Technology and training

Remember the first time you heard the words computer-based training? For some of us, that fateful day could have been up to 30 years ago. The message then was the same as the message today — computers can help people learn. Even though the message is the same, the messenger is looking a lot different these days.

What’s new
First, delivery systems have improved. More computing power has allowed trainers to spice up CBT with audio, video, interactive animation, 3D graphics and real-time conferencing. Internet protocol tools such as HTML, XML and Java have helped to popularize the computer network as the delivery platform of choice. Any system that can display a browser such as Netscape or Internet Explorer can be a tool for serving up media-rich learning content. The Internet has placed the “e” squarely in the forefront of learning. Online is the preferred delivery mechanism.

Second, instructional design has improved. More and more e-learning developers are moving away from the static page-turners or PowerPoint style templates that defined CD-based training in the past.

Networked computers make synchronous online learning events possible. They encourage communities of learning to develop and sustain themselves. Individual learners can use online systems to create their own lifelong learning plans that take advantage of the strengths of all forms of learning opportunities. Successful learning strategies can now include online and offline learning events, classroom-based and workplace-based learning, instructor- or learning facilitator-led interactions, skills-based and knowledge-based development, and just-in-time learning.

Third, workplace trainers and HR professionals are realizing the power of data collection and mining. Through learning management, administrators collect, organize, disseminate and track not just information and knowledge within the organization but the effects of that information on the behaviours of individuals.

Through the effective collection and use of data, trainers can improve their learning offerings and methods continually.

Fourth, network delivery of learning is moving closer to the job. By creating increasingly smaller learning objects or knowledge “chunks” and mapping those objects to individual workplace competencies, e-learning systems can be used to configure training content to meet targeted, competency-specific learning needs. A learner or administrator, for example, would review the map and select the suggested number of learning objects to learn about behaviour X. By selecting, they would be calling the learning objects from an online repository. These objects, taken together, would provide enough information and practice to learn how to do behaviour X competently. Each object would include all that is required to master the concept: knowledge, example and practice. The learner may read about the knowledge required to be competent, view an example of what it takes to be competent and actually practice the behaviour to achieve competency. Once competency X was complete, the learner might review the map and notice that if they take three of the objects they’ve mastered for behaviour X and add another two they can begin working on competency in behaviour Y.

The networked system allows users to call up an infinite number of learning objects combined in an infinite number of ways. Learners can self-direct their workplace learning based on their career goals. Workplace helpers can create career and professional development plans with employees that align both individual and organizational goals. These plans can then be executed online and on demand.

What is innovative
Innovation in the e-learning world comes in three areas: content, learning management and technology. On the content side, courseware developers are creating learning products that allow learners to choose their preferred learning style and learning path.

The best of these tools offer the same learning content rendered in several ways — in text and images for visual learners, using sound for auditory learners and providing interactive simulation and practice for those who appreciate learning by doing.

This approach is being made cost-effective by using new computer modeling languages such as XML and EML (education modeling language) to identify or tag learning objects. Through tagging, individual learning objects can be stored in the computer’s memory to be reused and regrouped to meet the needs of individual learning strategies and to align with organizational competencies. Pictures, sound files, animations, video and text can be catalogued, saved and called into service to help learners achieve workplace competencies.

Learning management system (LMS) software has become the operating system of corporate e-learning. In the same way Microsoft Windows powers your PC, learning management software knits together the different components of a learning strategy: competencies, learning objects, modules, courses, tests and certifications.

With more than 100 commercially available LM systems on the market ranging in price from $350 to close to $1 million, the LMS world is a complex one. The best of these tools provide ways for both learners and administrators to manage registration and enrollment, track success in courses, connect competency profiles to available courses, deliver online courses, manage testing and issue certificates.

On the technology side, innovative organizations are looking for ways to address the initial and ongoing maintenance costs of an e-learning system while also trying to cut time to implement.

Application service providers (ASP) are offering LMS and content online and on a price per user basis. Effectively, ASPs allow users to “rent” software over the Internet rather than purchase and install it on internal systems.

LMSs cut development time and start-up costs. They also provide a wide range of functions that would otherwise be unavailable for small- and medium-sized enterprises.

While the jury is still out on the ASP model for delivering online learning, it is proving to be an effective alternative for those trying to avoid the cost of ownership.

What is effective
The most effective e-learning systems foster a systematic approach to corporate learning. A learning system must:

•meet the needs of learners and administrators;

•be based on long-term goals;

•be rolled out in incremental steps, with a final objective in mind (systems that are built in an ad hoc way risk missing the considerable benefits of tracking and management that can be realized with an integrated system as well as the incursion of considerable costs from retracing steps should some bad choices be made);

•connect learning content with organizational expectations;

•foster learning as a process rather than an event; and

•measure both learning and the effects of learning in the workplace — this measurement must feed back into a continuous improvement quality loop.

Effective systems take into account the degree to which you will need to customize and adapt the system over time. Adding content or other features, such as an online bulletin board or tracking of learner assignments, shouldn’t bankrupt your company. Since many e-learning systems, especially LMSs are proprietary systems that are difficult to enhance or customize, effective systems are those that meet current needs well but also provide some room to grow. They track different learning delivery methods such as face-to-face, self-directed, asynchronous and synchronous learning opportunities and also provide options for the future.

What are the challenges
Purchasing an end-to-end e-learning system off the shelf is not for the faint of heart. The bad news is a good system — including learning management, off-the-shelf content, some customized content, hardware and specialized tools such as database storage systems — can run up to $1 million just to get going. The good news is that with a well-planned system, and some good choices, the start-up costs needn’t be prohibitive.

A clear set of goals with a strong roll out strategy allows users to build a system over time while gaining buy-in within the organization.

An equally daunting challenge, and one that has a significant effect on cost, is the “buy or build” challenge. Do you need generic, off-the-shelf training or training that is customized to your workplace? With generic training you get going quickly but corporate goals and the realities of your workplace will not be embedded in the training.

With generic training, one price fits all; it costs the same whether the material is highly important to your organization or not. And what happens when it comes time to add some of original content to an existing generic system?

Customized training, on the other hand, may cost more to develop but also offers some significant benefits. For example, the opportunity to maximize existing content, control outcomes to meet exact specifications and the opportunity to make choices about where to blow the budget and where to conserve — a rule of thumb, spend more on mission critical activities, less on skills of lesser importance.

The customized approach means being prepared to research the e-learning services market for providers to help customize content and management functions. The alternative is to scope the project yourself then hire and manage the graphic designers and programmers.

The customized approach also provides the choice of authoring your own courses. Beware though, many who expected to save money this way have been disappointed. The learning curve for most authoring software can be steep, as can the curve employees are required to climb to understand effective approaches to online learning. This is true for trainers themselves.

For most instructional designers, the first few courses end up being online page-turners or worse, courses that no one uses.

Finally, a major challenge is choosing an effective learning model. An off-the-shelf solution provides the learning model; with a customized system you have to create the learning model yourself. Will you operate synchronous learning events or provide mostly self-directed learning? Will you use a high degree of interactivity such as games and simulation, or is your main learning goal to provide access to materials? The short answer is: create a blended learning system that uses all methods where advantageous. Decisions about how to blend the learning should be tackled during the strategy and planning phase.

Aside from cost and the buy or build conundrum, two other challenges are worth noting here: user support and maintenance. While these challenges occur post-installation, they have a significant effect on users’ perception of the overall quality of the system.

Learner support includes both support for the information being taught, as well as technical support to assist with use of the technology involved.

Users are learning about the course content as presented but at the same time, they are also learning how to use computers and they are actually learning how to learn on a computer.

Plan to support learners in each one of these activities. Provide computer-use tutorials and make sure users have someone with whom to discuss online learning approaches. Computer-mediated coaching through e-mail or real-time interaction can go a long way to improving user participation especially in the early stages of implementation.

A revolution in training
Stand-alone CBT is giving way to network-based learning powered by Internet protocol technologies. The ability to track and administer online and offline learners, build, distribute and manage media-rich learning content, and offer choice and control to workplace learners is revolutionizing every part of the training function. Training is increasingly seen as an ongoing process that is continually shaped and changed to meet the demands of the organization.

For those who pursue a systematic approach to training, the reward is an effective tool to manage corporate learning in an increasingly competitive business landscape.

Brendan Nagle is the CEO of Technologies for Learning Group, a Winnipeg-based e-learning services provider. He designs and builds e-learning systems, teaches management at colleges and universities, writes textbooks and speaks widely on the topic of workplace-based learning and the role of e-learning. He can be reached through the TLG Web site at or at [email protected].

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