Easy As ABC

No more teachers, no more books. Welcome to the wide world of online learning.
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7 min read

This story appears in the October 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

The new wave in employee training is everywhere. "A couple billion dollars a year is [already] spent on Web-based training," says Kevin Oakes, president and chief learning officer of Asymetrix (http://www.asymetrix.com), a Bellevue, Washington, leader in the field of online training.

And that represents just a sliver of the nation's estimated $60 billion employee-training marketplace. But this train is just beginning to pick up speed. "As much as half of all training will be happening online by 2002," predicts Brandon Hall, the Sunnyvale, California, editor of http://www.brandonhall.com, a site that provides technology-based training information, industry developments, trends and ideas.

Why this mushrooming of Web-based training, where, instead of attending a class on how to use Corel WordPerfect, employees are now logging on to the Web to get the same information? There are two big reasons, says Kenneth Brown, an assistant professor of management and organization at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "Web-based training is more accessible--people can do it when and where they want--and the costs are substantially lower than classroom-based learning."

How much lower? "Cost savings are about 50 percent from classroom training to Web-based," says Hall. That's good news at a time when most experts say employees will need virtually continuous retraining to keep pace with today's dramatic workplace changes.

But the real argument for Web-based training isn't price; it's convenience. "The student can take a class when it fits into his or her schedule," says Kristina Lumsden, a product marketing manager with Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Distributed Learning Business Group, a division of online training products developer Lotus (http://www.lotus.com).

"Web-based training can be `just-in-time' training," adds Colm Darcy, director of curriculum development at Redwood City, California-based CBT, a leading provider of online training solutions for the business, government and higher education markets. "With Web-based training, the student can take it when he or she needs to."

Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him online with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.

User-Friendly Training

There's never been a shortage of training materials for entrepreneurs; classes have been around for decades, and in recent years, there have been plenty of classes on videotape and CD-ROM. As for videocassettes, they're good as far as they go. Keep in mind, however, videos aren't interactive--the teaching comes at the student without demanding participation. And CD-ROMs? Again, the medium is fine--if you have an equipped computer; many computers (both in businesses and in homes) don't have CD-ROM drives.

Now picture this: At a slack time in the workday, instead of pestering you with questions about how to do formulas in Microsoft Excel, your assistant can log on to the Web and take a class that teaches him or her all the ins and outs of the spreadsheet program.

There's never slack time at your company? The course can be taken at home, too--the appeal of Web-based training is that it requires only a computer, Internet access and an up-to-date browser (usually Netscape 3.0 or Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0 or higher). It doesn't matter that your sales manager uses a Sun workstation in the office, an IBM laptop on the road and an iMac at home--the same course material can be digested in bites that suit the student.

Another big plus of Web-based training? Even in a world moving at "Internet speed," there's no excuse for class materials ever to become outdated. "It's very easy to update Web materials to reflect new developments, whereas a 6-month-old CD-ROM may contain outdated information," says Mark Hanner, vice president of marketing for Web-Based Training Systems (http://www.wbtsystems.com) in San Francisco, a Web-based learning management firm.

Look Before You Leap

If it sounds like online education is the solution to your every training problem, hold on. There's also a less rosy side to this story. While there's a wide range of topics that pair well with Web-based teaching techniques--such as computer software skills or sales training--not all content lends itself to a Web-based presentation. The consensus among researchers is that some topics are better taught in person by instructors. "Team-building and training designed to strengthen interpersonal skills are probably better presented in person, with students convening in a room," adds Hall.

And it's not just some topics that are better-suited to in-person training: "Not all employees are well-suited to Web-based training," says Brown. Rules can't be hard and fast, but those without confidence, computer skills or content expertise may be less likely to learn.

So who will take to the medium? Anybody who's moderately comfortable with computers and already uses the Web. But even these people may be hard to motivate, says Bill Dyer, an Amarillo, Texas, author of a Web-based training site. Why? Web-based training is a solitary task, and, ultimately, it's up to each student to muster the motivation to plow through another lesson. Keep in mind, some people just aren't self-starters.

Training companies are beginning to address that issue, assures Jen Masino of ZDU, the Web-based teaching arm of tech publishing giant Ziff Davis. Masino explains that many classes feature online communities, where students can post questions to bulletin boards, get feedback and interact with peers. "There's a lot of interactivity possible with Web-based classes," says Masino. Is it enough interactivity to keep participants involved? Early indications are that many people do respond well to these cyber-communications and ultimately benefit from them.

Battling Scarcity

While some complain that Web training lacks supplementary materials, small businesses are finding a silver lining. "There's little off-the-shelf Web-based material available. So most are customized for companies," says Oakes. "This is [spurring] the use of Web-based training by smaller businesses."

Can you afford to commission your own classes? By Oakes' estimate, you need at least 100 students for a custom course to make economic sense. And he's assuming a willingness to pay $100 or more per student. Although the per-student price is realistic, small businesses rarely muster 100 students. Does that shut you out of this educational trend?

Not exactly. "We're beginning to see wider availability of off-the-shelf courses that will appeal to small businesses," says Hall. A case in point: CBT (http://www.cbtsys.com) has put up a storefront with 900-plus titles, ranging from "Everyone Sells" (sales training for those who don't see themselves as salespeople) to "Setting Up A Web Site." While some courses carry four-figure price tags, many are priced below $200.

More courses are found at DigitalThink (http://www.digitalthink.com), a San Francisco-based start-up that aims at small businesses with classes such as "Microsoft Word 97" ($99) and "Home Sweet Home Page" ($195).

Even better deals are found at ZDU (http://www.zdu.com), where subscriptions are sold by the month ($7.95) or year ($69.95), and one fee buys all the courses you can swallow, with topics ranging from "Microsoft Office 2000" to "Building an Online Community."

Still more classes are available from the San Francisco start-up HeadLight (http://www.headlight.com), whose goal is to meet the learning needs of employees in small and midsized businesses. By year-end, co-founder Scott Mitic says HeadLight will offer 1,000 classes, priced between $50 and $400.

Sort through the offerings, and, while the materials readily available to small businesses aren't yet abundant, you'll find the numbers are increasing. Should you start investigating the Web-based offerings, for both yourself and your staff? Absolutely. "Companies are under increasing pressure to provide training to employees, and Web-based learning has proved itself both effective and cost-effective," Hall says. "At all sizes of companies, we're seeing a big shift from focusing on classroom instruction to Web-based learning. And Web-based training is getting results."

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