The failings of distance

Late last year, crime-scene tape was strung across 14 cubicles at Sprint Corp.'s offices in Mansfield, Ohio. It wasn't the aftermath of evildoing. It was the start of virtual training for Windows 2000 Professional.

"Do not disturb" signs and candy bars were strewn about, and the smell of popcorn filled the air. The props had one aim: to give employees the sense that they were in a classroom together, rather than sitting alone in a cube, staring at a computer screen.

From 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. twice a week for three weeks, the Sprint crew tuned in to a Web site for a live, instructor-led distance-learning class. Technical engineer Rick Toomey describes the instructor as a "top-40 disc jockey," who employed sound effects, humor and music to keep students tuned in. "He was clearly trying to offset our tendency to wander," Toomey says.

Toomey, a former middle school teacher, says he vastly prefers classroom learning; however, he acknowledges that the virtual classroom was a "good compromise" to reduce the expense of a classrom setting. The biggest deficiency of online training, he says, was the potential for interruptions by e-mail pop-ups.

"A PC is, by definition, a multitasking instrument," says Toomey. "You have a tendency to do more than one thing when you're sitting in front of it. It takes a certain kind of discipline."

Whether they have that kind of discipline or not, increasing numbers of IT workers are finding themselves face-to-screen with online instructors, as electronic-training is starting to cut into traditional classroom time.

Like other IT professionals who have tinkered with distance learning, Toomey has learned its limits. Distance learning may be well suited to some entry-level technologies, but more advanced training and hands-on labs still work best in a classroom, according to IT managers and students.

Sometimes, that's because simulations work better on dedicated PCs. And sometimes, it's just more engaging to be in a room full of people taught by a live person who can answer questions immediately and respond to nonverbal cues such as a sea of puzzled faces.

Measuring Results

Despite the deficiencies that Toomey describes, many consider the type of highly structured, live training that his team underwent to be the best kind of distance education. Other options include live Web lectures and go-at-your-own-pace tutorials. However, self-paced tutorials often leave employees to their own devices, and, without significant oversight, it can be very hard to measure results.

Kimberly Ivey, education manager at Irving, Texas-based Buchanan Associates, helped establish the online continuing education division at the systems integration company. But even with the division, called Buchanan Associates University (BAU), the 500-employee company hasn't replaced instructor-led training. "There are people who learn better in an instructor-led environment," says Ivey. "BAU works best for people who are independent and self-motivated."

James Welch is one such dedicated BAU student. Welch is a network consultant who reports for work each day at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, where he oversees the racetrack's 100-PC network. Welch logs on to BAU through Buchanan's intranet to take classes toward his Novell certification. Personal commitments, including the recent birth of his son, have made classroom training inconvenient for him, so Welch now logs on during his lunch hour or after work.

"I prefer the quality of classroom sessions," says Welch. "The interaction helps you soak the material in a little better, a little faster."

Welch says he also misses the computer simulations that classrooms allow. "In distance learning, you're not really running the actual software," he says. "You're just clicking through screens."

David B. Lovins, vice president and IT director at The Warren Group, a Boston-based publishing and information-services company, made a brief foray into distance learning. He says he's not rushing back.

"I don't think the tools are there right now," Lovins says. After perusing several courses, he observed that many of the beginner and advanced courses were adequate, but the so-called advanced courses were really intermediate. "I don't think the interaction is there yet for people to be full-fledged programmers when they're finished," he says.

Lovins tried an à la carte approach when his company subscribed to an online university that granted employees unlimited access to online courses. The company's investment was minimal - it got the package as a premium when it bought new PCs. Nevertheless, no one on his five-person IT staff completed a course.

"The staff didn't feel they had the time, so none of them took the initiative to do it," Lovins says. In the future, he adds, he'll build much more management time into the online learning process.

"You have to structure it," Lovins says, advocating that managers set aside specific blocks of time during the workday for staff to devote to distance learning. Ideally, that time should be spent in a designated area, away from the phone calls and e-mail that inundate workers in their cubes. wDeakin is a freelance writer in Arlington, Mass.

Going the Distance

The following can help make distance learning more effective:

Go for glitz. Bells, whistles, music and silliness keep students' attention from wandering.

Go "live." If there's a choice between instructor-led, live training and prerecorded sessions, pick the live version. It's more engaging and immediate.

Make sure it's interactive. There should be a forum for questioning the instructor and chatting with other students, and there should be frequent quizzes and simulations. Avoid packages that are merely a book on a screen.

Get follow-up materials. Be sure reference materials are included, and make sure there's a way for students to have their questions answered after the course is over.

Customize it. Some vendors allow companies to integrate education packages into company intranets. That makes it easier for employees to log on, and it's easier to present classes as a company perk.

Schedule it. Only the most self-motivated employees will take courses on their own time, at their own initiative. Schedule a time during the workday for online education. Treat training as a meeting, and don't allow interruptions.

Do not disturb. Instruct staff to turn off e-mail and pagers while class is in session. That may require arranging for coverage. Hang a "Do not disturb" sign on students' work areas, or set up a designated area in the office for distance learning.

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