Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Why eLearning?

In this blog, I intend to look at different aspects of e-learning, from theory to tools to my personal experiences. I am assuming anyone who is reading this is currently doing e-learning, or is thinking about it, so I will try to make it as simple and concise as possible, but I will assume you know the basics.

For this first blog entry, I thought it would be a good idea to cover why you would want to have e-learning as a method of training at all? With so many different ways to train individuals, why is e-learning the right choice for a company?

Honestly, e-learning is not always the right choice for every training situation.

There are many companies that choose e-learning because they think it is a low-cost alternative to putting people in a classroom, or at least sending an instructor out in the field. Once you take into account the cost of purchasing an e-learning tool, purchasing an LMS, then paying people to create and maintain courses, it could theoretically cost as much, if not more than classroom instruction. It's important to do the research first and find out the real costs.

Some companies believe they can take an instructor and have he or she conduct a "webinar" or take PowerPoint slides or a manual and use a particular design tool to put it online and it will be just as good. This may be perfectly acceptable for some topics. For other topics, it's critical for the trainee to have a live person in the room to answer questions and explain things. Especially if it involves something complex and mechanical like an engine or similar device.

While I have a background in e-learning design and development, I'm also versed in instructional design. The goal of instructional design is to find the best and most effective way of training people, and each method of training (instructor-led, job aids, online, etc.) has strengths and weaknesses. While entire books have been written on this subject, I will focus on reasons why you would want to choose e-learning either as a primary way of training, or, better yet, to supplement other types of training.

Here are some (but by no means every) legitimate reasons why you would consider e-learning:

1. Difficulty aligning trainee schedules.

Yes, going to a classroom and training would be nice, but people are busier than ever before, and they just don't have the time to go to class. Even if you can get two or three people in a class at a time, what if you have 100 or more trainees? That's over 30 class sessions. If you're under time constraints, this may be unacceptable. Asynchronous can be taken via computer, which means an employee or customer can take it as time allows.

2. The topic of training involves using a computer.

One thing e-learning can do very well are software simulations. Now this isn't to say that learning in a computer lab with an instructor isn't advantageous as well. If a software program is extremely complex, having an instructor present is helpful. But if the program is relatively simple, or a lab just isn't available, or schedules don't allow lab training (point #1), e-learning could be the right training tool.

3. Tracking of training is critical.

If you have a large number of trainees, and it's important to monitor their training (particularly test scores), e-learning with a learning management system (LMS) is an excellent way of keeping track of who is receiving what training and how that individual is doing. Yes, an instructor could take attendance and keep track of test scores and enter them into a database, but having the whole process online is much faster and more efficient - particularly if the trainees are spread out over a large geographic area.

4. Instructor interaction is not necessary or important.

The less complex a training topic, the fewer questions a trainee will have. This means an instructor is not as necessary as with a more complex topic. If the training is relatively simple, and it can be easily conveyed via a computer, then e-learning is a good method of providing training. Conversely, if a topic is complex, e-learning (particularly asynchronous e-learning) would not be a good training method.

5. A training topic has frequent simple changes over time.

What is really powerful about e-learning is it can be distributed to a group of people in a wide area in an instant - at least theoretically. I can make a change to this blog and in an instant it's uploaded and available to everyone with web access. E-learning can be like this, but it takes some planning in advance. If the tool used to design e-learning is not a simple tool, or your e-learning uses complex media such as audio and/or video, that can slow down the process. By the time new audio or video is recorded and placed into the course, the content may be outdated. Remember to take into consideration the amount of time it takes to get changes approved through the review process. If you can juggle all these variables successfully, e-learning can be a great training method for this type of content.

While this is not a comprehensive list of reasons to choose e-learning, it should provide some food for thought. With all the different types of training available, make sure you are choosing e-learning for the right reasons.

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