Testing the Limits of Online Training

Admit it. When the subject of Computer Based Training (CBT) comes up, you imagine being told to "press this button . . . look at the results . . . then press this button next . . ." That’s a common view, but multimedia-rich, high-quality training delivered via the Internet may soon change that perception.

Admit it. When the subject of Computer Based Training (CBT) comes up, you imagine being told to "press this button . . . look at the results . . . then press this button next . . ." That’s a common view, but multimedia-rich, high-quality training delivered via the Internet may soon change that perception. But two questions remain: Is anybody using CBT and does it deliver for technical staff?

Results of a recent Microsoft Corp. pilot study showed that 83 percent of respondents would recommend technical, self-paced, online training to a colleague who knows little or nothing about Microsoft Exchange Server 5.5. The majority of those surveyed think that online, self-paced technical training will be used more in the future. A study conducted by International Data Corp. (IDC, www.idc.com) found that nearly 100 percent of those surveyed said they would recommend Internet-based training to companies not yet using the technology. Ellen Julian, manager of IDC’s training markets research program explains, "Enthusiasm for Internet-based training revolves around flexibility, convenience and cost-effectiveness."

Advantages

Training over the Internet has several advantages. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the enormous flexibility granted with Web-based training. It is difficult to accept the absence of valuable technical staff for long periods of time, so Internet-based training allows an organization’s best technical minds to remain in the office while still keeping them up-to-date on key skills. The logistics and expense of hotels, airlines and meals on the road are avoided. In their place is the ability for employees to train at his or her own pace, and at a time that is convenient.

Online technical training reflects the fast pace of the information industry today. The frenetic pace of technology often leaves hardcopy training materials and presentations behind the times. Rather than adding inserts or supplements to printed training materials, it is easier to change a Web site once and have all students up-to-date. Also, the delivery of instruction over the Internet never requires installing special software on student machines: A big plus for organizations that support multiple platforms at the desktop.

Obstacles

Despite the advantages, online training should be a supplement to -- not a substitute for -- traditional training. For many managers, online training is perceived the same as a correspondence course or a degree-by-mail. The cache of a five-day course on Windows NT Server administration at a hands-on learning center is different from the same course delivered from a Web site. Most corporations need to be assured that the quality of the material at the online training facility is equal to that of face-to-face sessions. Online training’s fiercest critics point to poor quality material, and they scorn many courses as nothing more than electronic page-turning exercises.

Another part of the image problem facing online technical training is timing. While the flexibility of online technical training is one of its greatest benefits, it can also be a force that keeps organizations from adopting it as a strategy. Some technical staff, chained to their workstations as it is, won't avail themselves of training while also being available for support or technical calls. If employees are expected to take advantage of online training "when they can fit it in," they may begin to sense a backdoor increase in their workload. While that is not the intent in most situations, it needs to be addressed before it becomes a silent source of hostility toward training.

The Varieties of Internet Training

Internet-based training comes in two main formats: instructor-led courses and self-study content.

Instructor-led courses and workshops are often more in-depth than their self-study cousins. Typically an instructor posts a weekly lesson to a Web site and provides an assignment in an Internet newsgroup or discussion area. Students can log in anytime during the week to read the lesson, gather up the materials for the assignment and post questions and requests. Many Internet-based technical training services also support chat areas where students can discuss course work and follow up on technical issues with instructors and other students.

Self-study courses can be as simple as multimedia presentations on a specific topic or as complex as a simulation, giving you hands-on interactive training as if you were using the real desktop application. Self-study has the advantage of allowing a student to repeat a unit or section at will until they have mastered the material. According to Pat Powers, the information services manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, "Another nice feature is that some of the self-study courses guarantee prompt responses to questions or problems that come up during the course." Powers, who helped implement an extensive multimedia training platform for the Wisconsin DNR’s IT organization, adds, "What we really like is the opportunity to ask follow-up questions long after we’ve completed the online course."

Microsoft in the Mix

One company that is helping to build the momentum for online and multimedia training -- while trying to avoid its pitfalls -- is Microsoft Corp. The impending release of Windows 2000 has Microsoft concerned that developers, IT professionals and channel partners receive the information they need to successfully deploy the new operating system. As a result, Microsoft is expanding its commitment to online training.

In April, Microsoft announced a $40 million program to target its channel partners and Microsoft Certified Solution Providers (MSCP). A key part of the offering, according to Laura DiDio, a research analyst at Giga Information Group (www.gigaweb.com), is a new Online Resource Center for MSCPs. DiDio thinks Microsoft will have a hard time adequately getting its customers up-to-speed on the new technology no matter how many shows and classes it plans to host. By taking advantage of new, online resources, she says, "You will save yourselves and your companies countless headaches and untold hours of downtime."

Online training and support for Windows 2000 is not the only Web-based training initiative under way at Microsoft. The Online Seminars section of Microsoft’s TechNet provides briefings and seminars on architectural, administrative and technical topics. An example of the technical training available at the site is a 15 minute multimedia presentation that walks a student through the steps needed to configure Windows NT Server 4.0 to provide secure remote access and virtual private networking (VPN) services. An index of the free instructional online training and seminars is available at http://www.microsoft.com/seminar/1033/Index/MasterIndex.htm.

Other Players

Microsoft isn’t alone in the rush to offer technical training online. Novell Inc. has begun to offer NetWare training. At its InfiLearning site (www.infilearning.net), Novell offers online training on key networking technologies. In addition, the company links the available online training to offerings from training centers that provide Novell specific course offerings.

While many large technology companies look at online training as an alternative to traditional forms of education and support, others look inward. According to Ken Landau, director of IBM Corp.’s Technology Enabled Learning, the company could generate over $100 million in cost savings in 1999. The savings will come from using online training to achieve travel and living expense savings and to avoid other costs. This year IBM intends to deliver 30 percent of its internal education using a distributed learning strategy that includes online classes as a key component.

A variety of CBT and training organizations have emerged to provide online training. Companies like 7th Street.Com (www.7thstreet.com) and DigitalThink Inc. (www.digitalthink.com) offer technical training in a variety of packages. Each delivers Web-based multimedia training on a subscription basis to either individual users or corporate accounts.

Not every institution has been quick to jump into the online training fray. Nancy Mathews, program director for computer technology seminars at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, says, "It would be easy for us to deliver our lecture and demonstration courses over the Internet, but I wonder if that’s really what technical students want. It’s when you get to hands-on training that you really start to have lots of challenges." Delivering the online training is only one part of the problem according to Mathews: "My dilemma is what to do about the software that the student is using. Do you have the student buy and install it or do you provide it as part of the course offering and then face the problem of providing support?"

Do-It-Yourself

The Internet-based training marketplace is in its infancy, but products like Lotus’ LearningSpace (www.lotus.com) and WBT Systems’ TopClass (www.wbtsystems.com) already make it possible for companies to build their own online training services.

Some companies have found that the tools available today are good enough to build and deploy training for their technical staff. At Siemens' Business Communication Systems support was needed to train more than 1,000 employees in several locations throughout the United States. Siemens built their own distributed training service, Siemens Virtual University, which uses the Internet to deliver real-time training events and live presentations to its employees. The company turned to Lotus’ LearningSpace software to build its Virtual University.

"Before we began deploying the LearningSpace technology, our employees typically spent two weeks per year off-site at training seminars learning about our new products and technologies," said Al Gordon, manager of Siemens Virtual University program. "By building Siemens Virtual University we've been able to keep our staff in the field while providing more effective and efficient training. Our online training allowed us to cut our training costs by 90 percent even as it enhanced our organization's knowledge management infrastructure."

Others have found it difficult to quantify the return on the investment in online and multimedia training. At the Wisconsin DNR, Powers notes, "Figuring out the return is tricky: It’s relatively easy to figure the cost avoidance associated with travel and logistics, but when it comes to quantifying productivity improvements things are more complicated." Powers suggests the online training be supplemented with pre and post tests that are specific to the technical skills being delivered. "We’d like to compare the proficiency of those not trained, those trained through traditional methods and those who use online or multimedia training," he says.

Conclusion

Few claim that online training replaces all other forms of training for technical staff. It does, however, offer an attractive combination of flexibility and cost avoidance. "We think we can cost-effectively use content from vendors for our basic IT and technical training, but when it comes to advanced topics -- or topics that are specific to our needs -- we need to author that ourselves," Powers says.

Online training looks like it will become a part of the mainstream for many organizations. A report by IDC shows that, while the use of traditional, instructor-led training will continue to decline, 82 percent of large corporations are either exploring or delivering online IT training. For those organizations, the question is no longer, "Should we take advantage of online training?" For many corporations, today’s challenge is finding the right balance between traditional training and new Internet training opportunities.