.

Note that short really means short. In edX101, a course about how to create a course, Clayton Hainsworth, operation and production manager at edX, recommends creating segments no more than three to seven minutes in length. A recent study of edX student habits found that students generally stopped watching videos longer than six to nine minutes and that the median time spent watching slightly longer videos was just over four minutes. You might notice on our website that each of our videos about the report is between two and six-and-a-half minutes.


What do you see as the potential (or pitfalls) of e-learning for the nonprofit sector?  Do you know of any organizations that have successfully integrated e-learning into their internal operations or external programs? Leave a comment and let us know.

About Alec Green

As Chief Marketing Evangelist, Alec Green is responsible for developing the overall marketing plan and strategy for the Foundation, executing all outbound communications, increasing visibility of the Foundation’s programs, and building engagement with our partners... more


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