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Online Learning – conference report


Learning in Business hosted a two day event on 'Online Learning: exploiting technology for training' in London on 23/24 November. TrainingZone were invited to provide a speaker and this article reports some reactions and observations from the second day.

The attendance at the event was not large, but included directors, IT staff and training managers from a range of predominantly large companies, as well as a fair number of training and learning providers. The quality of the presentations was somewhat mixed but what follows are summaries of some of the notes which I made:

A lot of development has gone into multimedia learning programmes, usually based on CD-roms. These can be highly interactive with on-disk tutorials, video and audio clips, self-assessment materials, games, guided activities and plenty of navigation help. The best such products are highly inventive, easy to use, and integrate some very effective educational design to make the learning accessible. Several companies are now providing dedicated computer terminals in the workplace where staff can access disk-based programmes for their induction and learning at times convenient to themselves.

Several presentations focused on measuring the cost-effectiveness of this form of staff development. The time away from the job was reduced, often by up to 75%. The material was available whenever the learner wanted it. It was easy to organise. Calculations on the return on investment showed very favourable results compared to conventional approaches to training. However, some argued that this level of training would never have been provided using conventional formats, so that in some cases, this learning might represent an additional cost above what would have been previously incurred.

Many presenters argued that online learning was not a panacea and that it would always be part of a mixed programme of learning delivery styles. Opinions varied, but there seemed to be some consensus that half of company training could be online within a couple of years. Paul Butler repeated his assertion that people without online learning skills in 2002 would be unemployable.

EPIC presented some interesting figures from a survey conducted amongst UK companies into the present and future uptake of online learning. They showed:

At present, 20% use online learning and 61% use classroom training
In two years, 57% will use online delivery and 50% will still use classroom training
In five years, 76% will be using online delivery, and only 41% still using classroom methods.

The need for better and stronger learner support to engage in online learning was well recognised. Examples of online mentoring were supplied by KnowledgePool and BT amongst others. Some companies supplemented this with peer mentoring within the company. Whilst these assisted the learner with questions initiated by the learner, there were no examples of the coach searching for the learner to check on their progress. Some training management programmes were able to track the learner's use of online programmes, and identify people who had fallen behind, but it was unclear whether the subsequent enquiry would be human or automated; it's our view that human contact is essential in both the motivating and coaching phases to ensure the learner remains engaged and actively learning.

Yet again, it was evident that 90+% of all online learning relates to computing skills of one form or another. Where it goes beyond this into other fields of learning, most of the examples still employ little more than scanned pages of text presented online; for most learners, it would be simpler to read the physical book!

A number of speakers recognised this problem and pointed to the need for online learning to be strongly interactive. KnowledgePool acknowledged this and showed that they are beginning to think about online learning beyond technology subjects; my challenge to them is to develop a portfolio of courses where no more than 10% of the subjects are computing-related! Paul Butler talked of a Cyber Salon to learn hairdressing NVQ skills. My example is of groupwork skills delivered online - a real challenge for the educational design framework.

Interactivity is a real problem. With CD-roms, we can integrate various forms of multimedia because access to the disk in the computer is quick and easy. Placing this material into a web interface is more difficult. Audio and video streaming is possible - we can do it within TrainingZone stories like this one - but the requirements for disk space and download time and unrealistic over our present telephone connections and bandwidth. BT presented an interesting example of delivering interactive simulations over the Internet to 18,000 employees, but very few people will have access to the sort of intranet cabling which they can currently offer to staff. We desperately need to integrate multimedia features into genuine web-based online learning, but delivery speeds need to be very much quicker than those currently available for this to be acceptable to the learner.

The importance of good design in online learning was repeatedly stressed. People don't like constant password prompts, complex plug-in (which need to be downloaded first), over use of graphics, etc. They do like clean interfaces and simple intuitive navigation tools.

TrainingZone's presentation focused on how what we already know about learning is still not being sufficiently integrated into the design of online learning. It questioned the extent to which the learner's needs are taken into account before the technology takes over. Using some simple models such as learning cycles, learning styles, transferring responsibility, empowering the learner, transferring learning and support for the learner, it sought to find examples of these ideas being integrated into web design across a range of sites. This presentation will be available shortly in the TrainingZone Toolkit to be downloaded as a PowerPoint file if you want to find out more.

Tim Pickles

Postscript: IPD members and others who receive People Management magazine, will be interested to see that the main feature article in the current issue (25 November 1999) is on e-learning, written by Elliott Masie. Unfortunately, feature articles are only available online a fortnight after publication, and then only accessible to IPD member - you'll need to find a paper copy.


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