Getting into e-learning for workforce training

As the shortage of skilled workers grows and the complexity of industrial jobs increases, new methods are being developed to provide the training these workers need. The field of e-learning is at the forefront of this effort.

By Richard L. Dunn, Editor, Plant Engineering Magazine September 10, 2003
Do it yourself?
What about costs?
What should you look for?
Where do you start?
More Info:
Terminology of e-learning
E-learning cost factors
What to look for in e-learning courses

As the shortage of skilled workers grows and the complexity of industrial jobs increases, new methods are being developed to provide the training these workers need. The field of e-learning is at the forefront of this effort.

Whatever you want to call it — e-learning, online instruction, computer-based training — it is widely regarded as a cost-effective, convenient replacement for traditional classroom instruction. While it may be just that, it is not always. And yet, it may be much more. The use of computers, and now the Internet, to provide instruction opens a new world of educational techniques and opportunities. In many cases, those opportunities can be a complete alternative to face-to-face classroom learning. In other cases, they cannot.

In any case, e-learning must now be a consideration in every industrial training program. According to the International Data Corp. (IDC), e-learning will account for almost 50% of the business skills training market by 2004. The American Society for Training and Development estimates that at least 650,000 courses are available online at any given time. Investments in e-learning infrastructure software are expected to exceed $1 billion this year, according to IDC, and corporate expenditures on e-learning could top $11 billion.

Success stories are numerous and impressive. According to Certilearn, an e-learning services provider: Cisco Systems reported cost savings of 40%-60% by putting 80% of its training online. Qwest Communications estimated that savings in training costs would be at least 50% in the first year alone. IBM’s e-learning saved more than $16 million in 2000. Sun Microsystems determined that the cost per student for an online course is approximately 75% less than that of sending an employee to an offsite, instructor-led class. Accenture expects savings of $300 million over 3-4 yr with its e-learning effort.

Despite such impressive data, e-learning is not a panacea. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln: You can use e-learning for some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t use it for all of the people all of the time. As effective as it can be, there are still many cases in which it is not an adequate replacement for face-to-face, hands-on learning.

One of the major questions in using e-learning is whether you will develop your own courses (meaning, in almost all cases, hiring a professional developer) or use packaged programs available off the shelf or over the Internet. Then, or course, there is the third option of customizing the packaged programs.

Among the determining factors in these kinds of decisions will be your short-term and long-term training goals, your budget, your existing training capabilities, your computer system infrastructure, ability of your employees to use computers, level of management support, and others.

Earlier this year, MindIQ, an e-learning company, conducted a survey on the biggest challenges to “planning, rolling out, and managing an e-learning training program.” As might be expected, the three leading challenges were:

  • Money — including budgets, funding, allocations, etc.

  • Resources — primarily, having enough

  • people to allocate to the task

  • Management “buy in” — convincing the people who control the purse strings that e-learning provides the benefits and returns they are looking for.

    • Other challenges mentioned less often, but not necessarily less important, were:

    • Getting courseware objectives in line with corporate objectives

    • Quick deployment

    • Getting employees to take the e-learning courses during work hours

    • Keeping content current

    • Having students complete the courses they start

    • Interfacing with the IT department

    • Keeping students engaged.

      • Do it yourself?

        The idea of taking an existing classroom training program and converting it to e-learning is an enticing one. There’s a tendency to think that if you can do a PowerPoint presentation, you can create e-learning media. But such efforts are likely to be failures.

        Good e-learning generally requires the involvement of professional educators and developers. While there are programs available to simplify the technical aspects of course development, it rarely works to simply sit a subject expert in front of a computer and expect useful results. Good e-learning courseware requires all of the planning, curriculum building, and other expertise required for classroom training — and more.

        For example, good e-learning must have interaction and feedback built into it.

        “Interaction is so important,” says Laurie Moormann,” director, Training & Performance Services, Rockwell Automation. “The ability to answer questions and get knowledge feedback is critical. That’s what keeps [learners] interested. It keeps them engaged. It also tells them when they’re not getting it. If you don’t have that feedback while you’re taking it, you can have your eyes in one place and your mind in another.”

        In the world of e-learning, doing it yourself usually means hiring or contracting with e-learning professionals to develop custom training, in contrast to buying prepackaged courses. Many plants use a combination of both.

        There are, of course, thousands of ready-to-run courses available. And for many subjects, these are good values. For basic training in safety, OSHA compliance, and other fundamentals, off-the-shelf courses are often the best value. There are some excellent materials on the market at very reasonable prices.

        What about costs?

        There’s no question that establishing and conducting an e-learning initiative can be very expensive. But that cost often pales in comparison to the expenses of sending employees to distant locales for days or weeks of training.

        One of the problems is that the old rule of thumb, “you get what you pay for,” doesn’t seem to apply in e-learning. At least, not yet.

        “Price is no indicator at all,” according to Moormann. Her research has uncovered “everything from $25 for a 2-hr module to $2300. Some of it has to do with the quality of the content, some of it has to do with the topics. More generic, background, core-knowledge-type training is a lot less expensive than product-specific or application-specific training.”

        Whatever the “price,” determining the cost of e-learning can be a complex matter. Many of the factors to be evaluated in determining the actual cost of providing e-learning are listed in the accompanying sidebar, “E-learning cost factors.”

        What should you look for?

        Evaluation of e-learning programs can involve a number of criteria (see sidebar, “What to look for in e-learning courses”). But nothing can match a hands-on review. Experts recommend obtaining a sample program or a demo version that you and others can use for evaluation.

        Once you have the review course or module, have someone expert in the subject matter review it for accuracy and suitability in your plant. Also, have one or more potential students work with it. And, of course, review it yourself. Ask everyone who reviews it for their evaluations concerning content, applicability, and the all-important look and feel of the program.

        Finally, have someone from your IT department check the system requirements to ensure that it can be accessed using your plant’s networks and computers.

        Where do you start?

        “The first and most critical step in planning a training program is to determine exactly what training is required,” advises Michael Nikodem, executive vice president and COO, Telemedia, Inc., a training systems provider. “You need to know exactly what knowledge and skills your employees need to meet your performance goals. And you need to know what knowledge and skills they already possess. Based on this information, you can determine the exact training required.”

        In other words, you need a needs assessment .

        Depending on your situation, a needs assessment can be a simple or complex matter, something you can do yourself or something you need expert help with. In general, the more simple and limited your objectives are, the easier the assessment will be. But if you are planning to make a major investment into the development of an extensive e-learning program, contracting with a consultant to conduct your needs assessment will be money well spent.

        Once you’ve defined your training needs, you can relate those needs with your plant’s business objectives and begin shopping for or developing the e-learning tools that will help you meet them.

        All of the challenges notwithstanding, there is no question that e-learning should be a part of every industrial training program — if not as a substitute for traditional practices, then as an extension of efforts to build the knowledge and skills of the workforce.

        More Info:

        These web sites offer a wealth of useful information on e-learning: , , , , , .

        The following books are useful in the development of any kind of training program:

        Designing Powerful Training by Michael Milano with Diane Ullius. Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, San Francisco, 1998.

        Evaluating Training Programs , second edition, by Donald L. Kirkpatrick. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc., San Francisco, 1998.

        A Practical Guide to Needs Assessment , by Kavita Gupta. Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, San Francisco, 1999.

        Terminology of e-learning

        Accessibility . Characteristics of hardware and software that facilitate use by people with disabilities. May also be related to functionality with older or slower hardware or software.

        Asynchronous . Not requiring people to be logged on at the same time. A learning program that allows users to access it at any time is asynchronous.

        Authoring system . Software that is used for creating e-learning modules and courses.

        Blended learning . Any combination of traditional classroom or face-to-face learning with e-learning.

        Chat . An online, text-based discussion in real time.

        Component test . Used to determine if there are any conflicts between a learning program and any other programs that might be running at the same time.

        Computer-based training (CBT) or computer-assisted instruction (CAI) . Any course presented on a computer. Most commonly used to refer to standalone courses that do not involve connection to the web or other network.

        Content management system (CMS) . Software application or set of applications used for designing, testing, approving, and posting e-learning content.

        Distance learning . Any educational arrangement in which instructors and students are separated by time, location, or both.

        Extranet . A computer network that allows access by selected people outside an organization.

        Groupware . Programs for facilitating sharing of information and files, conducting chats, and collaborating in other ways.

        Human factors engineer or usability engineer . Person responsible for reviewing e-learning course designs for ease of use, navigation, barriers to use, etc.

        Instructional designer . Person with overall responsibility for course design. Determines how materials should be presented and works with programmers on development.

        Integrated learning system (ILS) . A complete software, hardware, and network system used for instruction.

        Kirkpatrick’s four levels of evaluation . Method developed by Donald Kirkpatrick for assessing effectiveness of learning programs. Levels are: (1) student reaction, (2) amount of learning that occurred, (3) transfer of learning outside the classroom, and (4) impact of the training on the organization.

        Knowledge management . Capturing, storing, organizing, and making available to others the knowledge and experience of individuals and groups.

        Learning content management system (LCMS) . Software that manages the creation, storage, and use of learning content.

        Learning management system (LMS) . Software for tracking individual student progress, scores on quizzes and tests, and course completion. These programs sometimes can be linked to other programs, such as human resource databases.

        Learning objectives . Definitions of the skills or capabilities learners should master by the end of a course. Each objective should cover three factors: description of observable, measurable behavior; conditions of performance (e.g., with assistance of a manual); and level of performance.

        Online learning . Any educational program delivered by web-based or Internet-based technology.

        Scalability . Degree to which a computer application or component can be expanded in size, volume, or number of users and still continue to function properly.

        Storyboard . Graphic presentation of a proposed e-learning course, including sketches of images, rough text, and production instructions.

        Subject matter expert (SME) . Knowledgeable person who assists with content selection and reviews for accuracy.

        Synchronous . Requiring people to be logged on at the same time. A learning program that requires all learners to access it concurrently is synchronous.

        Technology-based instruction . Any training through media other than the classroom. Includes computers, television, audio, video, and print.

        Usability test . Assesses the ability of learners to find and understand material without assistance and their speed in doing so.

        User interface . Methods through which learners interact with the computer. Includes icons, navigational tools, menus, etc.

        Web-based training . Courses that use web technology for presentation and are linked to resources outside the course.

        E-learning cost factors

        Price or license fee

        Customization of software (if applicable)

        Server support

        Help desk support

        IT system administration

        Software installation and testing

        Bandwidth fees (if applicable)

        Courseware development (if applicable)

        Learning management system

        Courseware updates and maintenance

        Computer workstations

        IT infrastructure

        Additional hardware

        Equipment/network upgrades

        Training administration

        Student participation costs

        Support materials (manuals, references, etc.)

        What to look for in e-learning courses

        There are a number of criteria that excellent online education courses should meet, which differentiate these courses from the mediocre or ineffective courses:

        Excellence in e-learning is really not that much different from that in traditional training. When evaluating a course for use, examine the following areas:

        Accessibility : There are two kinds of accessibility. The first refers to use by persons with disabilities. The second has to do with availability to all users. Be sure that there are no barriers — technological or otherwise — that would prevent learners from access to the e-learning system or course materials.

        Accuracy : Course content must be accurate and current. Students will reject an entire lesson or course if they perceive that the material contains errors or is out of date.

        Compatibility : Does the program use software and standards that are widely recognized; is it compatible with other e-learning programs on the market; can the program interact with a variety of learning management systems?

        Interactivity : There should be ample opportunity for students, content experts, and instructors to interact. This mustn’t necessarily be real-time interaction, although that is good.

        Maintainability : Factors affecting maintainability of an e-learning program include the ability to update content using pre-existing templates; separation of content from structure; ease of adding and removing users.

        Modularity : If you want to customize or update courses, be sure they are constructed using discrete learning objects or chunks that can easy be moved from one course to another or modified individually.

        Opportunity for reflection and practice : Courses need to contain activities to help students relate material to their everyday lives. Case studies, what-if scenarios, and what-would-you-do exercises are useful for this.

        Relevance of content : Objectives of the course and its content need to be tied to real-life issues, theories, and experience. Knowledge must be practical or applied.

        Usability : A course should be easy to navigate — not just in terms of moving around a screen or accessing certain features, it should also be easy to move from one section to another and facilitate communication with the instructor. Access to the course should be as intuitive as possible.

        Variety in presentation : Students learn best when material is presented in several ways. Inclusion of appropriate graphics, audio, video, or slideshows will enhance the learning experience.