Success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

This text was originally handed in as my final assignment of course PDG083 V15 Contemporary Adult Education (Samtida vuxenutbildning) at Gothenburg University on March 30st 2015. 


E-learning has suffered from criticism, for example by Dreyfus (2002) stating that online environments do not support learning at all as they prohibit learning commitment or by Wang, Ran, Liao, & Yang (2010) denouncing the missing motivational component of e-learning. In workplace environments, however, e-learning is still implemented frequently as it fulfills specific needs such as cost-efficiency, on-demand supply of easily updatable workforce trainings, and flexible access independently of time and place (Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming, 2014). A range of scientific fields contributes to this discussion and disagreement exists on fundamental assumptions of knowledge, pedagogy and assessment (Knight, Buckingham Shum, & Littleton, 2014). Human Resource Development (HRD) tends to frame e-learning as a training method and by saying so to create a tension between both terms training and learning. There are two main resulting challenges: firstly, the conception of learning per se and secondly, the perception of learning as being mostly formal and programme success outperforming untapping the holistic learning experience of professionals (Webster-Wright, 2009). Besides these important conceptual debates, I believe that research on success factors of e-learning implementation can be highly fruitful when taking into account a well-structured and congruent continuous learning strategy in organizations. In this paper I outline selected research on success factors for e-learning in the workplace and how these factors have been empirically investigated. Taking a socio-cultural stance on learning, I am focussing on organizational support and learners’ interaction as success-factors.

E-learning in workplace environments contextualised in the field of adult education

Organizations are one important contributor to adult education and face the steady balancing of cost-efficiency and continuing learning for the greater good. They are an important actor when it comes to integrating conceptual and experimental knowledge reaching across organizations and institutions (Gonczi, 2004). Nevertheless, calls for openness of learning activities to external participants are mostly answered by insisting on business secrets and gaining advantages over competitors. In his fourth part on vocational education, Jarvis (2014) describes the trend from developing employees for the good of the organization through initiating internal training courses and regarding the employee as human capital. Yet, numerous trainings were conducted in corporation with external providers such as universities as centres of lifelong education. Jarvis describes modularisation as a trend due to the higher demand of short courses for knowledge and practise, as well as the shift from education to learning. Consequently, conclusions in this paper cover not only the investigation of organizational support and interaction as success factors for e-learning, but also how future research could contribute to an open learning approach within and across organizations and workplaces.

Theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplace environments

Tynjälä and Häkkinen (2005) examine theoretical perspectives on e-learning in workplaces and identify three knowledge sources for successful e-learning solutions, namely theories of the learning organization (e-learning should go beyond presenting material and supporting individual learners), sociocultural theories (e-learning should create long-term cross-functional  and authentic communities of practise) and finally cognitive theories of learning and studies on the development of expertise (e-learning should enable participants to use experiential knowledge and integrate it with conceptual knowledge) (p. 323). The authors discuss problems related to workplace learning in general and learning in a virtual environment where they emphasize the importance of the overall learning culture of an organization, the challenge to maintain a sense of community in virtual environments and the importance of linking human resource development to learning activities (pp. 325). As three main reasons why e-learning in organizations fail they name “lack of personalization, lack of collaboration and interactivity, and that e-learning has not been learner oriented.” (p. 327). In their conclusion, they add the importance of including different forms of representations (reading, writing, audio, etc.) and face-to-face learning situations. Reynolds, Becker, & Fleming (2014) summarise their recent paper on contemporary challenges in e-learning by emphasizing a critical perspective on interaction, interaction and the connection to actual learning as well as the concept of social presence.

Empirical investigations on success factors of e-learning in workplace environments

In their empirical study, Sun, Tsai, Finger, Chen, & Yeh (2008) identified learner’s computer anxiety, instructor attitude towards e-learning, e-learning course flexibility, e-learning course quality, perceived usefulness, perceived ease of use and diversity in assessment as critical factors influencing e-learner’s satisfaction. Based on a questionnaire guided survey, they resumed that 66.1% of the variance in user satisfaction is connected to the mentioned factors. Interestingly, the independent variable ”learner perceived interaction with others” was not showing a significant correlation to learner’s satisfaction.

Minhong, Weijia, Jian, & Yang (2010) concluded that e-learning should associate learning needs of individuals and the organisation, relate work and learning performance and foster social interaction among learners. They proposed a key performance indicator (KPI) approach that takes into account pedagogical, organizational and technological components to enhance the learning process. In their theoretical framework they mentioned Tynjälä and Häkkinen, to support their claim that “[…] current e-learning development tends to focus on technical issues of design and ignores pedagogical and organizational issues that are necessary for effective e-learning programs to address” (p. 167). It becomes clear, that this paper conceptualised learning in the workplace as combining work, organization and other learners, thus considering a broader perspective on the e-learning environment. In comparison to the study of Sun et al. the authors tested a KPI-system based on their theoretical conceptualization. Their results suggest that this system improved the facilitation of social learning but diminishes benefits for the organization (mostly due to monetary aspects). This indicates a possible conflict being present in workplace learning strategies: the interplay of social learning and cost efficient argumentations in the frame of e-learning solutions.

Even more recently Cheng et al. (2011) conducted a study on the acceptance of competency-based workplace e-learning systems. In their study they used a model which supported “competency-oriented, self-directed, and socially constructed online learning in the workplace” (p. 1331). As a theoretical foundation they also used the paper of Tynjälä and Häkkinen to support the social process involved in adult learning (p.1330). As challenges for workplace e-learning they see the link between individual and organizational development. The result of their study was that “perceived usefulness of work-integrated pedagogical design in terms of improving self-directed learning processes and promoting collaboration among colleagues has positive influences on employees’ behavioral intention to use the e-learning system […]” (p. 1331). This means that again, designing e-learning to foster collaboration (in the study as enhancing social ties and perceived support for promoting a norm of cooperation) correlates positively with the perceived usefulness of the system. However, perceived support for enhancing social ties was negatively correlated to the intention to use, one likely explanation being the critical perspective on engaging in social networks in the workplace. They also concluded that practical value and relevancy for the job are important components influencing the perception of e-learning systems.

Michalski (2014) explored a work-based e-learning tool, which in addition to other tools supports everyday work. By doing so, she is expanding the frame of context-based learning from learning about real-life work situations to actually learning in real-life work situations. She referred to Tynjälä and Häkkinen within her theoretical foundation, when framing social interaction and the need to address context and tools for work-based e-learning and training processes in their own right with respect to practice and research (p. 161). Her focus lies on tensions in e-learning design and the organizational frame, where she points out that e-learning tools should be seen from a broader perspective within a social context because the concept of formal learning and certification is limiting its potential. Her article focusses in the instrumentality of symbolic interaction (SI), with a central conclusion being “E-learning artefacts are intentionally and unintentionally imbued with symbolic meanings generated in the practice of everyday work. A more complex understanding of the learning context must therefore take this into account, so that the planning, introduction and ongoing adaptation of formal training and e-learning programmes can indeed become context-sensitive” (p. 146).


All in all, this paper revealed the multifaceted nature of success factors of e-learnings in organizations. Organizational support and learners’ interaction are operationalised and contextualised differently by researchers and it is important to recognize theoretical underpinnings in their research papers. Throughout the four papers investigated, it seems as if social factors of e-learning are becoming more relevant and are thus included in theoretical conceptions and practical implications. E-learning in the workplace is seen as a context-bound learning experience, which is more than the pure training of contents. Fostering social interactions and drawing on organizational support to enhance the learner’s perception of e-learning comes to the fore. Besides tightly connecting theoretical pedagogical stances, organizational needs and context as well as social interaction, recent research trends indicate a shift from training to learning not only about the work-context but in the work-context, further tearing down the artificial borders between informal and formal learning activities. Thus, this research contributes to the claim for viewing the holistic learning experience, avoiding false dichotomies and acknowledging the potential of technology within this setting. Taking this perspective could also support enhancing borderless learning, where learning does not stop with the borders of a individual organization but where learning can take place across organizations, recognizing existing social networks of learners and acknowledging learning as being a complex and important aspect of continuous professional development.


Cheng, B., Wang, M., Yang, S. J. H., Kinshuk, & Peng, J. (2011). Acceptance of competency-based workplace e-learning systems: Effects of individual and peer learning support. Computers & Education, 57(1), 1317-1333. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2011.01.018.

Dreyfus, H. L. (2002). Anonymity versus commitment: The dangers of education on the internet. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 34(4), 369-378. doi:10.1080/0013185022000011763.

Gonczi, A. (2004). The New Professional and Vocational Education. In Foley (Ed.) The Dimensions of Adult Education (pp. 19-34). Open University Press.

Jarvis, P. (2014). From adult education to lifelong learning and beyond. Comparative Education, 50(1), 45-57. doi:10.1080/03050068.2013.871832.

Knight, S., Buckingham Shum, S. and Littleton, K. (2014). Epistemology, assessment, pedagogy: where learning meets analytics in the middle space. Journal of Learning Analytics.

Michalski, M. P. (2014). Symbolic meanings and e-learning in the workplace: The case of an intranet-based training tool. Management Learning, 45(2), 145-166.

Minhong, W., Weijia, R., Jian, L., & Yang, S. H. (2010). A Performance-Oriented Approach to E-Learning in the Workplace. Journal Of Educational Technology & Society, 13(4), 167-179.

Reynolds, K., Becker, K. & Fleming, J. (2014), Contemporary Challenges in E-Learning, in: Harris, R. & Short, T. (Eds.) Workforce Development: Perspectives and issues. Singapore: Springer Singapore.

Sun, P., Tsai, R. J., Finger, G., Chen, Y., & Yeh, D. (2008). What drives a successful e-learning? an empirical investigation of the critical factors influencing learner satisfaction. Computers & Education, 50(4), 1183-1202. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2006.11.007.

Tynjälä, P., & Häkkinen, P. (2005). E-learning at work: Theoretical underpinnings and pedagogical challenges. Journal of Workplace Learning, 17(5/6), 318-336. doi:10.1108/13665620510606742.

Wang, M., Ran, W., Liao, J., & Yang, S. J. (2010). A performance-oriented approach to E-learning in the workplace. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 13(4), 167.

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 702-739. doi:10.3102/0034654308330970.


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