Desktop Decisions

first_img Previous Article Next Article E-learningis being heralded as the new method for training staff in virtual classroomsutilising the capabilities of the Internet or intranet, thus cutting the costsof training expenditure. John Robinson looks at the pros and cons of using thislatest technological innovationAswith everything related to the Internet, it seems, e-learning has been hyped asrevolutionary. It will supposedly change the way organisations delivertraining, improve the learning experience of millions of employees in thousandsof organisations around the world and make us wonder how companies ever managedwhen all they had were books, classrooms, flip charts and trainers.Aglance at some of the e-learning courses available can be enough to convinceeven the most ardent sceptic of their value. A mixture of flashy graphics,vibrant colour, video and audio and barely a boring text page to be seen comescomplete with sophisticated testing and monitoring software. Bulletin boards,chat rooms and virtual classrooms complete an impressive looking array offeatures for students and training managers. And the best thing is, so the sellgoes, that because e-learning is Internet-based you should also be able toslash training costs.Soshould you believe the hype? Or will e-learning drift into obscurity asnumerous other much-acclaimed technology-based training methods have in thepast?Asa clue, a similar level of brouhaha was attached to online recruitment when itemerged six years ago or so. But while it has certainly had an impact, newspapersand trade magazines still have healthy-sized job sections and recruitmentagencies are doing better than ever. Online recruitment will never be thecomplete solution for most organisations and the same principle applies toe-learning.Butthis is not necessarily the message HR and training managers will hear frome-learning vendors. “Eighty per cent of e-learning providers are simply jumpingon the bandwagon,” says Jan Hagen, head of the solutions group at e-learningcourse producer “There are a lot of very clever people in theworld of technology who have come up with some very clever solutions to thingswhich are not yet problems.”Amajor problem with the market at the moment, contends Hagen, is that someproviders offering e-learning solutions are managed by technology expertsrather than trainers. One outcome is that many courses have hundreds of back-upfeatures, monitoring systems and other flashy management features but poorcontent. Training management is all very well but it is a distant second inimportance behind the quality of the courses.E-learninghas many advantages over classroom-based training methods, including theability for the user to learn in short bursts, at their own pace, in their owntime and be able to put that learning into practice immediately they finish themodule. MatsJohansson, CEO of e-learning provider Futuremedia says that online learning hasthe additional benefit of allowing firms to train suppliers and customers aswell as in-house staff. “I would call it the best opportunity for training andHR to get more involved in other aspects of the business,” says Johansson.“When I look at where e-learning is happening, HR and training managers areonly getting into 50 per cent of the action. Delivering e-learning courses tothe supply chain and customers will be bigger than in-house training and yet HRis never involved in those discussions.”Aprimary weakness though, is that because learning is a solitary experience infront of a computer screen, people will switch off if they are not stimulatedwith something new throughout the course. “Factually correct content does notmean a good course. It is the instruction, design and other methods that keepthe learner interested,” says Hagen.“Ifyou teach via a screen you do not have that human interaction, so you have toassume the user is getting bored all the time. Companies go out of their way tochoose a trainer who can present in an engaging and valuable way, then they areevaluated at the end of the course. With e-learning it is often the other wayround.”Criticsof e-learning even doubt whether the technique offers anything in the way of alearning experience for users. They argue that technology is dictating the wayindividuals learn rather than supporting the educational process.DrPaul Taylor, lecturer in sociology of technology at the University of Salford,states that levels of cognition are lower with e-learning than traditionalmethods of teaching. “It is the ‘Macdonald’s-isation’ of the educationprocess,” he says. “It is cheap and a quick fix but of no value.” This line isoverly harsh but there is no doubt that there are courses out there which wouldstruggle to hold even the most dedicated learner’s attention.Anotherdownside of the dominance of technology in e-learning is that employers areencouraged to buy a whole suite of training packages – as if they were buyingMicrosoft Office, say – rather than picking the few which are most suitable fortheir needs. “Companies move away from what is the logical way forward, whichis to look at which courses they need to achieve their objectives. Suddenlythey buy everything the vendor has because they are looking for total coveragerather than single, quality courses,” says Hagen. “It’s an insane way of buyingtraining but this is the way e-learning is sold by the vendors.”Theprocess of buying and implementing e-learning courses should be no differentfrom any other training courses. There has to be a business need for deliveringthe course and a desired outcome for all those who attend. No training managerin his or her right mind would buy every classroom course on offer, telleveryone in the company the courses exist and leave it up to staff whether theywant to attend. The same applies to e-learning, yet as is so often the casewith Internet-related activities, logic can be lost amid the desire torevolutionise.Ife-learning courses are introduced en masse, the benefits will probably be lostbecause the culture of most organisations cannot support such a huge change. Alot of money will be wasted in the process.Learningfrom the desktop rather than the classroom requires discipline from staff tolog on to the courses regularly and not be distracted by their other duties. Italso takes trust on the part of managers that employees are not wasting time onirrelevant courses and are getting real value out of the learning. Mostimportantly, staff need to know what modules are there, how to get to them,what they are for and which ones are for them.“Youcannot just put all the training onto the Net and then expect everyone to useit. Organisations need to realise what training culture they have ande-learning should be delivered in the same way,” says Hagen. “If you don’t havea self-study culture in the company, e-learning is not going to create it.”Ifemployees are used to being told they are going on a two-day course, then inthe same way they should be told they are going on an e-learning course. Or,more likely, that they are going on a one-day instructor-led course which willrequire some preparatory work via an e-learning module over the next month andfurther e-learning module(s) and a test after the classroom day. The time toundertake this can then be arranged with line managers.Toavoid a costly culture clash and dozens of expensive unused courses, e-learningneeds to be implemented on a small scale first with individual high-qualitycourses which meet a specific business need. If the first one works thenfurther modules, if they are of the required standard, can be introduced later.This builds up a culture of self-learning in the organisation and preventsstaff becoming cynical about the technology.“Thegolden rule is to pilot, test and acknowledge what you can and cannot do. Don’tjump in and put 46 courses on a server before you know how, who and where theyare going to be used,” says sales and marketing director of knowledge=powerNicholas Thurlow. “Unlessyou do this, the whole area will be rubbished in the same way CBT was 10 yearsago. The end-user will rebel and you will spend two years navel-gazing aboutwhy it doesn’t work.”Ifstaff feel their only learning option is to plough through a host of boringcourses which have poor content and little user interaction they will also loserespect for the organisation. Employees feel valued when they are sent ontraining courses because they can see the investment being put into theirdevelopment. By the same token, they will know they are being short-changed ifthey are force-fed inadequate e-learning courses. “Peoplereally enjoy classroom training – it is a big perk. Staff can get their handsdirty, work through scenarios and speak to a knowledgeable consultant,” saysHagen. “The way e-learning is being delivered at the moment in some organisationsis like a punishment to the end-user. What too many employers are saying is‘You do your 40- or 50-hour week and find half-an-hour in your own time to workthrough this course’”.Goode-learning vendors should insist you start slowly in introducing e-learning,provide one or two quality courses and work with you to build up a biggerlibrary of modules over time. Those who place coverage of as many topics aspossible before quality are to be ignored.Implementingone or two courses will also give the organisation time to put in place therequired IT infrastructure. The demand online learning places on companynetworks is a prime reason why most are not ready to implement the technologyyet. For a start, an employer needs an intranet or access to the Internet onthe desktop before it can even entertain the idea of e-learning. E-learning isnot CD-Rom-based training. Equally, it is not a learning centre stuffed full ofPCs with courses loaded on the hard drive. Internetor intranet delivery of courses is the differentiating factor with previoustechnology-based training and, as a result, implementing e-learning requires arobust IT infrastructure. For companies which do not have an intranet, thee-learning vendor can usually host the courses on its own Website. Employeesthen access these via their PC using a password and do the relevant modules,which are still tailored to the company as if it were running them on its ownnetwork. Evenso, most networks do not have the capacity, or bandwidth, to deal with some ofthe technology e-learning providers can supply, irrespective of who hosts thecourses. Video, for instance, is a non-starter unless the organisation hasmassive network bandwidth and high specification PCs. If it has not got these,the end-user will have a highly frustrating experience. “Themost impressive e-learning content in the world is useless if people cannot getat it easily or if the bandwidths it requires to run cause the organisation togrind to a halt,” says Kevin Young, managing director of e-learning firmSkillSoft. “Organisations have to ensure training can be made available throughthe existing network and can be deployed with minimum effect on networkperformance.”Theneed to get the technology right before you take on e-learning is one reasonwhy the prime misconception about e-learning – that it is a way to slashtraining budgets – is false. For most employers a sizeable investment innetwork infrastructure, PCs and software will be needed to implemente-learning. In the long term it might reduce training expenditure but thestart-up costs are high. IT and high-tech firms are the main adopters at themoment precisely because they already have the technology in place.JamesHunt, head of capability development at insurance company Pearl says it isdeveloping an e-learning strategy but with a high degree of caution. “Thestart-up costs are astronomical and we will not get the return until later. Itbecomes a very ineffective tool with users who don’t use it,” he says.Hiscaution is well placed. E-learning can be an invaluable asset to training if itis implemented methodically, with a sharp focus on what learning goals it is tomeet and with no pretensions that it will replace all other methods.Thehistory of training delivery in most firms will be stained by a botched attemptto use new technology to improve training delivery. Learning centres with rowsof CD-Roms neatly lined up and sparkling PCs virtually untouched by human handstand as testimony to how an apparently failsafe training idea can turn into amassive white elephant. And an intranet stuffed full of e-learning coursesno-one uses is a less visible, but just as costly, virtual white elephant.Thepace of change is placing fresh demands on training in the telecoms industry.To learn how one firm is reacting, see John Robinson’s article Siemens and itslifelong e-learning relationship at a list of e-learning solution providers go to Philips adopts e-training to speedily update staffTelecomsfirm Philips Business Communications adopted an e-learning strategy because itwanted to expand its capabilities as an organisation from being simply asupplier of communications systems to a provider of additional systemintegration and value-added services. Thecompany had previously relied on predominantly classroom-based training butthis approach alone was deemed too slow to quickly upskill its 1,500 staff innew products and services.Duringthe first phase of the process, Philips identified the competencies itsemployees would need to develop, market, install and maintain a bigger and moresophisticated range of products and services.Itthen assessed the existing skills of each individual to build a profile of thehuman capabilities of the organisation. After comparing the findings of the twophases, Philips’ HR team identified the weaknesses and hired e-learningprovider SmartForce to come up with a training solution.HRmanager Christoph Bonert says the organisation chose e-learning as a method ofdelivery because training could begin as soon as competency gaps wereidentified. “It is becoming more important for companies to create the toolsand methodologies for employees to take greater responsibility for their owndevelopment.” “Forthis to happen, learning tools must be flexible and promote more efficient andproductive use of time.” Thee-learning programme initially focused on employees involved in sales andservice functions at the company’s National Service Offices and will ultimatelybe deployed as a tool for company-wide competence management.DefinitionsTBTTechnology-based training is a broad term which encompasses any learningtechniques which involve computers and electronic tools. Most TBT applicationsare distributed via CD-Roms and the Internet. Using a multitude of media suchas text, animation, audio and video, TBT seeks to deliver information with ahigh degree of user involvement and interaction. Thepopularity of TBT has historically been driven by a need for quick, reliableaccess to learning in a low-cost manner. Many organisations use designatedlearning centres containing all the required technology to deliver this form oftraining.CBTFor as long as there have been computers, there has been computer-basedtraining and the term is now seen by many as rather tired. CBTis any training that uses a computer as the focal point for instructionaldelivery. Coursesare provided through the use of a computer and software, which guides a learnerthrough an instructional program. Typically these are stored on a CD-Rom whichthe student loads to begin the course. CBTis especially effective for training people to use software applicationsbecause the CBT program can be integrated with the applications so thatstudents can practice with it as they learn. E-LearningThe distinctive feature of electronic leaning is that courses are deliveredover the Internet or an in-house intranet. Students can choose e-learningpackages, which typically involve a fast-changing mix of audio, graphics, textand occasionally video, from their desktop computer. They can be any length oftime from five minutes to hours, enabling the user to dip in and out as theyneed. Courses usually include tests and software to enable managers to monitorwho is using the system and the progress of students. Courses can either behosted on the company intranet or by the course provider on a designatedInternet site. The user then logs into the courses via a password.FlexibleLearningFlexible learning is a catch-all term for training in which the student hasgreater choice over what to learn, how it is learned and assessed, and when andwhere the learning happens. It is virtually interchangeable with the term openlearning. Any media can be used in flexible learning depending on the learningoutcome desired. Students tend to study primarily in their own time and placewith infrequent or no face-to-face contact with one another or with trainers. Ahigh degree of self-assessment may also be involved. Flexible learning isstrongly linked with distance learning.DistanceLearningThe central tenet of distance learning is that the learner can access trainingmaterials away from the workplace. To do this they will use telecomstechnologies and more commonly e-mail, electronic forums, videoconferencing andother forms of computer-based communication. Most distance learning programsinclude a CBT system and communications tools to produce a virtual classroom toprovide some interaction with other students and trainers. The Internet is nowserving as the foundation for many distance learning systems because it can beaccessed from all computer platforms.Yourguide to e-learningAsthis feature shows, e-learning is a confusing concept to grasp. Multipledefinitions, hundreds of suppliers, thousands of products, a great deal ofjargon. As with all technologies, it will take time for the dust to settle,allowing a clearer view of exactly what e-learning is, what it involves and howit can directly benefit your business or organisation.PersonnelToday has got together with easycando to produce a comprehensive guide toe-learning which explains how to deliver high-quality targeted knowledge andtraining direct to individual desktops using Internet or intranet connections.Free with next week’s issue. 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