Going the distance Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

For years, businesses have been educating their employees to keep them up to speed on the latest technology. Now, technology is helping businesses keep up with their education. Through a system known as distance learning, employees are receiving everything from new-hire training to full-degree programs via technology. In some cases, they're are able to take courses right from their desks.

The United States Distance Learning Association explains distance learning as the application of electronic technology to education in all areas, encompassing elementary education, corporate training, government training, and everything in between. Classes are transmitted to students via videotapes; real-time satellite, with either a two-way video or a one-way video with two- way telephone audio; or the Internet. Hundreds of classes are being offered through colleges and universities, and some companies are installing technology to provide their own training to employees.

According to Charles Humbert, Ph.D., director of operations for the USDLA in Brentwood, Calif., saving time and money are the big reasons companies are using this forum. Travel time is eliminated, or at least greatly reduced, with distance learning. And for internal training within multi-office companies, distance learning can significantly cut the expense.

"If I can educate all of my people right where they are, I don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to fly them all in to [headquarters] for a meeting of some kind," Dr. Humbert says.

Distance learning allows Cleveland-based Management Recruiters International to train several of its more than 750 offices simultaneously. Using videoconferencing technology initially installed to help clients interview job candidates long-distance, MRI first applied distance learning to its two-week new-hire training programs. New employees in each office watch videotapes and complete review sheets independently. Then, instead of meeting one-on-one throughout the day with their managers, employees connect through videoconferencing to an instructor at the corporate office.

"What it allowed us to do is free up a lot of time for our managers," says Robin Gordon, MRI's corporate training administrator. The program was so effective, MRI now offers 160 hours of distance learning instruction per month on a variety of business-building topics. Currently, 335 of MRI's offices are equipped with the technology.

Distance learning is not for everyone, however. Installing the technology requires a heavy investment, so Humbert says in-house programs are mostly being implemented by large corporations, such as Federal Express and Southwest Airlines. Not every employee is suited to this type of learning either, Humbert notes. Although instructors interact regularly with students on the phone, through e-mail and in chat rooms, some students need the human contact of a classroom setting.

The technology itself can be sometimes be problematic as well, Humbert says. The downlink may not work like it's supposed to, for example. But as the technology improves to become as reliable as placing a telephone conference call or sending a fax, distance learning is expected to become even more popular.

If you're interested in pursuing distance learning for your employees, Humbert suggests contacting local colleges and universities, both to see what they offer for your employees and to learn how to implement a program of your own.