Distance learning Featured

7:00pm EDT January 31, 2007

According the to the “2006 Industry Report” in the December issue of Training magazine, companies spent approximately 15 percent of their training budgets on e-learning, a two-fold increase over 2005, signifying that online instruction is here to stay as a mainstream delivery vehicle.

The article notes that online programs are used most extensively for mandatory or compliance training, but are increasingly being used for customer service, retail process and soft skills instruction as well.

“Corporations are currently the largest users of online learning programs,” says Cindy Larson, Ed.D., president of Spectrum Pacific Learning Co. in La Jolla, which creates and supports distance and online learning systems. “However, the academic sector is expected to be the largest user within the next five years.”

Smart Business asked Larson what makes for a quality program and how corporations can make the most of their online training dollars.

What are some of the trends for employer-sponsored online learning programs?

Since 2000, the growth of online learning has been tremendous. Enrollment in online programs has more than doubled in the last few years, and this trend is likely to continue. Industry analysts predict that growth will double again in the next two years. This can greatly be attributed to lower costs and better use of technology to create engaging online learning.

How do corporations benefit by offering their employees online learning?

Online learning has the opportunity to engage all learning styles, offers flexibility and provides accessibility. There are three core learning styles: audio, visual and hands-on. Approximately 10 percent of adults are audio learners, 20 percent are visual, and 70 percent are hands-on. In a classroom, you’re typically only fully engaging about 10 percent of your audience — the audio learners. Online learning enables us to move beyond those limitations. Additionally, it is flexible and accessible, meaning that employees can take the classes at times that are most convenient to them, and that the employer can change, add to and update the programs in real-time.

Rather than the traditional testing that takes place in a classroom, online courses offer the opportunity to conduct pre-, during, post- and follow-up assessments. Students can always go back to areas they missed or still don’t completely understand. The post- and follow-up assessments enable the employer to quantify and qualify its investment and ensure that the employee has retained the information.

Also, when compared to a classroom, the online learning environment offers more opportunity to engage visual learners. As for the social aspect of the experience, separate ‘communities’ can be set up where learners can chat, engage in live discussions or participate in discussion threads.

How can companies that do not yet have an online learning program get started?

The first step is to undergo an assessment of the company’s training needs to determine whether an online program would be practical. Factors that are considered include the company’s business environment, culture and competitive marketplace. How much training do they need? What type? There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Companies should be judicious when selecting courses that make sense for their particular organization and start out with a pilot program.

How can companies that already offer online courses ensure that their programs are effective?

By conducting an audit. Audits will reveal if the company is on-target with the design, content and delivery of its programs. An audit should ensure that clear learning objectives are established; that benchmarks gauge comprehension; that training aids engage all three learning styles; that information is broken down into small chunks, and that 24/7 technical support is available.

In addition, trainers/facilitators should be accessible via e-mail and/or discussion threads.

How can employees get the most out of their online experience?

It depends on their learning style and place in the organization. For an exempt employee, taking a 45-minute online course on harassment prevention can be a huge time saver. For a nonexempt employee, is it relevant? Staff-level employees want to feel that the training is relevant to their specific job. They want to know ‘what’s in it for me’ if they complete the courses.

Help participants up-front by providing a questionnaire to assess what type of learner they are: visual, audio or hands-on. This can easily help them maneuver through the course. Done well, e-learning can have an incredible impact on learning, corporate culture and the bottom line.

CINDY LARSON, Ed.D., is president of Spectrum Pacific Learning Co. in La Jolla, which is part of the National University System. Reach her at clarson@spectrumpacific.com or (858) 642-8113.