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Many believe, “Digital Learning is great, but not for the real, deep stuff like getting from zero to certified professional". Can it take you all the way to certification? Latest data from SAP Learning suggests: it can!

by Stefan Haenisch, SVP and Head of Knowledge Transfer and Education, SAP Learning.

Digital learning has become ubiquitous. The Covid-19 pandemic has surely accelerated digital learning use cases and adoption, but the trend to digital has been clearly visible before and it is meant to stay after. The advantages are obvious. Only digital can bring learning to where the learner is, deliver knowledge updates instantly at massive reach, and enable learning in the flow of work - not to mention keeping cost of learning for all involved at manageable levels.

But how powerful is it really? Roughly 3 years ago, in a blog about the future of learning I reflected that while everyone loves digital learning for tuck-in skills – close a specific skill gap on demand, preferable in short micro-learning nuggets in YouTube-style - there is still wide-spread skepticism that for longer and deeper learning scenarios digital wouldn't cut it.

Still today, I hear reservations from colleagues, friends, customers, and even fellow learning experts in the industry, “If you want to learn a complete new skillset ‘from zero to hero’, this could of course only work with an instructor leading you through the training in a classroom” – so-called ‘instructor-led training’ or in short: ILT. Note that during pandemic times most ILT itself happens via digital means– at SAP we run ILT live classes very successfully via Zoom. Yet, ILT is still ILT, even if run virtually. From some peers in the software industry who also have great digital learning platforms we know that when it comes to a deep learning journey from novice to certified professional, more than 80% of their learners do not go digital in such a scenario but book themselves into an ILT academy instead.

There is little doubt, that digital learning is very effective for a lot of use cases. As a personal believer in its power, the question whether it can adequately replace even an ‘ILT academy’ made me curious: can digital carry you all the way through this very demanding learning scenario, up to passing a challenging certification exam that is designed according to tough ISO standards?

At SAP, we have come a long way in the transformation to digital learning. When I started to take on the lead of the Knowledge Transfer & Education team in 2013, education almost exclusively meant classroom ILT. Today, our digital learning platform, SAP Learning Hub, has far outgrown the reach of classroom, with hundreds of thousands of active learners around the globe. Add to that our highly successful MOOC (massive open online course) program openSAP with its close to one million course enrollments per year. Yet, in the past, learners brave enough to bet on digital learning for certification tracks remained rather the exception: for most, training for certification meant learning the proven classroom ILT way.

Until it flipped.

Already in 2019, we saw certification numbers outgrowing ILT academy participants in a way that could only mean the share of digital learning as a path to certification was on the rise. In 2020, this trend accelerated. We wanted to dig deeper into this, so starting last September we added a survey for certification exam takers, asking them about their primary method to prepare for the exam. Approximately 20% of all certification exam takers since then answered the voluntarily survey upon exam completion. This corresponds to data from 8,636 respondents from all over the globe and allows us to draw some first conclusions at a certain confidence level. The data so far shows surprisingly clear: digital learning has not only become an alternative way for some few ‘brave ones’ to prepare for certifications– it has become the dominating way:

For 61% of certification takers, SAP Learning Hub has been the main way to learn

This number is higher than expected. Add to this another 13% for openSAP (1,116 of 8,636), the total share of exam takers who prepared digitally is at a stunning 74%. On the other hand, classroom ILT and virtual ILT together only account for 8% of exam takers (701 of 8,636). Another 7% of exam takers claimed no participation in SAP Learning offerings, having acquired their skills via hands-on experience. The remaining ones didn’t specify a learning method or used ‘other’ sources.

The pandemic certainly plays a role. We do have to consider that the data so far stems from a time-period where most of the world has been in lock-down. Our ILT offerings have mostly run only in their virtual variant, the lack of physical ILT leading to a significantly lower number of total participants than we were used to before the pandemic. Yet, the share of digital learning for certifications is so stunningly high, that even if one foresees a ‘rebound’ and strong uplift of ILT percentages after the pandemic, say by factor 2-3, digital will still remain a mainstream – if not the mainstream - way for learners to prepare all the way through certification.

Looking at these findings, another question is interesting:

How about the quality and effectiveness of learning? Is a digital learner equally well prepared for a successful certification exam?

We therefore started measuring pass rates by learning method (since October).

On average, SAP certification pass rates are at roughly 70%. Average pass rates of the participants who voluntarily submitted the survey are higher, at 86%. This by itself is perhaps no surprise, as one would expect that successful exam takers are more likely to fill out a survey. But one fact has become clear:

Exam pass rates show digital learning methods to be equally effective as traditional ones:

  • Exam takers with hands-on experience – the pros with a long track record of real projects – reach the highest pass rates at 91%.

  • Very close to this are already the ones who learned with SAP Learning Hub, at 87%.

  • The Learning Hub pass rates are even 2ppt higher than the ones who prepared via ILT at 85% total pass rate (89% virtual live class and 84% classroom).

  • openSAP achieves an impressive 85%, too – even though it has not even been designed to prepare for certifications.

So from an SAP Learning perspective: yes, digital learning does cut it, even for the deep and complex certification learning use cases. Many learners go the digital route, and they are successful in terms of pass rate.

But this is not a given. To make that happen, we believe, digital learning needs certain ingredients, that go way beyond traditional ‘e-learning’. To get a great overview of best practices we have experienced at SAP, I would recommend the following blog The Future of Digital Enablement by my colleague Markus Schunter.

When it comes to the sophisticated zero-to-certification learning use case discussed here, I see the following topics as  particularly important for success: learner-centric design, great content, hands-on practice, peer-to-peer collaboration, and not the least learner guidance, motivation and coaching.

Watch out for a follow-up blog to come soon on how to get these elements right!


DISCLAIMER: I would like to explicitly point out that I do NOT suggest that the findings above would be transferrable one-to-one to the home-schooling scenarios our children experience them around the world due to pandemic politics. Yes, many schools have made great progress in providing remote education similar the ILT live class approach described above, and from a learning methodology perspective they could surely further benefit from adopting one or the other finding here… But let’s be clear, this article focusses on learning scenarios for post-graduate ADULT education in professional skills, in this case acquiring SAP software skills as required for example by consultants, developers, customer administrators and other roles. Children education is a different beast altogether and, in my humble opinion, must not lack a large amount of in-person social human interaction with classmates and teachers - digital home-schooling should therefore never replace in-person school for a longer period of time.