Virtual classrooms and training courses via cell phones are the next big thing in e-learning. As always, though, the challenge lies in how best to exploit the technology.
An instructor greets aclassroom, tells a few jokes and then starts a PowerPoint presentation on the day’s lesson. She asks for a show of hands as to how many of the participants have read the introductory material. Nearly all 70 reach for their mouse and click “yes.”
Neither students nor instructor sit together physically. They might even be on different continents, brought together via their computer monitors with virtual software tools featuring two-way audio and chat facilities, interactive response and still and animated visuals, all powered by high-speed broadband.
Since its birth around 20 years ago, e-learning has boomed in popularity. In the past five years alone, new e-learning media and methods have appeared like mushrooms after a rainstorm – as fast as technology has allowed them to. Businesses are discovering how these can save them time and money and at the same time disseminate knowledge faster and easier.
The global and competitive nature of modern business makes it important for multinational organizations to share best practices around their various sites. They need to know that the level of competence attained through a particular training intervention will be the same irrespective of the country or language in which the training is delivered. E-learning arguably offers this to a greater degree than traditional classroom-based training.
As with any medium, however, the challenge lies in how to best exploit the technology. E-learning must promote learning, not distract from it.
At its most basic, e-learning is training delivered by computerized technology. It falls into two categories: synchronous (for example, virtual classrooms, where people join over a network to participate in a lesson in real time) and asynchronous – computerized, self-paced study.
Most e-learning is the latter type, with tailor-made courses for internal staff, distributors or customers that help get people up to speed on specific processes or products. Many companies now use e-learning courses for employees to fulfil basic regulatory training requirements, for example.
The relatively new virtual classrooms are rapidly gaining market share, however, accounting for 25 percent of all formal training delivered in large business and government organizations, according to Ruth Clark, a specialist in instructional design and technical training and author of several books on e-learning. Clark is president of a US training and consulting company based in Colorado (www.clarktraining.com).
“Companies like these virtual classrooms,” she says. “They don’t have to send somebody somewhere. It means less time away from the workplace and travel cost savings.”
Still, despite their versatility, the new virtual classrooms have plenty of room for improvement on the technical and interactive sides. The progress will come, says Clark, who has helped e-learning grow from its birth as “computer-based training” in the early 1980s.
At the time, she says, it was mainly mainframe program simulations. “But then PCs evolved, which gave the opportunity to add visuals as well as audio. And then memory increased, which allowed for animation and simulations.” By this stage, around the early to mid-1990s, e-learning courses were largely contained on hard drives, diskettes or CD-ROMs.
“Then the Internet came around,” Clark says. “At first it was a giant step backwards, since bandwidth was so limited. We initially regressed from visuals with audio back to simple texts on the screens.”
With today’s broadbandaccess in most places, Web-based e-learning has caught up again. The next big thing is already knocking on the door: m-learning, or mobile learning, based on smart cell phones and wireless, handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants). The mobility of the medium is appealing, Clark says, but there is a touch of déjà vu to the current technology.
“It is still very new, but there’s only this little tiny screen to work with,” she says. “Until the technology evolves further, the visuals, audio and interactive facilities will be limited. Back to the future, once again.”
The real classroom is not dead yet, however. According to the 2005 State of the Industry Report from the American Society for Training & Develop-ment (ASTD), 70 percent of all formal training courses are provided in classrooms with live instructors. E-learning is often used in conjunction with traditional methods.
The whole learning pie is growing larger across the board, however. The level of investment in learning has increased, as well as the perception of its value in driving a company’s performance. “More so than ever before, an organization’s learning function is being run like any other business function, with increased attention on operational efficiency, accountability and connection to organizational strategy,” says Brenda Sugrue, senior director of research for ASTD and author of the 2005 report.
While e-learning grows, however, bad e-learning grows, too.
“Implementation gets easier and easier,” says Clark. “But then it gets easier and easier to put out ugly, sloppy stuff. We’ve all been to classroom events that weren’t effective. If you need to build knowledge and skills, ask yourself, ‘How do I effectively design and develop training that meets the goal from an instructional learning perspective? Is it better with face-to-face training? Synchronous or asynchronous e-learning? Do I want secondary or other support? Should there be a help line? Printed documents? Or, if I’m going to put a lot of info out there, why not just make a Web site?’”
Clark predicts that we will see e-learning itself evolve into something that better integrates learning and knowledge management. IT developers are finding new ways to capture and distribute expertise among organizations.
“In the past, e-learning has been a course, a classroom, a separate event,” says Clark. “We’re continuing to see more and more e-learning embedded into artefacts of the workplace. There is so much expertise to be distributed in any large organization. What are the ways we can capture and distribute this to everybody?”
If a new sales rep needs to learn to write a proposal, for example, he or she can have several templates available online, along with simulations and expert advice.
Or take almostany new software program, Clark says. Today, some applications may only use part of the screen, with training support available in the other portion, including step-by-step instructions embedded within the program. The need to buy a separate training course on how to use the program is gone.
This is good news for the future mobile work force that needs instant access to learning resources, she says. Maybe technicians on a repair call will be able to pull up trouble-shooting guides in the field from their cell phones. Sales representatives will be able to access product examples and simulations.
“These things are going to come automatically,” says Clark. “We will have more and more access to expertise. There will be fewer formal learning events and more lifelong, integrated learning.”
E-learning solutions at three levels
SKF Distributor College offers more than 20 online training courses for SKF distributors. The courses increase distributors’ knowledge about SKF products, which enables them to give greater assistance to their customers.
Madeleine Olausson, in SKF market communications, says the online courses offer a global way to supply consistent, accurate training that can be updated quickly. While local, in-person training is still prevalent in many countries, online sessions have seen a rapid growth over the past year, with new courses becoming available. Currently online sessions are available in 10 language versions, with three more in production.
“We often find that if people go in and take one or two courses, they’ll come back and take the remaining courses as well,” says Olausson.
The bulk of the current courses covers product features and applications. New industry courses look in detail at end-user industries and where SKF’s products are used in critical applications within those industries. The first of these courses covers aggregates and cement.
The new SKFReliability Maintenance Institute (RMI) On-line offers several basic courses for customers in asset management, condition monitoring and mechanical maintenance. The sessions, which come with tests and certificates of completion, complement the hands-on courses delivered by SKF’s specialist training staff.
RMI On-line, launched in 2006, is part of the SKF @ptitude Exchange Web site (http://www.aptitudexchange.com). “I think it will really take off as SKF trainers use it to complement their established methods and are able to offer appropriately blended training solutions to suit the specific needs of their customers,” says Mel Barratt, content manager, @ptitude Exchange. “Here’s something they can use to make their training better. It can be done as a prerequisite to a classroom course, meaning that when the trainer arrives, he doesn’t have to waste a couple of hours finding a common starting point. It can also free up the instructors’ face-to-face time for more hands-on practice.”
Customers themselves find RMI On-line’s focus on basic training skills attract-ive. Nestlé even offers SKF’s RMI On-line courses via its intranet. “We want to get more proactive in our maintenance strategy,” says Nestlé’s Jan de Bruin, corporate technical engineering services. “RMI On-line suits very well our need to restore basic knowledge in our factories at the engineer and craftsman level.”
“The root cause of most equipment failures is not related to age but to lack of good operational and maintenance practices,” de Bruin continues. “It all boils down to the basics. A lot of people are not aware that many random failures stem from poor alignment and fastening or bad cleaning and inspection.”
De Bruin likes the fact that RMI On-line is driven by engineers who have a lot of hand-on experience. And he thinks the time is ripe for Internet-based training of this sort.
“I believe that people today are very independent,” he says. “They want to learn, but they also want to learn at their own pace and on their own time.”
SKF’s internal use ofe-learning includes global, group-oriented courses for general training in IT security and the Six Sigma process, as well as modules that get new employees quickly up to speed on SKF’s products, mission and vision. Employees also have access to both RMI On-line and the SKF Distributor College, and sales reps have benefited from both.
In the near future, SKF aims to have one e-learning platform, pulling together all of its training into a single global training catalogue for internal and external use. “We will then map all our courses, to help avoid too much overlap,” says Ann-Sofie Börjesson, manager of knowledge facilitation.