Will the Web stand up to the test?

E-learning - or technology-based training - has the potential to revolutionise the way training is delivered to your end users. But companies have not exactly rushed to implement it as a training alternative. David Raths and Natasha David found out why.

A funny thing about the Internet is that every time you come up with a way to use it to automate a complex process, users turn around and tell you what a lousy process it is. So it goes with online training. The promise is sweet: cheaper, quicker, targeted skills training that students can access anytime and anywhere from their desktop computers.

But the reality is that today's online training endeavours are falling short of the mark; sometimes material is outdated or dull, and corporate culture barriers aren't always addressed.

Because expectations for Web-based training have been high, many companies were hoping for a quick technical fix for the endemic problem of educating and training their IT workers. But it takes more than technology to solve core training issues.

Bob Mosher, assistant executive director of the Information Technology Training Association (ITTA), said: "The issues of accountability, job responsibility, and training outcomes have always been critical, but companies have been pretty good at ignoring them for 20 years. "But these are coming to the forefront now."

Many analysts are still bullish that the Internet is the right mechanism for delivering educational materials to the workplace.

Corporate training managers are struggling to help their organisations understand that training through any channel is valuable and should be encouraged and integrated into the overall corporate culture.

And IDC analyst Brooke Galloway advises IT managers to take a long, hard look at where e-learning is appropriate.

"There needs to be a balanced approach to where it is applied," Galloway said.

And for most managers, the technical part is easy - it's dealing with the attitudes and culture that is hard.

"There is an ongoing phobia about technology," said Lyndsay Sharp, lecturer of electronic and Internet PR at Victoria's Deakin University.

Sharp has conducted a pilot research focus group into the effect of online delivery to the university's 50 off-campus PR course students. And while Sharp found that computer and Internet-based mediums are paving the way for more personalised study, she said "a lot of off-campus students tend to be older, and computer shy."

However, she added: "The next wave of students will have higher computer literacy and acceptance, with a reduction in techno-phobia."

But other managers have found getting end users to cooperate has been difficult, mainly because they have not bought in to the concept - especially for practical, lab-based training.

Tom Sekulic, manager of customer application delivery at Internet Data Operations, which manages Internet technologies for Telstra, said he believes end-user reponse to the company's initial e-learning experience was disappointing "because users were more used to real classroom environments".

The course was not suitable for practical lab learning, he said, adding "At this stage, the technology is limited to training of theory."

Marco Marinelli, Hewlett-Packard production manager at Coles Myer agreed, saying "I can see e-learning becoming more a way to deliver courses in the future but it won't totally replace face-to-face training because of the lack of application for lab exercises."

Coles Myer uses HP Virtual Classroom to deliver certification training for its IT staff. And according to Marinelli, delivering theory via online methods is fine. However, he feels there needs to be a better method of delivering the practical side of certification training to his trainees.

Penny Gelb, IT training manager at Genuity (formerly GTE Internetworking), agreed that getting buy-in from line managers is crucial. The company has 400 IT workers spread across the globe. Managers have to free up workers to learn, whether it's at an off-site seminar, a college course, or an online training session.

She believes online training requires the same consideration as traditional, classroom-based training: Employees have to balance their workloads, justify their need for additional training to managers, and provide some evidence that they have learnt and retained valuable information.

Technical hurdles

Persistent technology issues and boring curriculum materials have so far dampened corporate enthusiasm for online training, making getting that corporate buy-in much more difficult. Early implementations of Web-based training failed to meet speed and ease-of-use expectations.

Synchronous technologies, such as real-time video and audio streaming are still not ready for prime time, and bandwidth and security issues remain a hassle. Often, a company's internal network can handle several dozen employees downloading large files, but when those same workers get online to participate in real-time multimedia presentations, network performance takes a big hit.

"When those issues arise, the projects can stumble," ITTA's Mosher said. "When it becomes apparent [that] you're paying all this for [what amounts to] a streaming PowerPoint demon-stration, the disillusionment sets in pretty rapidly."

Another problem is that Web-based training material is often pulled from traditional teaching tools, such as slide presentations or videos, which were meant to accompany a lecture. Taking those teaching tools out of context and sticking them on the Web does not make for engaging, interactive content.

"Designing a training course is actually quite complex and time-consuming," said IDC's Galloway.

And much of the content already available is not up to scratch, according to Andrew Silver, business manager of online learning at Hewlett-Packard.

"Australia has been involved in distance education for a while, with heavy investments in satellite-based teleconferencing," Silver said.

"But the content has not been as good as users would like - it's a real production effort to do content properly."

However, as the market develops for online education, training companies are confident that they can deliver the sorts of curriculum that corporate training departments are waiting for.

"The training industry is being run by the vendors right now, when really the training departments need to set the direction," said Jennifer Hoffman, president of consultancy InSync Training Synergy. Hoffman advises companies that are evaluating online training to do extensive needs analysis before talking to vendors and not to get sidetracked by fancy product features.

What you see in a product demonstration is not necessarily what you get when you sign up for online training services, either. The market is going through a many-phase adoption curve typical of any new technology, and it can leave early adopters bitterly disappointed, one observer says.

"At first people love the concept, but then they see the products and say, ‘yuck'," says Jana Harrer, dean of the corporate university at Born Information Services. "Then they enter the trough of despair. But eventually it levels off when their expectations match the experiences of users. That's where we are with e-learning: past the trough and levelling off," Harrer said.

The technology and the services may not be levelling off fast enough for students. Some Born IT consultants complain the course material is static and obsolete.

Keeping track

Although online training products could include mechanisms to monitor how people use them, few vendors accommodate user preferences or solicit user comments in their products. Having those metrics could help company managers gather information about the effectiveness of each course and make strategic decisions about how and when to use online training products.

"The biggest flaw with Web-based training material is that it doesn't take into account the corporate setting in which it will be used," said Ken Estabrook, supervisor of training and development at The John Hopkins University applied physics laboratory.

"The vendors haven't talked to training managers, so their products don't have any qualitative assessment built in that will help justify the cost."

Estabrook started looking into Web-based training in 1996 as a way to offer a wide variety of fairly complex IT courses internally. Last year the lab experienced 6000 instances of where staff accessed IT training material from the intranet, but 5000 of those were downloads to people's hard drives, and the software had no means of tracking whether those people used the material or not.

"The vendor views a course as successful if it is 100 per cent completed, yet that's not how people use it," Estabrook says. "Most go in, find that little bit of information they're looking for, and get out."

Estabrook says it's difficult for him to justify spending six figures on Web-based training when he can't gather data about how it's being used.

"They should just have a button that asks every time a person is about to quit: "Did you find what you were looking for?"

If 98 per cent of the time the answer was yes, and each access cost about $20, then it would show its value and approving it would be a no-brainer."

Few products on the market today have integrated administrative functions, and vendors aren't helping corporate training managers sell the concept internally to employees or executives. Nor does the software address resistance among line managers.

"The programs are very learner-centric, but there's nothing built in that lets the manager establish objectives or that tells the manager the employee has these new skills that should be applied in the workplace," Estabrook added.

Knowledge in a bottle

Computer-based courses appeal to workers who feel they don't have time to take classes, said Robert Vicek, program manager of the college of computing services at Lockheed Martin's EIS University. "This allows them to go into their cubicle three hours at a time, twice a week, and dial in to the Web and get an interactive lecture. They're quite satisfied with it."

Vicek is piloting a project to convert certain types of internal corporate meetings to synchronous distance-learning events.

"When a company-wide process changes, we fly out representatives from each of our 110 sites who study [the situation] and then go back and share what they've learned. We want a way to provide better and consistent dissemination of that information," Vicek said.

Although Lockheed-Martin is a technology company, Vicek says his biggest challenge is in convincing managers that distance-learning technology is mature enough.

"Whenever you talk about some technology that's outside the bounds of what people are used to, they get that deer-in-the-headlights look," Vicek said.

"I have to work to overcome that scepticism about whether it's going to work."

The right reasons

Many IT training executives see technology-based training as just another tool in their arsenal and a way to get employees the information they need when they need it. But some companies have jumped into e-learning for the wrong reasons, ITTA's Mosher says.

"If you ask IT trainers why they want to switch from instructor-led training, nine out of 10 will tell you Web-based training is cheaper. I saw a presentation by a vendor talking about the top five reasons to use their Web-based learning product, and not one of them had to do with learning," Mosher said.

For Web-based training to work, says InSync's Hoffman, it requires an internal partnership between many departments all committed to the idea that students will get more rather than less than they did from classroom training. And no one we spoke to for this article believes instructor-led training is going to go away.

"This is a tool to complement other means of study, and is not for everybody," said Deakin University's Sharp.

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