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Blending online training and face-to-face for soft skills development


Greg Hoehner, Principal Consultant in e-learning course design at e-learning consultancy ICUS Pte Ltd, charts the recent development of e-learning techniques and their use in combination with other training delivery methods.

If you would like a quick impression of the impact that e-learning is making in the world of training and development, try conducting a web search using the word itself plus a particular discipline. From the results you will see that e-learning has made inroads into a diverse array of professions and industries, from banking to mortuary science.

Numbers that inspire awe (or scepticism, depending on your perspective) are IDC’s prediction in February this year that the worldwide e-learning market will grow almost fourfold in just four years, from US $6.6 billion in 2002 to $23.7 billion in 2006. On the other side of the Atlantic, the European e-learning market will be worth nearly US $6bn by 2005.

In general, e-learning is a standard feature on training conference programmes and company HR agenda alike. By now, training professionals are familiar with a host of benefits associated with its use, including cost savings due to the elimination of travel expenses (which constitute 60% of a training event’s budget), the convenience of people
learning wherever they have web access, and a widening array of content choices made possible by the growth and diversity of e-learning providers.

Two immediate questions that HR and training professionals are likely to ask about such developments are:

  • What training needs does e-learning serve well?
  • What is e-learning’s role in delivering soft skills training?
  • To answer the first question, it is almost self-evident to say that e-learning is ideally suited for IT and software training, and this has been the “low-hanging fruit” pursued by pioneer e-learning providers. (It was the natural next step forward from software and CD-ROM tutorials.) So too is e-learning a well-established medium for delivering distance education courses, and institutions have a track record as early adopters of media and technology for their audience.

    When we consider customised training programmes for corporations, we can also see a logical starting place for applying e-learning – the low-risk, high-reach projects that serve the needs of a large number of employees. Product knowledge courses and orientation programmes are good candidates for this type of delivery. New employees have immediate need for the information that they provide, but for reasons of economy and logistics companies sometimes wait until there is a sufficient number of employees to run these programmes to justify the human resources involved in face-to-face delivery, which unfortunately reduces their impact.

    A key advantage of e-learning is that it enables the delivery of such information to an individual employee on a just-in-time basis and at low cost. Apart from the immediacy of delivery, a further advantage in this context is the ability to quickly update web content to 2 reflect on-going changes in corporate information or even staff (such as the senior manager who welcomed employees in the e-learning programme’s digitised video clip!). As for the second question, HR and training professionals are less certain of the extent to which e-learning suits soft skills delivery. In experiential learning events, which depend on team interaction and on the spot debriefing, it is clear that face-to-face delivery continues to hold its place as a time-tested method of providing the immediate and personal learning impact required for successful learning.

    To avoid premature closure on this subject, however, it is good to suspend one’s initial mental impressions and reservations about taking a course such as leadership skills entirely online and look instead at the natural opportunities for e-learning to support learners’ soft skills development. In a hybrid or blended soft skills training approach, where face-to-face and online each a have specific delivery role, e-learning has much to
    offer. There has always been a segment of soft skills training that deals with concepts and models, and e-learning is well-suited for the treatment this content, with attractive screens, graphics, animations, and interactive features not available in a course manual.

    In addition, an online learning component can provide opinion and needs surveys, testing of knowledge and skills, planning templates, learner discussions (via bulletin boards), and personal coaching by a trainer or subject matter expert. The “anytime, anywhere” nature of web access makes it a flexible learner support tool before and after face-to-face training. These learning features, taken together with the learner tracking and record-keeping provided by the learning management systems that accompany e-learning, ensure online training a central role.

    With e-learning and web design tools speeding the re-purposing of face-to-face training content for the online environment, we can expect continued expansion of the blended approach to soft skills delivery. Judith Boettcher, Director of CREN (a US organisation supporting higher education and research organisations with IT knowledge services), predicts that soon a web-based learning site will be the "place" where every corporate training event begins and ends.


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