Feature: Training the online way

Companies in all industries are tuning into Web-based training in ever increasing numbers. Web-based training allows their staff to develop new skills quickly, efficiently and relatively cheaply. While there are some question marks over the quality of training gained through the Web, most employers and employees are registering high levels of satisfactionNot surprisingly, information technology related courses are heavily represented among the courses offered online. Just about every level of IT training can and is delivered this way, from simple courses teaching small children how to use basic computer applications to postgraduate degrees in information systems. Some of these are now quite well established; for example, one TAFE course featured below is now teaching its third annual intake.

Other industries and subjects are now taught through the Net. There are a number of management and financial courses offered in Australia, along with self-improvement classes such as assertiveness training. In fact, you can find courses that teach most subjects. There's even an Australian site offering online classes for church ministers (http://members. xoom.com/dwgilmore) -- though the training isn't Web delivered in the strictest sense.

If you decide to look outside Australia, courses are offered on every subject imaginable. In fact, with online training, travelling to classes overseas is generally easier than attending physical classes down the road. This has lead to the global consolidation of many training courses. Some sites in the list below, which only last year were available from Australian hosted (.au) sites, have moved to parent company sites in the US or UK.

Good online courses are necessarily cheap. For example, for $US17,000 you can take an American law degree at the Concord University School of Law (www.concord.kaplan.edu). Although the course is not recognised by the American Bar Association, it's a genuine US law degree and graduates can practise in the State of California.

Concord University is a privately owned institution and a subsidiary of the Washington Post organisation. It's well respected. However, there are many flakey online institutions. It pays to check with potential employers that the qualification you plan to earn is recognised.

Online training is growing rapidly. According to the Gartner Group, by 2002, over half of all training will be technology-based, with the remainder taking place in classrooms. This compares with 25 per cent of all training in 1998 being technology-based. The technology-based category includes CD-ROM and desktop videoconferencing-based training as well as Web-delivered material, however of these technologies, the Web represents the fastest growing segment.

The forces driving this rapid growth are: convenience, cost and control over the training process. Another, less pleasant, factor, which few in the training business are prepared to talk about, is that it is easier for companies to bully employees into using Web-based training in their own time than to ‘interrupt' normal work.

Because anyone with access to a PC, communications link and a browser can access the Web, online courses can take place at almost any time or place. In theory at least, you could book yourself into a luxury resort in the Whitsundays for a week of online study. In practice, many of the people spoken to in this story referred to students who choose to study in the dead of night. Similarly, where online courses use live teachers or tutors, they can often choose where and when to work. And, as already noted, none of these need to be in Australia.

While time of study is important, place is typically more of a constraint on traditional training methods. Assembling students and teachers at a single place can be expensive and disruptive. In fact, travel expenses are often a sizeable component of corporate education costs, thought they generally appear elsewhere on a budget.

Web-based training is not trouble free. Some students find it harder to motivate themselves in front of a screen. Others get stuck. This can easily happen with a misunderstood lesson where there is no tutor, online or otherwise, to help. And of course it goes without saying that students need a certain level of familiarity with computers and the Internet before they can make much progress with Web training.

One of Australia's longest running online training courses has found ways around most of these obstacles. Greg Webb, the manager of the IT online delivery project for NSW TAFE, said his organisation's level four certificate in IT (PC Support) is now providing training to its third annual intake. The OTEN (Open Training and Education) course serves about 70 students each year, mainly from NSW, but last year there was one student from Queensland and this year one from Norfolk Island.

With some 13 units, equal to some 400 hours of face-to-face teaching, the year-long course employs a ‘virtual campus' (http://vc.tafensw.edu.au/) and online teachers who set weekly tasks for students via e-mail. Most of the learning material can be found at a Web site, though students are still expected to purchase a number of books. Students spend around seven days in physical workshops including an orientation day where they are shown how to use the various online learning tools.

Webb says teachers answer students' questions and follow up problems using e-mail and telephone. This has lead to completion rates, which are "high when compared to traditional distance learning".

Another online training pioneer is Microsoft. Although the company no longer runs its own online training operation -- the online Microsoft University was quietly shut down over a year ago, Microsoft related courses are offered by a large number of third-party suppliers. Mark Duckworth, business development manager for Microsoft training and development, says between 2000 and 3000 people are taking Microsoft related courses each month, though the majority of these courses are instructor led rather than online.

Pam Gibbons, head of school of business and informatics at the Australian Catholic University, has mixed feelings about the value of online training. She said: "Online is fantastic if you're isolated and there's no other way of getting teaching. But there are things in face-to-face learning that can't be replicated online. On the other hand, large lectures with hundreds of students are not too different from online delivery." To some extent everyone else interviewed for this story echoed these views.

Like the OTEN course, ACU uses a mix of face-to-face and online teaching. At present the information technology course has a small intake of 15 students. Pam Gibbons said that online university courses typically cost more to deliver than traditional courses, but that wouldn't be the case at the MacDonalds end of the online training spectrum. She sees a future where universities and other institutions could evolve into course brokers rather than deliverers.

Tony King is IBM's Asia-Pacific manager for distributed learning. He oversees a complex web of packaged courses; training consultancy, implementation and custom content design for a business that links to the training operation of IBM's Lotus subsidiary. Like many of the other interviewees, he believes in a mixture of training approaches, which he labels ‘blended solutions for customers'.

King says IBM is the world's largest IT trainer operating more than 500,000 training days each year and with some 900 instructors worldwide. However, IBM's training offerings extend beyond IT into areas such as management. The company also happens to be its own largest customer with the IBM global campus serving staff internally. Currently the company is in the process of moving its training to the Web, though some areas are already operational, for details see the Web site (http://www.ibm.com/services/learning).

CBT Systems (http://www.cbtsys.com/) is one of the world largest commercial vendor-independent online training outfits. It currently offers some 9000 training titles, mainly through the Web. Australian-based marketing and communications manager Sharon Smith says many of the courses use multimedia with audio and visual tracks but that technical people tend to prefer courses without audio so they can progress at their own pace.

The CBT range covers most IT vendor certification courses along with generic courses on subjects like project management and e-commerce along with end-user skills training and non-technical professional development skills training. CBT has some 4000 corporate clients worldwide, with maybe 800 or so in Australia. Ms Smith said as a rule online training courses cost corporate customers about one third the cost of face-to-face learning, but the costs drop considerably as the volume of packages purchased rises.

Like all online training offerings, CBT courses are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The company provides online mentoring support via e-mail with a maximum four-hour response time.

Finally, there is one nasty aspect to online learning that is already causing problems in the US and may yet become an issue in Australia. In the past, employers would train employees on company time. With online training, there's a lot of pressure on employees to study in their own time.

This is more acceptable when the employee is learning transferable skills, but it can cause a lot of resentment, especially when the training is compulsory and not very transferable. The early evidence from the US says that the success rates of compulsory, employee time training are abysmal. The lesson here is that online training only works when there is motivation to be trained.

Other online training Web sites

Aris Training www.aris.com Microsoft, Oracle, LotusOnline Training Inc http://www.oltraining.com/ Insurance industry, general educationPlain Language Online Training http://www.web.net/~plain/PlainTrain/ Communications skillsPinnacle Training http://www.pinnacletraining.com/ IT certificationCheltenham Computer Training http://www.cctglobal.com/ End-user PC coursesRescue Training Resource http://www.techrescue.org/ Australian rescue training and testsOPENcad International http://cadonline.complete-support.com// Online Autodesk training to complement CD coursesMicrosoft http://www.microsoft.com/seminar/1033/default.htm Online seminarsOracle Education http://www.oracle.com.au/education/index.html Vendor-specific trainingNovell http://www.novell.com.au/education/new_courses.htm Vendor-specific training

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