Sutton, a BCS professional member, told a meeting of the BCS Kingston and Croydon branch last month that the typical e-learning product was a classroom in a box: a package to study for a Microsoft qualification, for example.
Claimed benefits for e-learning users include the ability to repeat parts, take breaks and work at their own pace; savings in travel and accommodation and time off work; consistent quality; and automated tests to measure understanding.
But Sutton said, "Arguably we have just put the Victorian classroom in a machine and ignored learning - a uniquely individual activity. You go through a package in the way the person who programmed it thought about it."
Simply making a digital version of the traditional classroom misses the opportunity presented by IT he said
Sutton pointed to studies showing that about 70% of learning at work was informal, with only 30% coming from the formal training companies spend money on.
Another study of people's preferred ways of learning at work reported that formal methods such as self-study, mentioned by 20%, and classroom training (48%) were not as popular as informal approaches, such as group problem solving (68%), support from a mentor or supervisor (76%), and hands-on experience (90%).
This is backed up by research into how people remember what they have learnt. Informal learning again comes top: collaborative learning achieves a 70% retention rate and practice 80%. Teaching someone else - for example, by sharing your knowledge with a colleague - pushes the educator's own retention rate up to 90%.
Sutton said that where formal training tended to be general, with standard content, informal learning was specific and related to an immediate need: when people need to know something, they ask someone.
Where formal training is assessed, through tests, informal learning is put into practice immediately, again because when people need to know something they ask someone and then use that knowledge.
And formal training is teacher-centred, while informal learning is learner-centred.
Sutton believes there is very little e-learning to support the "nirvana" of fully informal learning, not least because measuring people's performance at work is not as easy as marking tests after formal training courses.
He said organisations looking beyond existing e-learning were talking about "blended" learning - and trying to define it. The elusiveness of a precise definition perhaps reflects the uncharted waters of the nirvana that Sutton believes exist.
Sutton said people ideally want to combine instruction methods, including the classroom and existing e-learning, as well as collaboration and simulation; to use different technologies, including CDs and the internet; to combine different approaches to teaching; and to integrate formal learning with work.
"E-learning in its present form has been an expensive experiment and has by and large failed to live up to its promise," said Sutton. "But it is getting better. It is beginning to support discovery, trial and error, collaboration, experimentation and application.
"There is a bright future, and it is happening now. We have come a long way, and we are now right on the cusp. What we will be doing in 20 years' time will be mind-blowing."
This was first published in June 2004