Online Training: What Are the Choices?
As the Internet continues to grow in its reach and its variety of offerings, online training is gathering momentum as the learning solution of the future. Online training - also known as e-learning - is a term that encompasses just about any form of training that is delivered via the Internet.

Online Training
This form of instruction involves the creation of learning content for a particular topic. The content is assembled and uploaded into a Learning Management System, after which point the course is available for delegates to access online.

There are many forms of online training, and the purpose of this article is to give you a simple overview, so you can see the general options available and take things further. If you want to comment in any way - even by mentioning your own solution or strategy - please feel free to do so below.

Warning: Do You Remember CBT?

Around twelve years ago, when I first got into the training market, the industry was awash with rumours about how Computer Based Training (CBT) was going to sweep classrooms aside. The story went that all that a company needed to do was to set up a training room with PCs, each equipped with low-cost CDs, and from that point on, training would be free. No more disruptive classes to attend, and total control over what was delivered and when it took place.

So what happened? Well, those brave pioneers first had to buy in the IT equipment, and the software and CD libraries. Ongoing costs were not just the rent of the room, but upgrades to software and CDs, and sometimes wholesale replacement of the learning content because of variable quality. But all that aside, the main failure was that it didn't get results.

There are lots of studies that show this to be the case. I've picked one from a source you may not find, from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey California. They actually used "mediated instruction" which was CBT that was mentored (so they had already recognised that pure CBT had drawbacks) but still found that their students preferred face-to-face learning, with “blended solutions” (a combination of the two) as a second choice. There was perceived to be a lack of interactivity, collaboration, and a supportive learning community. Further, they felt the CBT wasn't engaging, interactive, or even interesting. All in all there was a lack of feeling of satisfaction and achievement.

Web Based Training

At its simplest (and lowest cost) level, pure web based training is a simple extension of CBT. In fact, some people actually call it CBT. I won't discuss it, except to say that although it saves the investment in hardware, and can be run from people's desks, it suffers from exactly the same drawbacks in failing to get results.

Touchscreen
Desktop software is the main area of interest: after all, can you imagine trying to improve your interpersonal, selling or telephone skills by progressing through screens? To many people, this is a laughable concept.

You can buy packages at extremely low prices, but they really only serve as interactive books. Yes, pure web based training options have their place, but probably more as post-training reference tools than effective learning sessions.

Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning

Synchronous learning involves interaction between people (a face-to-face discussion is a good general example). In the online training world, examples include live teacher instruction and feedback, Skype conversations, or virtual classrooms where everyone is online and working together.

Asynchronous learning still involves interaction, but not necessarily at the same time. Examples of methods used are email, discussion boards, forums, audio or video courses, and social networking. Popular subjects include research-based qualifications (MBA's) and some technical subjects.

The advantage of synchronous learning is its level of interaction and interest; asynchronous learning has its place, especially for people with variable or limited availability. This is often a popular option for subjects that benefit from classroom interaction such as soft skills.

Virtual Classrooms

Delegates attend virtual classrooms, often called Webinars, usually through web conferencing software like WebEx or Adobe Connect, with some platforms enabling communication via webcam and microphone. In higher level offerings, attendees can answer questions or take tests, and even 'write on the board' and share their desktop with the instructor or the class.

Virtual classrooms enable delegates to receive direct instruction and feedback, and provide some elements of the traditional classroom. Some also have a recording feature where the class is recorded and stored on a server, and can be played back later for review purposes.

These classes enable people to attend a class as it happens, without actually being there. The ability to ask questions and interact as if in the room is extremely useful, and although some of the benefit of being a "real" delegate is lost, this option is great for people who cannot be there - usually for reasons of location. However, the overhead for the training company is the same (sometimes more) than for delegates on the actual class which means that prices are usually the same. It's certainly not a low-cost option.

Webinars

The purpose of webinars is to share ideas and experiences, so this can clearly be used in a learning context. The duration is shorter than a virtual classroom, and the technology usually more limited, but webinars are very useful where training needs are focused on a specific area. A good example of a webinar being used in this way is where people at multiple locations can log in to the training provider and discuss the course content, ask questions and get feedback on their ideas.

Webinar

Web Meetings

Web meetings are a shorter, lower-tech version of webinars, usually directed at reaching decisions from a predetermined agenda.  Interaction is usually by webcam, although documents and slides are often shared. Training can be facilitated in this way if the needs - and perhaps the time available - are limited.

Webcasts

Webcasts are one-way broadcasts of information from a website which are often attended, like webinars, at a specific time. They resemble lectures in that people attend to listen, but in their purest sense they lack the facility for delegates to ask questions.

Podcasts

Podcasts are broadcasts which are downloaded from a website and played on the user's PC. As with webcasts, they are not training in the true sense, but are extremely useful because they can be played at any time, as many times as required, and can be paused or sections replayed to reinforce understanding or allow notes to be taken.

Gaming

For business-related subjects (examples are marketing and executive decision-making) it is possible to use gaming as part of the learning experience.

This needed a mention because it is out there and heavily promoted by its providers. Its fun element is going make it popular among those who are convinced by the arguments put up, but personally I think it's about as relevant to business needs as those happy-clappy-away-days adopted by some management programmes... and just as expensive.

Round-Up

I hope this article is useful to you, in providing an overview of the basics of each alternate. At Activia, we are evaluating our own options, and at the time of writing have some great ideas for implementation in the near future.  But although idea of a headlong rush to the Web may appeal to you, there is the danger of wasting a lot of time and money by selecting the wrong option. Just remember the lessons of CBT...

How have you organised your own online training, and do you agree or disagree with what I've said?

For more information about business skills training courses, click here. And if you enjoyed this article, make sure to read the next post in the series, Online Training: Skills Improvement or Just Ticking Boxes?.