Netting an education

Computer-based tuition has had a real impact on staff training and with online courses, distance learning is a practical and viable alternative for businesses and staff. By Martin Croft

Technology has revolutionised training, but not necessarily in the way it was meant to. Remember the early days of the PC revolution, when the pundits were confidently predicting the imminent dawn of the paperless office and the ability to work from anywhere? The same was true for training: the experts said that in the brave new world of the computer, we would all be learning skills for work or life – from computer-based training (CBT) modules that would allow us to study in the comfort of our own homes.

A decade or so ago, when CBT was all the rage, a number of UK companies bought in to this philosophy, and invested heavily in CBT. As Martyn Sloman, learning, training and development adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and author of The E-learning Revolution (CIPD, 2002), says: “Companies bought generic suites of material and made them available to staff in the hope that something would happen. It didn’t. Companies are now wrestling with a series of disappointments with this ‘dump and run’ philosophy.”

After this “hiccup” we have moved on to the next stage in the development of e-learning, which training experts have dubbed “blended learning” (a term Sloman and many others in the industry hate).

The perfect blend?

Blended learning is the marriage of distance learning methods – CBT courses, which people can complete in or out of the office, internet-based material, written coursework and classroom sessions – according to the training needs of the company and the individuals concerned.

Scott Knox, a director of marketing industry trade body the Marketing Communications Consultants Association (MCCA), says: “We were going to build courses to do at home, but we found there were enormous benefits in getting people together physically.”

Knox adds that many MCCA members – particularly those lower down the corporate ladder – prefer to get together and network.

Steve Mills, a director of training consultancy MTP, says that no one training approach used on its own can be assured of 100 per cent success: “You can’t apply a one-size-fits-all mentality”. His company organises training for blue-chip clients such as Boots and Unilever, with participants encouraged to do work in advance, which is reinforced in a classroom through case studies, business simulations and such like. Students are then given more work to do in their own time, in preparation for another classroom session at a later date.

There is a place for CBT, Mills admits, but “it can’t be the best way to learn how to be a good marketer; marketing is too much of an art for that. It’s qualitative, not quantitative. There is no right answer.”

Unfortunately, all too often, CBT, whether on the internet or on a CD-Rom, can be inflexible in the extreme. But it has its champions.

Russell Attwood is a director of technology and telephony provider Call Centre Technology – among other clients, CCT sells and services equipment for Avaya Communications, based in Hungary. He says: “Avaya runs training for the whole world from Hungary, anyone who sells or maintains their equipment can log on and train wherever they are, whenever.” CCT itself is based in Bristol, but has staff throughout the UK. As Attwood says, it would be impractical for staff to have to come to headquarters for training, “it would take some of them up to eight hours to get to us”, so CCT relies heavily on online training.

So, too, does BT. Bob Moeser is manager for online marketing solutions in BT’s business marketing unit, part of the retail division. He is also in charge of training for the unit. He argues: “It’s increasingly expensive to send people on individually tutored courses, so we have created an online learning resource, which includes a complete portfolio of tools. You can download a CBT package, or an online course. We run seminars in house, but we cut costs by using our own resources as much as possible.” Moeser’s unit has also set up a relationship with the Cambridge Professional Academy, which offers CIM qualifications via an online route backed up by tutored e-mails. “This saves us money, plus it helps employees with their work/life balance. As soon as we made that course available, the number of our people signing up for the CIM qualifications doubled. Distance learning is so effective, I don’t know why we didn’t do it before.”

Nor is it just big companies or hi-tech specialists that use distance learning. Lindsay Mason runs her own one-woman PR consultancy; this June, she completed an MSc in public relations through Stirling University. While much of her course relied on traditional postal services to get material from her tutors to her and vice versa, now the course is mainly carried out online. She admits: “It was an uphill struggle. You need to be very disciplined, because you haven’t got the buzz of other people around you.”

Another problem with e-learning is that unless it is in company’s time, it can be divisive. Most e-learning or CBT programmes require students not only to have access to PCs at home, but to be confident using them. Arguably, this discriminates against unskilled workers or older people.

What computer?

But e-learning does not have to involve PCs, as Sue Harley, managing director of e-learning consultancy IQdos, points out. “Why worry about buying laptops for all your staff? Some of our clients are looking at delivering e-learning through digital set-top boxes and interactive TV. Others are looking at personal digital assistants or even mobile phones.”

Field marketing company PromostaffUK uses mobile phones for booking staff and for sending them the material they need to be trained for their next assignment. PromostaffUK managing director Linda Denne says: “It offers considerable flexibility and cost savings. Field marketing is not a nine-to-five job by nature, so evenings and weekends are prime times for bookers and field staff to communicate with one another. Through technology, this can be done conveniently from home for both parties.”

So in the not-too-distant future, it will no longer be a case of “I’m on the train,” but instead “I’m training.”


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