“The average on-line learner is 34 years old”

In the latest in an occasional series on the use and misuse of statistics in e-learning, Unicorn CEOPeter Phillips examines Aurion Learning’s recent colourful infographic. You can find the original here.

http://www.slideshare.net/fullscreen/aurionlearning/14-facts-infographic/1

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There seems to be a glut of statistics about the e-learning market circulating at present. This is a particularly eye-catching example. But let’s look a bit more closely.

  1. The average on line learner is 34 years old.” That reminds me of the man who drowned in a river that was only an average 1 foot deep. No source is given for this stunningly useless statistic, but the median age of the whole world population is around 34, it’s a little higher in the US and approaching 40 in the UK.
  2. 82% of learners are undergraduates.” Surely not. If the statistic is that 82% of learners are or have been at one time undergraduates, that sounds feasible. But it depends on the population that is being sampled. Clearly this statement excludes anyone under 18. What % of undergraduates would you expect to find in a population of adult learners? Is this figure higher or lower than that? Do we care?
  3. 81% of learners are employed.” What and undergraduates at the same time? Remarkable. Again, we must be talking adults here, but beyond that, which adults? What is the population being sampled? The only clue is that this stat is courtesy of a report by IBM, although no clue as to which one, and Google was no help.  Are the other 19% unemployed, or perhaps in further education? I somehow suspect that the IBM survey did not extend to the  unemployed.
  4. Over 40% of global Fortune 500 companies now use some form of educational technology.” I don’t know about you, but I find the corollary to this – therefore 60% of Fortune 500 companies do not use any form of educational technology – to be ludicrous. Apparently the source of this statistic was eLearning! Magazine 2013.  I’m a subscriber to that publication. They publish some excellent research, none of which so far as I can see supports this statistic.  It most likely comes from research by London based IBIS Capital which was reported in the magazine last year, and includes a statement that 41.7% of global Fortune 500 companies used technology during formal learning hours last year.
  5. Companies who use e-learning tools and strategies have the potential to boost productivity by 50%.” You won’t be too surprised to find that this one comes from that IBM report again. Sounds more like a marketing slogan than a piece of reliable statistical research to me.
  6. For every $1 a company spends on training they can receive $30 worth of productivity gains.” It’s that IBM report again. Are the marketing creatives getting a little carried away here? That 50% boost has now become 3000%. I’m beginning to lose my enthusiasm. But let’s plough on. Surely there is something to enlighten us among these 14 “Statistics I Need to Know”
  7. In a survey of HR managers, 12% listed “not enough training” as the top reason for employees leaving.”  An interesting and credible stat at last! I’d like to see the question for this one. The source is the well-respected Career Builder survey of US job trends.
  8. Companies who offer best practice e-learning and on-the-job training generate around 26% more revenue per employee.” That sounds interesting, but what are we comparing with? Is it those same companies before the training (that would be an impressive stat), or a bunch of different companies. I presume the latter, in which case what is it these companies do?  Do they offer “worst practice e-learning”?  Do they do no on-the-job training? For that matter does any employer do no on-the-job training?  And what is “best practice e-learning” anyway? The source of this particular gem is not given in the infographic.
  9. In 2011, it was estimated that $35.6 billion was spent on self-paced e-learning across the globe. Today e-learning is a $55.2 billion industry and it’s going to double by 2015.”  I think anyone who is involved in e-learning will confirm that we are in a growth industry, with exciting potential. But I am willing to bet that these figures are bogus. Estimated by whom and how? Didn’t we just learn that 60% of Fortune 500 companies don’t use e-learning at all? This has all the feel of an invented figure being repeated often enough that it becomes the de facto common knowledge.
  10. 72% of companies state that e-learning helps them to keep up to date with changes in their industry which helps them to remain competitive in their niche.”  Leading question alert. How would you reply to these for example ? “Does e-learning help you to keep up to date with changes in your industry?” “Does keeping up to date with changes in your industry help you to remain competitive?”
  11. Companies with a strong learning culture do better in their market than those that do not”. To quote Basil Fawlty “Specialist subject – the bleedin’ obvious”.
  12. 12, 13 and 14 are all from a survey by Bersin, and tell us that companies (I’m guessing here but presumably the missing words are “with a strong learning culture”) are 34% more able to respond to the needs of their customers, 46% more likely to be a leader in their industry, and 17% more likely to become the market share leader. Well, that’s nice to know, and I’m sure we all fully support the underlying premise (see item 10), but do those stats make any sense? Take the e-learning industry. There are literally thousands of companies, but only one can be the market share leader, so what does “17% more likely” actually mean? I believe Unicorn has a strong learning culture but doubt we will ever be bigger than Pearson, so does this research tell us that the odds on our being the market leader have gone up from nil to 117% of nil?   

The infographic ends with another pictogram stating that e-learning is expected to grow at 23% a year between 2013 and 2017. That is quite possible, although inconsistent with other stats in the same infographic. But these figures come from “The Education Sector Factbook”, so I suspect a rather different sample population than that used by IBM, Bersin and IBIS. We are comparing apples with bananas.

Infographics are very much the flavour of the month. They can be an eye-catching way of presenting statistics, or they can be lipstick on a pig. In this case. I’ll leave you to decide which.

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