- E-learning's increasing popularity

LONDON, England (CNN) -- At the height of the dotcom boom, e-learning was tipped as the next big thing in workplace education, with experts predicting that the future was online.

In 2001, with companies scrambling to jump on the bandwagon, market research company IDC wildly predicted that the global e-learning market would be worth $23 billion by 2004.

Most of the companies that raced into that market ended up tripping over themselves in the rush to make money.

Often the education experience was secondary to the technology, in which companies were expected to sink big budgets for little immediate return.

And workers used to classroom tuition resented being expected to learn at their desk around their regular work, or having to use off-the-shelf courses of little immediate relevance to their jobs.

Yet e-learning now appears set for a second, more modest surge. According to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development last year, more than half of managers are now involved in some sort of e-learning.

It is one of the fastest growing sectors in the education market, worth $4-5 billion a year already and poised for further growth.

As Duncan Clark, the CEO of British e-learning market leaders Epic Group, puts it, the Internet is now the world's largest learning resource.

"You've got to look not at what a dictionary definition of e-learning is," said Clark. "You've got to think anything that's delivered on the web electronically at a computer that people can participate in."

One company that turned to Epic to transform its managerial education resources is Barclays Bank.

Working with Barclays, Epic designed a series of online modules in subjects such as performance, decision making and team-working to be used in combination with more traditional classroom-based teaching.

"There are a number of examples of employees valuing e-learning," said Paul Rudd, the director of the Barclays University Business School.

"They can feel very sure that they are not going to make fools of themselves in front of others. Any questions they want to ask they can, through the learning advisors we have here, or through posting questions on the Web site, but at the end of the day there will always be a role for face-to-face learning"

But while there may be a growing recognition that companies need to incorporate an element of e-learning into a "blended learning" experience, e-learning consultant Jane Massy believes many companies are still choosing short-term savings over long-term investment in the medium.

"Investments in technology, because they tend to have a larger upfront capital cost, are expected to demonstrate better return on investment than other investments in training," said Massy.

"A recent global McKinsey study has shown most IT investments today take quite a significant time to see a reasonable return -- probably five to seven years. The reason for that is that you need significant organizational systems change and behavior change in order to leverage the value from that investment."

For Epic Group's Donald Clark, it's all about convincing fellow CEOs to take the plunge on something that many not deliver a tangible return for some time.