Closing the distance learning gap

Training has always been considered an important factor in staying competitive in a global economy. Employees need to remain current with latest methods and technology.Most would agree training is important, but there is obvious cost in developing or purchasing training. Companies also lose productive employee time while sit through training; not to mention travel costs if training isn't ...


Training has always been considered an important factor in staying competitive in a global economy. Employees need to remain current with latest methods and technology.

Most would agree training is important, but there is obvious cost in developing or purchasing training. Companies also lose productive employee time while sit through training; not to mention travel costs if training isn't offered locally.

Distance learning, is training where the interacting parties are separated by distance or time. Using a variety of technologies, companies increasingly offer training programs to employees literally scattered to the four corners of the earth. While distance learning generally offers many advantages (see table), they aren't at the cost of quality, as several studies of distance learners show that retention of material and test scores are as high or higher than classroom instruction.

Large growth predicted

Technologies used in distance learning range from text-based correspondence courses to satellite video. Internet/intranet technology is an increasing role in distance learning. The American Society for Training and Development (Alexandria, Va.) forecasts the percentage of classroom delivery of corporate training will drop from a 1997 level of 59% to 44% in 2000. Web-based training (WBT) is expected to increase from a 1997 level of 16% to 28% in 2000. Revenue estimates for the WBT industry are as much as $1.5 billion by 2000.

WBT courses are either asynchronous or synchronous asynchronous courses learners access course material on the Internet or a corporate intranet when convenient. Synchronous courses use programs that allow real-time interaction between an instructor and learners. Using chat, audio, and video, and on-line whiteboards and multimedia presentations geographically separated people interact much like in a classroom. Several companies offer software to develop and manage both synchronous and asynchronous on-line training programs.

Putting text on-line does not make a training program. Most in the distance learning field would agree that if content is basically an on-line book, why not just give them a book? Kevin Kruse, account manager for human resources consulting firm Raymond Karsan Associates (Wayne, Pa.), says "Interactivity is key to learning results. There is a difference between on-line publishing and on-line training." The interactivity the web offers adds new dimensions to training. WBT offers capabilities for video, audio, and animated graphics that demonstrate concepts covered in a course. Simulations can also be programmed where learners can apply what they are learning in a nonthreatening environment. On-line chat allows learners and instructors to communicate from separate locations.

With all the web offers, training goals need to be clear. Ellen Wagner, vice president of Informania Inc. (San Francisco, Calif.), believes too much focus on interactivity "equates content to interactivity and encourages nonstrategic use of on-line discussion," creating forced interaction. Ms. Wagner theorizes people interact as a means to achieve some end, such as to communicate, negotiate, or clarify. Training should focus on interaction that helps people learn and not on pointless activity.

Any company considering implementing WBT should be aware of shortcomings. While material retention is high, course completion rates in distance learning are typically lower than traditional methods. Learners need to take their own initiative and be disciplined in courses. Development costs for one hour of web-based instruction can run as high as 15 times one hour of classroom instruction. There are still bandwidth limitations with the Internet that make certain multimedia content download too slow to be practical. WBT is booming in major corporations. A Masie Center (Saratoga Springs, N.Y.) study found 81% of surveyed corporations implemented or piloted some form of WBT in 1997, up from 3% in 1996.

Author Information

Matthew Bellm, Internet Editor

Advantages of Distance Learning

Train more people, more often;

Reduced travel cost;

Flexibility to add students without incurring additional expense;

Real- time updates, Just-In-Time Knowledge;

Learning at the worksite or desktop;

Live and interactive programs with multiple sites networked for group learning;

More choices of quality programs;

Access to remote experts;

Multiple learner and instructor interaction opportunities;

Source: Control Engineering with information from International Teleconferencing Association

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