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New online training a boon, but won't replace the classroom


June 9, 1998
Web posted at: 12:00 p.m. EDT

by Sandra Gittlen

(IDG) -- Nothing frustrates managers more than the catch-22 of having employees who need training but not having the time or money to let them take that training.

Web-based learning is beginning to solve that dilemma for some managers, according to industry experts. As the availability of software packages and online services swells, more companies are turning to the 'Net to boost employee knowhow.

Web-based training is an application placed on a server that an employee can download to learn more about software packages, educational tools, common tasks or company information such as medical benefits. That application can reside on a company's intranet or out on the Web at a trainer or vendor site.

Many vendors such as Microsoft Corp. are putting together online training packages to accompany software releases or are licensing the rights to the applications out to third-party training groups such as CBT Systems, Inc. or Dataquest, Inc. Some companies are even using their intranets to develop training in-house for company-specific skills.

But experts warn that Web-based training, while expected to grow from 2% of IT training budgets to 14% by 2001, according to International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., will not replace the classroom experience.

"It's just making it easier for people to get trained quickly," said Christianne Moretti, manager of IT training and education research for IDC Canada. "It is also taking away reasons for employers to object to training.'' Most Web-based training can be done at work and does require travel or time off in addition to course costs. ''Right now, training is an event." In fact, Diane Gayeski, a professor of corporate communications at Ithaca College, said the word "training" is a misnomer. The information people receive will be in the form of quick information bytes, case studies and examples, and will involve very little actual training.

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With Web-based training, if an employee is told to perform a task involving an application she has not used, she could quickly go onto the World Wide Web or company intranet and download an interactive tutorial for that application. "Web-based training is making training more accessible for shorter chunks of time at much lower costs," said Leon Navickas, president and CEO of Centra Software, Inc. in Lexington, Mass. Centra develops Symposium, a Web-based learning and collaboration tool. "Rather than stopping working, you get what you need as you go," Moretti said. ''It allows you to assimilate what you need to learn into your work routine."

"Companies are rushing into Web-based training as a way to save money," said Dan Tobin, a consultant and author fo corporate training strategy books. Navickas said Web-based learning is appealing to companies because it does not require expensive videoconferencing systems, CD-ROM packages that quickly become obsolete or satellite hookups. Often, the upfront development costs are minimal compared to preparing the extravagant CD-ROM and video packages, Gayeski said.

In most cases, Web-based training only requires a browser and e-mail, something many employees have at home, in the office or on the road. By using tools that are already in place, companies save a tremendous amount of money, he said.

Also Web-based training usually only requires one package installed on a server, so you don't have to buy hundreds of packages and then keep track of them for upgrades, Tobin said.

He said Web-based training can be delivered in three ways: as a live virtual classroom with an instructor leading the course using conferencing and collaboration tools such as Centra Software, Inc.'s Symposium; asynchronously, with the student working alone but still using streaming and audio and keeping to a certain schedule; or self-paced, in which a student can work along at his own pace. Some companies are even setting up learning centers, she said, so that employees can get out of their cube for a while.

In the IT industry, Web-based training is important because "product cycles have shortened," Navickas said. Bay Networks, a Centra client, uses Web-based training to quickly teach the sales team about products as they are released. Otherwise, Bay would have to schedule a sales meeting, fly everyone in and take a day or more out of everyone's schedule.

Also, with information residing on the Web, sales people can learn about products on the fly, depending on customer need, he said. Having better-equipped and better-trained sales people contributes to Bay's revenues, Navickas said.

There's always a hitch

However, Tobin pointed to some drawbacks in Web-based training. First, with most forms of Web-based training, save the virtual classroom, you lose the ability to ask questions and have your questions answered in real time. "You can e-mail your questions, but it's not the same," he said.

Second, the vagaries of streaming multimedia can slow down training - complex graphics might take too long to download, for example - he said.

Tobin attributes this to Web developers going for glitz instead of practicality in their course designs.

Third, it's hard to weed out the junky courses online because there are so many being offered. "You can't just pick something from what's out there, you have to research it," he said.

Gayeski also points out that if you work at your computer all day, sometimes it's nice to get out, meet other people and learn from them.

Navickas said the next step for Web-based training is to make it "really easy for people to get a learning and collaboration system up and running and to embrace the world's various knowledge bases." This means going beyond only Web-formatted material, he said.


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