The Internet provides a viable solution to the age-old problem. Thanks to the capabilities of the Web browser, individuals worldwide can engage in what has been dubbed asynchronous training. "People can log on from different places at different times. It's not related to time or geography," explains Linda Irwin, director of business development for the International School of Information Management (ISIM), a Denver company that has developed customized business-management programs for the likes of Xerox, Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Defense.
Distance learning is rooted in the idea that communications technology can bring people together and actually improve the teaching process. At Xerox Management Institute (XMI) in Leesburg, Virginia, for example, work team members from the United States, Europe and South America log onto ISIM's Web site and access study guides, resumes, introductions from other students and discussion threads as well as interact with an ISIM instructor. They post homework assignments for other participants to read and explore hyperlinks that lead to further information on various topics. Classes are typically limited to 10 or fewer students who log on whenever it's convenient.
There's a range of benefits. For XMI, distance learning has translated into lower costs and greater participation. After a two- to four-day initial meeting, students spend eight to 10 hours a week (for a total of 10 weeks) within the confines of cyberspace. They might access the program from work, a PC at home or while they're on the road.
"It's a great leveler," says Lida Henderson, program manager for XMI's Leading the Enterprise program. "Titles and grades aren't as important. People learn to communicate in different—and often better—ways. The program facilitates teamwork and getting people to think strategically. It helps them integrate knowledge into their jobs. Essentially, this kind of instruction wouldn't be possible without the Internet."
These courses save companies money. An eight-week session for 10 employees might cost in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $1,500 per student. And although that might be comparable to a traditional classroom, it cuts out air travel, hotels and meals—typically 50 percent or more of the cost of providing training. More importantly, "Distance learning drives behavioral change," says Henderson. It encourages people to gain critical skills necessary in their work environment.
Workforce, March 1997, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 81-84.