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Better Training is Just a Click Away

December 28, 2000
Related Topics: Training Technology, Featured Article
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When Ted Lehne, Delta Airline’smanager of instructional technology, wanted to cut the time and money it took totrain customer-service personnel, he turned to online training. A year later,nearly 70 percent of Delta’s customer-service workforce gets annual requiredFAA training via the Internet.

    “We get ravereviews about it,” says Lehne. “It used to take an average of six to eighthours for these courses when they were paper-based; now employees can do it inan hour or less. It’s more effective, too, because they are engaged ininteractive activities.” Course participation and test results are tracked, so Lehne and other managers can verify that employees are not onlycompleting their training but also scoring as they should.

    E-learning has alsosaved the airline a significant amount of money. “Training costs are a majorfactor for us because our workforce is dispersed across 115 airports,” saysLehne. “Prior to online training, employees had to travel to one of fivetraining centers, keeping them away from their jobs for at least a day.”

    Welcome tocyberschool, training New Millennium-style. Nearly 30 percent of all IT-relatedand business skill courses in the U.S. are now technology-based, according toIDC Research. It’s becoming so prevalent that The American Society forTraining and Development (ASTD) announced in October that it plans to developstandards for certifying Web-based training courses.

    Stephen Barkley,executive vice president of Performance Learning Systems, Inc., which createsWeb-based training programs, says online learning is becoming common in bothprivate and public sectors. “There’s no discussion anymore about whether ornot this is going to happen; it’s about how quickly it’s going to happen,”he says.

    Barkley comparese-learning and instructor-led learning to a microwave versus a conventionaloven. “When the microwave first came out, everyone saw what it couldn’t do.Then people figured out it could make popcorn, and it sold like wildfire,” hesays. “It’s settled down to the point where you don’t build every housewith one in it, although every house still has a conventional oven.”

    Whether or not everybusiness will have an e-learning component in its training program remains to beseen. It will depend largely on the advantages of online training, in terms ofeconomics and effectiveness.

    Monte Rosen, vicepresident of marketing for AdvanceOnline, Inc., whose Web-based trainingprograms focus on worker safety and HR-related issues, says the company’sresearch shows little difference in effectiveness between online, CD-ROM, orinstructor-led training. “But we think Web-based training is certainly moreeconomical and convenient. For a small investment, you can train a lot ofpeople. A small company might want every employee to take a sexual harassmentcourse, but to bring in instructors would be cost-prohibitive. Doing it onlineis much less expensive, and you can track who took it and who didn’t, how muchtime they spent on the courses, even see how they answered specificquestions,” says Rosen.

    Web-based coursesare often taught in conjunction - or “blended” - with instructor-ledcourses, which cuts down training time but still allows for hands-ondemonstrations. For instance, AdvanceOnline offers a blended course in forkliftsafety. The course used to take eight hours; now it’s an hour. “They stillhave to show the supervisor that they know how to use the equipment, but we givemuch of the rest of the information to them via the Web,” says Rosen.

    Barkley saysPerformance Learning Systems has built a number of training programs for publicschool teachers over the past 30 years. Historically, live instructors taught a45-hour program. The trainers had to be trained themselves, and the program hadto be field-tested and tweaked until it was right. Four years ago the companybegan online delivery of many of those courses.

    Performance LearningSystems offers both synchronous and asynchronous online courses; asynchronouscourses are taken independently, while synchronous courses are taught to a groupof people online at the same time. Asynchronous courses, says Barkley, give theparticipant flexibility. “After you put the kids to bed, you can log on andwork for an hour or so, and you get all the time you need. You can go back andreview a piece if you didn’t get it.”

    Laura Friedman, whohandles the online training courses offered by the New York Institute ofFinance, says the institute now offers Web-based courses to financial companieslooking for a convenient, cost-effective way to train professionals online.“Right now we’re three-quarters of the way through a project that involves87 hours of online training for financial professionals. The training contains20 different courses, from the most basic to the very complex,” she says.

    The flexibility ofWeb-based training is especially appealing to those whose schedules simplycan’t accommodate the block of time required for a traditional class.“Online training is much better than trying to attend a class at night whenyou’ve got two kids at home who need you and you’re tired from a full day atthe office,” says Friedman.

    Another advantage tomanaging training online is that it solves the problem of verifying togovernment agencies like the FDA or OSHA that required training has, indeed,been done. “In regulated industries especially, Web-based training is a hugeboon,” says Dan Bartholomew, practice leader, e-learning solutions, for KPMGConsulting. “If a regulator comes in and says, ‘Show me that everyone inyour pharmaceutical plant has been trained in good manufacturing principles,’you would have the electronic record of who has been trained and how theyscored.”

    And there’s more.Delivering training via the Web means companies can update course materials andexaminations quickly and cheaply. Especially for the IT field - where subjectmatter changes overnight - updating paper training materials is enormouslytime-consuming and costly.

    Because onlinetraining is less expensive than many instructor-led courses, it’s also moreaccessible. Rather than limiting sexual harassment training to management, forexample, you can educate every level of employee - from receptionist on up -because the training can be done at their desks.

    But the pictureisn’t entirely rosy. A just-completed study of 10 companies by the ASTD lookedat the kinds of factors that prevent people from taking technology-basedtraining, either online or via a CD-ROM. Seven hundred employees across allsectors were surveyed.

    “We found thatpeople were less likely to take advantage of Web-based courses if the trainingis only offered at their desks. There are more distractions there, and peopleare also used to going to a classroom to learn because that’s where they spent20 years of their lives. They like to go someplace other than their cubicles.People like to go to a training center to do the learning, even if that learningis online,” says Mark Van Buren, director of research at the ASTD.

    The ASTD also foundthat courses which offer incentives motivate employees to take and finish acourse, whether the incentive is a contest or a certificate of recognition. Andthe most well-attended courses were “blended,” a combination of online andinstructor-led components.

    Monte Rosen ofAdvanceOnline says his company gets mixed feedback when it comes to trainingconducted exclusively online. “Those that go through the courses like it andwe get a lot of positive feedback. But the big issue is how do you get people toactually complete the courses? With a regularly scheduled course, you block itout on your calendar and you’re there. With the Web, you tend to put it offlonger,” he says.

    He recommends thatmanagers send automatic e-mail reminders about each course and its required completion date.AdvanceOnline often holds contests - everyone who completes a course by acertain date can win a digital camera or some other prize. Anything, says Rosen,to encourage students.

    Even if youremployees are motivated to partake of online training, building theinfrastructure needed for online delivery of course material is a substantialinvestment. Aside from physical facilities, companies have to provide hardware,software, project systems, and networks. In response, state-of-the-art trainingfacilities have sprung up around the country, such as Knowledge DevelopmentCenters of Columbus, Ohio. The company’s high-profile clients - such asMicrosoft, Oracle, Cisco, and Sun Microsystems - teach classes for employees andcustomers at its 18 facilities.

    For those who choosenot to use outside facilities, companies like Digital Pipe Inc. in Foster City,California, will build a network for delivering content-rich, Web-based courses.Digital Pipe deploys a network layer on top of a company’s existing IT networkto distribute digital video.

    “Most existingnetworks don’t open up to large Internet connectivity points, and if they wantto download something onto their networks - something with video - it takes along time because video is a very large data file. We get around the bottlenecksbecause we know where the points of failure are,” says Fabrizio Ornani, acofounder of the company and vice president of marketing communications.

    Using video, audio,and interactivity for e-learning can create a very dynamic environment,increasing retention and attention levels, says Ornani. But the majority ofthose interviewed for this article believe that, no matter how dynamic, onlinelearning is a tool to be used in conjunction with a live instructor.

    At the New YorkInstitute of Finance, for example, feedback from online training programs hasbeen positive, and the institute has tried to make it as compelling as possible,using graphics, audio, and animation. Yet Laura Friedman still feels thatinstructor-led courses are the most effective way to train. “In an idealsituation, you’d have 8 to 10 students during the day, after a good night’ssleep, with a great instructor. But let’s face it, that’s prettyunlikely,” she says. “And how much does that really cost to achieve?”

Workforce, January 2001, Vol80, No 1, pp. 36-42  SubscribeNow!

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