Technical Articles



International Journal of Auditing – October 2004

Looking to the Future: E-learning and SAIs

E-learning is the combination of training with technology. Although used only to a limited extent by SAIs at present, e-learning offers the potential to widen the availability and effectiveness of quality training products. This article gives an overview of how e-learning could affect the future learning environment in SAIs and the steps the IDI has taken to date toward developing an e-learning strategy.

The IDI’s Mandate to Investigate Distance Learning Programs

Learning is vital to the health of SAIs, and INTOSAI recognized its crucial role when it established the INTOSAI Development Initiative (IDI) in 1986. Since that time, the IDI has worked with SAIs at the regional and local levels to facilitate quality training and capacity-building on key audit and management issues. In goal 5 of its Strategic Plan 2001-2006, the IDI is charged with the task of exploring the potential of distance learning programs, including e-learning, to enhance training and capacity building in SAIs.

This article uses the term e-learning as a shortened way of saying “e-learning or blended learning.” It is worth clarifying the meaning of both of these terms. E-learning can be defined as learning through information and communication technologies, including the Internet. Many companies offer commercial e-learning solutions, from software that allows organizations to seamlessly integrate their human resource, personnel, and personal development systems, to companies that design and host individual courses. E-learning can also be delivered using corporate intranets (internal Internet-based systems) or stand-alone computers or be published on CD-ROM.

Blended learning is a fairly new concept that merges elements of e-learning and classroom learning into a “blend” that suits the circumstances of a particular training intervention. For example, a course might begin with a videoconference, after which participants carry out group exercises using Internet pages and Internet-based discussion forums or chat rooms. There could be a second videoconference followed by individual home study and coursework supported by online instructors and ending with a short classroom meeting. Many people see blended learning as the way forward because it is the most flexible approach to training.

E-learning Is a Logical Next Step for SAIs

In some sectors, e-learning has a reputation for being expensive to develop, and some wonder whether it is worth pursuing at all. It is certainly true that e-learning had an inauspicious start and that there have been many examples of failed implementation. Fueled particularly by the North American corporate market in the 1980s and 1990s, e-learning companies anticipated huge profits. Some corporations closed down internal training departments in favor of buying “off-the-shelf ” e-learning solutions. However, in many cases student enrollment and retention were poor. The reasons for this were obvious: these commercial e-learning products were designed for the corporate market, which often encompasses numerous professions and corporate business styles. So, for example, generic courses on performance management, human resources, and change management proved to be almost useless because they did not reflect the circumstances of individual organizations.

E-learning does, however, have its success stories, and it does have applications that can benefit SAIs. Courses that highlight aspects of specific legislation or cover more narrowly defined aspects of professional and personal development can be important additions to other organizational training. In recent years, e-learning has had increasing acceptance as a result of its ability to mimic the pedagogical successes of classroom training while offering significant economies of scale, including financial savings. If, for example, an SAI has 1,000 auditors in several regional offices, all of whom need to be trained in performance auditing, the development of an e-learning course may be a viable solution. If the course is designed and delivered well and staff have access to appropriate technology, e-learning is a potentially useful way of approaching such large-scale training programs. Within the IDI context, there is little doubt that e-learning offers economies of scale, particularly in the different English-speaking regional working groups, where SAIs from multiple regions could be invited to participate in the same courses.

Investigation on E-learning within International Organizations

As the IDI has begun to explore the potential of e-learning, it has considered possible barriers to success within the INTOSAI community, including the lack of access to technology. The IDI has identified several international organizations that have developed mature e-learning solutions that INTOSAI might be able to benefit from in the future.

To better understand how barriers to e-learning could be lowered, the IDI met with several international organizations in October 2003. The response from these institutions was largely positive, and future partnerships may eventually be developed. The World Bank’s Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) centers provide a good example of options for collaboration. GDLN centers have been established in more than 60 mostly developing countries, with mixed regional coverage, and there are plans to expand the number significantly in the coming years. The centers have fully supported videoconferencing and Internet facilities for use by stakeholders, and these are backed up with fast telecommunications networks. These facilities make training through videoconferencing and/or e-learning a viable prospect in those countries.

E-learning Pilot Workshop in 2004/2005

The IDI is currently fulfilling its mandate to test the potential for e-learning through a planned activity with one regional working group. The IDI will fund the design and delivery of a performance auditing course in the pilot region during 2004 and 2005. The project will be delivered in partnership with a development organization based in that region and will use its established e-learning product.

The course will be delivered completely online using the Internet, chat rooms, e-mail, and discussion forums. Although the design and course administration will be handled by the partner development organization (with subject matter support from the region), the course staffing will come from within the region itself. The staffing commitment is significant—the region will need to provide a subject matter expert to advise the designers, a course coordinator with knowledge of the subject to oversee the delivery, and at least four tutors to manage the student experience on a daily basis. The course will be aimed at 60 participants from over 10 countries who will be expected to devote about 10 hours a week to this training course for 8 to10 weeks.

At the end of the pilot, the IDI and pilot region will assess the success of the e-learning course. While there are sure to be many lessons to learn from such a new and demanding project, the project partners have high hopes that this will be the first of many such e-learning courses. A pilot with 50-60 successful participants will be a clear demonstration of the economies of scale that e-learning offers. Furthermore, as long as enough suitable tutors can be found to manage the learning environment, there is no limit to the number of students who can take the course at any one time in the future.

The IDI Will Develop E-learning Guidelines for SAIs

The IDI is committed to the development of e-learning guidelines for SAIs. The IDI’s general guidelines for SAI trainers (see http://www.idi.no/english/guidelines/guidelines01.asp) already exist. These guidelines promote the IDI’s systematic approach to training and provide in-depth information on the five stages of that approach (analysis, design, development, delivery, and evaluation). Although the five-step approach can be the same within the e-learning environment, the attributes of each step will be different, and new guidelines will need to be developed to reflect these differences. Also, the e-learning guidelines will need to be an ongoing project in order to adapt to changes in the e-learning market.

Other Potential Benefits of E-learning Programs for SAIs

Exploring the potential of e-learning is not just about putting theory into practice but also about theorizing and modeling. Exploration is a powerful word that creates images of journeys into the unknown or scientific research. In the IDI context, exploration is also about finding solutions to problems and discovering new methods of working, even when the existing methods appear to be working well.

Over the course of the next 2 years and beyond, the IDI may also investigate several other facets of e-learning. While the IDI cannot commit to any of these potential projects at this time, they are in the forefront of its organizational thinking on e-learning.

E-learning Training Leading to Qualifications

One of the most significant reasons learners drop out of e-learning courses is a lack of motivation. Learners are generally more motivated if they know they will receive a recognized qualification at the end of a course, and the IDI has for some time wanted to pursue more long-term courses leading to accredited qualifications. However, this would require the full backing of the INTOSAI community to build modules in, for example, performance or financial auditing that would generate credits in masters programs at major academic institutes. The modules would have to be extremely robust to meet the requirements of academic institutions, and the design and development work would be time-consuming. This is a vision for the future, and perhaps a distant future.

Developing E-learning Courses within Regions and SAIs

With the development of its Long Term Regional Training Program (LTRTP) in 1996—which has now been delivered at least once in all regional working groups—the IDI committed itself to establishing sustainable training infrastructures so that regional working groups will ultimately not have to look beyond the boundaries of their own regions to find the skills and experience to develop regional workshops. In many regions this is now a reality. The IDI is aware of the risks to regional sustainability and self-sufficiency in developing e-learning strategies. As there is a community of regional training specialists in each region, why not a community of regional e-learning developers as well? Tools for straightforward self-development are becoming more common and accessible (as well as cheaper and available in multiple languages). By giving suitable training and tools to the right people in regional working groups, the IDI could help develop regional capacity to develop national and regional e-learning courses.

Standardization of E-learning Products

The e-learning market is slowly developing standards that, in the future, will give assurance that standardized e-learning products can be reusable. The standard that is favored to lead the way is SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), a specification that provides some assurance of accessibility, reusability, and interoperability for e-learning courses developed within a learning management system (LMS). An LMS is an integrated piece of software that manages the learning process, including tracking learner interactions, managing test results, and highlighting those learners not progressing through courses at the correct pace. In simple terms, SCORM-compliant systems should be able to reuse e-learning courses and modules. Within INTOSAI, one possible e-learning scenario would give SAIs the opportunity to swap e-learning modules. In the IDI context, that would be a significant goal. Just as the IDI has opened access to quality-assured classroom course materials through its International
Training Directory (see http://www.idi.no/english/directory/index.asp), SAIs would maximize the value of their e-learning creations to the INTOSAI community by developing a series of SCORM-compliant e-learning objects. In the future, the IDI will consider drafting guidance to SAIs on the development of standardized e-learning objects.

This article has attempted to identify only a few of the many e-learning issues relevant to the SAI context at this time. Since e-learning is a constantly changing discipline, market, and profession, the IDI’s course of action is defined (by its strategic plan) only until the end of 2006. In the future, the IDI will continue to follow policies that represent the wishes of SAIs in developing countries. While the role of e-learning within any new IDI strategy is unclear at this time, the IDI will certainly be prepared to face the e-learning challenges of the future.

For additional information, contact the author at patrick.callaghan@idi.no.