E-learning pilot venture cuboid

I will be analyzing an e-learning venture that was designed and launched as a pilot in 2003 for secondary school teachers in rural India.


Background: I work with teachers in rural areas of different parts of the world, with a development agency, helping/enabling them to integrate technology in the classroom through a series of workshops in which we create scenarios that model a teacher’s experience and walk them through issues, difficulties, obstacles in the process – it obviously is a totally hands-on workshop that relies on various experiences for a solution. There isn’t just one solution – with every teacher, every group, every workshop the solution changes – there are several.


The e-learning product: It was in 2002 that the development agency decided to replicate the workshop experience and reach out to a larger audience, in developing countries, in remote areas (where no man has been but technology has) faster at a lesser cost. A e-learning program was developed and launched, in 2003, as a pilot in some schools of Anglophone Africa and India (I will be analyzing the India experience). 18 teachers across 10 schools participated.


Face 1 – This was a training needs product – aimed at re-training teachers to work with technology in their classrooms.


Face 2 – It was a services product with elements of custom development absent from it – the customization was done from a desk far away and far removed from the real world scenario.


Face 3 – This was meant to be “Learning bought nationally” once the pilot was successful. The stakeholders – principals, teachers were not included in the decision making.


Face 4 – Asian country – with quality Internet but not so in far-flung remote areas. Also, limited access to the Internet lab (usually only a single computer was provided with connectivity at the time) within school premises.


Face 5 – Market does not support learning technologies – the pilot was happening on the basis of a grant – there was no plan in place to grow and sustain it. The good news about e-learning is that once the product is created there is no need to pay for creation for every round of training, unlike F2F where the facilitator must be paid a fee. But a plan must be in place to sustain connectivity and training at the school-end and some maintenance staff needs to be organised for this activity.


Face 6 – Learning technology works well with a well-developed learning system – in this case it was set alongside the instructor-led system and did not fare well.


Result: The pilot was unsuccessful. 2 teachers completed the e-learning course with much persuasion an dhand holding.

Analysis: The e-learning project failed because of the following reasons:

  1. Concept of training, re-training for teachers not well-established, much less the concept of e-learning.
  2. Market not ready for it – traditionally F2F training works best particularly in the education system in rural schools.
  3. Access to computers within the school premises difficult – computer labs are governed by lab assistants who may not be willing to let teachers have access as and when the teacher needs it – clash of free time available and access to computer labs.
  4. Design of content not in sync with local context – eg case study asks participants to envision a scene when their classroom would be equipped with 4 computers…for a teacher struggling to accommodate 40 kids in a lab of 15 computers with no redemption in sight, the former case appears to be too far fetched to devote time to.
  5. Overall, geographical fragmentation of course enrolments did not work – its integrative value for teaching and learning was not immediately visible to school administrators – having one or two teachers, from a school, attend the pilot was a lost cause. In hindsight, maybe the pilot should have been designed for a school – all 18-20 teachers should have been from the same school so that they could have been a support group in an uncharted territory.
  6. Even if the pilot has been a success there wasn’t a plan in place to install the system across 50 schools and implement lessons of the pilot.

 It is indeed ironical that a market that needs e-learning most does not take to it when given a chance. In my view, a bottom (as opposed to a top-down) approach in designing, installing and maintaining the system would go a long way in ensuring its success.


Finally, this was a high risk venture (hence the pilot) that had all three risk related novelties attached to it – novelty to the market, novelty in production, novelty in management (De Coster, R & Butler, C. 2005).


1 Carolann Fraenkel { 09.20.08 at 9:08 pm }

Sounds like someone thought this would be a “magic bullet” and they missed. It is too bad that it wasn’t thought through a little better, I would guess the money could have been better spent, but maybe there will be some learning that came from it.


2 davidp { 09.21.08 at 1:09 pm }

Thanks for this analysis, Deepika.

In my experience, development projects of this type often run into difficulty for all of the reasons you have outlined. However, this is no reason to stop doing them. They are hard work to get right.

Understanding what went wrong, correcting it and re-engineering the design is often the best next response – especially if the next design is a participatory design model that brings in some of the participants who might know what went wrong from a first-hand perspective.

Activity theory (AT) analysis is particularly well-suited for improving technology-based designs with contextual clues to be harvested and acted upon..

I say more here –>


3 David Wees { 09.21.08 at 3:45 pm }

It’s interesting how much of a difference personal investment makes too. At my school there are a number of ‘gatekeepers’ who are in charge of critical components of our school’s information network. Traditionally they have been resistant to any kind of change or modification of how they do things, even when it is made completely clear to them that their way is not even close to the best way.

The reason why they behave like this is because they feel that if they are the expert in their area, then they can’t lose their job. If someone else makes a suggestion, then they must not be the expert and hence their job is in jeopardy.

4 davidp { 09.21.08 at 4:27 pm }

And these are real factors that you cite, David. Factors that need to be accounted for in any analysis and/or solution in project implementation.

One of the things I like about activity theory (AT) is that it seeks to account for all factors, objective and subjective. The “boundary-crossing workshop” is the mechanism that AT proponents use as strategy for dealing with these contextual factors and for honoring their importance.


5 Deepika Sharma { 09.22.08 at 12:00 am }

Carolann, quite to the contrary – folks who initiated this project did not think this was a mgic bullet – hence the “pilot”.

However, I think the underlying assumption they made (which turned out to be false) was that India is tech savy so anything tech should work – nah! it doesn’t work that way in education.

The downside to ventures such as this is that if there is no plan (and there wasn’t one in here) to sustain this activity post the pilot – even if the pilot was not thunderous – then a second chance is not possible – funds run out or time for funding runs out and that is exactly what happened here!

It is easy to sit on a blog and analyse this venture 6 years after, but am sure the development agency went through the motions of analysing the situation before launching! At least I hope they did, for I know they are serious about development!

That being said I have to mention here that I had voiced my concerns on the content (it wasn’t suited to the indigenous milieu) when I was shown the pilot of the e-learning system, but little heed was paid to that!

Yes, there is a lot to be learnt! I still think elearning is the way to go in the developing world, that is the only way to reach the volumes at the bottom of the pyramid – supported in my thought by none other than C.K. Prahlad (I think a world of the professor’s rhetoric!).

In a simiar vein here is a video to watch – sugata mitra on his hole in the wall experiment.




6 Deepika Sharma { 09.22.08 at 12:14 am }

In repsonse to Davidp – Thanks for your links and insights.

I agree with you – the reason that such a venture has failed is no reason to let go – we need to get back in witha revised plan.


Like you mentioned, I appreciate the need for a “real – time plan” – in a couple African countries where this venture was simultaneously piloted, it was more of a succes and from the post-pilot reports that I read, one thing stood out – the facilitators made mid-stream adjustments to the content to suit the local contex! That “quick on the feet” thinking is personality dependent – staffing a pilot – something to bear in mind. reminds me of the personality ofa pitcher – it can make or break the deal!


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