VSJ – September 2002 – Work in Progress

Bill Cleary, of Global Knowledge, has written before in these pages about IT training issues. Here, he talks about Blended Learning Solutions, which he calls the next revolution.

The Industrial Revolution changed the way people earned their living, heralding the age of mass-production and giving consumers greater choice. The computer revolution moved the computer from academic institutes to the shop floor, to be followed by the micro revolution that put desktop computing in every office. As with the Industrial Revolution, work patterns changed, as did the location of that work. For example, home-office working has resulted in a marked effect on some lives. The latest revolution is blended training solutions, causing training companies radically to rethink what they offer their clientele and giving that customer base a far greater choice of how, when and where training is conducted. Those that fail to respond will meet the same fate as the cottage industries of old who saw their customers disappear to take advantage of cost-effective, more readily available alternatives.

Traditional training has fallen into three main categories. Classroom-based instructor-led (ILT) courses are by far the largest of these groups. This ‘live’ training approach is destined to be a popular way of delivering the client’s requirements for some time although it is predicted that there will be an approximate 26% decrease in its share of the training marketplace over the next five years. With the arrival of computer-based training (CBT) the pundits predicted the demise of much of ILT’s dominance but, whilst CBT still has its advocates, it is highly likely that this type of training will find its marketplace diminishing due to the arrival of Web-based training. Distance learning is the smallest of the three groups and, as with CBT, will find its markets squeezed.

With so much information being made available over the Internet it was only a matter of time before the provision of education and training was targeted as a suitable addition to the current Web offerings. E-learning is variously described as Internet-based training, technology-based training or self-paced Web-based training. The sessions that an e-learning approach offers can be of two types, namely ‘live’ where there is synchronous interaction over the Internet or an Intranet link, or an asynchronous event where the trainee adopts a self-paced learning approach. Various reputable bodies, such as IDC, are already predicting that the market for e-learning training delivery is set to rise sharply over the next five years at the expense of the more traditional approaches. To emphasise their commitment to the future of e-learning, one of the largest global training companies, Global Knowledge, has set up an e-learning unit with its own director and is now offering e-learning sessions across many of its curriculum areas. The latest to come on-line are several offerings from its Professional Skills portfolio, namely the ‘Project Management Institute Examination Preparation’ and ‘Object Oriented Analysis and Design using UML’ courses with more being promised for later this year.

But what’s in it for the trainee? The most obvious benefit is convenience, as virtual classroom sessions can be taken at different times to suit trainee availability, time zones and new-knowledge absorption rates. E-learning puts the responsibility for skills development with the trainee and provides a choice of training options to effect that training, on-line or off-line. Whilst on-line training offers real-time interaction with the instructor and the other trainees taking the session, off-line training allows material to be downloaded and the sessions completed without the direct involvement of an instructor.

However, there is no doubt that one of the major benefits will be networking, that is interacting with other professionals across the world and gaining an excellent understanding of the similar, and sometimes quite different, issues that they face at their places of work. In a business world where more and more companies see themselves as players in global markets exposing their staff to different cultures will be an educational benefit in itself.

So what are the business benefits? Controlling staff development costs is very attractive to many companies. Currently, most course bookings involve not only a course fee but also expenses for travel, hotels and subsistence that may almost double the course costs. A virtual classroom approach will remove these ‘extras’ thus giving the opportunity to train two or more staff for the price of one.

Having staff away from their place of work can also prove inconvenient – is there ever a convenient time? If the rush to use mobiles and email during course breaks that I observe, as an instructor of some years, is indicative then the answer to the question is no!

Additional benefits will come from the speed at which individual skill gaps can be plugged. With the IT skills shortage proving a thorny issue throughout Europe, readily available, on-line training will go some way to improving the situation. It is generally accepted that company investment in its major asset, staff, will improve motivation and retention. Once the economic climate has improved, those companies that have used the ‘quiet time’ to develop their staff will reap benefits and retain a highly motivated, productive workforce. Training solutions based on e-learning offer a cost-effective way to do this.

So can we now dispense with traditional forms of training and use only e-learning? Not for some time yet. Classroom-based, instructor-led training is still a requirement because it’s the way many people prefer, and in some cases need, to learn. For complex technical subjects and courses culminating in an exam, ILT may be the only option because of the need to use backup workshops, demonstrations, exercises and case studies to reinforce the teaching points. Also, the generation most comfortable with the Internet for retrieving information and learning is currently at school or university. The workplace is full of those who learned with, and still prefer, traditional approaches. ILT will be with us for some time and will have its place in the world of training.

Blended learning offers businesses and trainees a ‘mix-and-match’ approach to meeting training requirements. It is a way of meeting training needs by using the type of training that suits the budget, the subject matter, trainee availability and other criteria. Development can be undertaken partly using an instructor-led approach and partly as e-learning sessions over the Web. This heralds a new freedom, allowing staff development initiatives to be mutually compatible with trainee and business needs. If it is inconvenient for the business to allow staff to undertake training that would necessitate their absence, some of the learning needs can be met over the Web in three or four hour sessions taken within the work environment or at home. When time, budgets and workloads allow, the remainder of the training requiring an ILT approach can be completed.

E-learning techniques and tools will facilitate the most revolutionary change to the delivery of training requirements for decades. They promise to put choice in the hands of the people that matter – those who require the training. Trainees can choose the time, place and content of the sessions they need and, if necessary, can complete the required course of study with several training providers rather than just one. It’s always been possible to tailor course material to a client’s specific needs but that has involved consultation with the training provider and significant development costs. Even then, the resulting course may not fully meet attendees’ requirements. This may occur where the people making the decisions on course content aren’t those taking the course or aren’t even part of the same functional group. With e-learning blended solutions this won’t happen since the decision regarding what is learned rests with the person doing the learning.

Palmtops, pocket PCs, wireless communication and broadband Internet communication will allow the world of learning both technical and soft skills to evolve rapidly into a 24/7 opportunity. People will take Java sessions or learn how to improve their negotiating skills whilst waiting for flights. They will learn about risk management while awaiting delayed trains. They will join on-line sessions covering network security while their cars are undergoing MOTs. For trainees, companies and training providers, it is an exciting future that will revolutionise how we all learn.

[Interesting project or development? Let us know at eo@iap.org.uk!]

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