I have been fielding a number of questions and comments lately on the suitability of on-line training and education. Does it work, does it not, is it allowable, will it cut our costs, etc. As this medium for knowledge transfer becomes more mainstream, it is important to understand its capabilities and its limitations.
On-line learning certainly has a place in industry. It is simply a new method of disseminating knowledge, and like anything that is new, we are still learning to develop the method. Like all other methods of education, it is a style that will fit some and will not work with others.
Some of the major advantages of this platform include:
The platform is highly accessible.
It is available 24/7, anywhere with an Internet connection. Even in a remote location, you can download a course and take it offline. Courses can be formatted for computers, tablets and even phones.
Utilization by learners can be tracked.
People can learn at their own pace.
The material can be made available for the learner to go back and review at any time in the future.
Updates can be pushed to users when information changes.
The content can be thoroughly reviewed prior to publication resulting in accuracy and uniformity
These are certainly advantages that we cannot just dismiss. However, we do see some mistakes being made as people rush to capitalize on the increased market that becomes available with these courses.
A bad class is a bad class. It doesn't matter if its delivered on-line or in person. You can't just record an average presentation and put it on-line and expect it to excel. Its actually quite the contrary. You have to start with an excellent class that is concise and accurate. Then you have to take extra steps when it is converted to an on-line format to make sure it has elements that engage the learner.
An on-line class that is all text and picture based is really just an e-book. There is nothing wrong with publishing your material as an e-book, some people learn better by reading on their own, but its not the same as taking a class.
Some things cannot be done on-line. And this is just fine. Take Haz Whopper for example. It is not appropriate to teach this subject entirely on-line because some things need to be done hands-on, such as donning and doffing PPE, with an instructor present to assist and teach. But that doesn't mean that we can't develop a hybrid approach whereby the technical and knowledge based content is delivered on-line, taking advantage of all that platform has to offer, while the skills based content is delivered in a classroom environment. This would take advantage of both delivery methods and allow for self paced learning of the technical content on-line, and shorter times spent away in the classroom.
We are not yet seeing many on-line systems take full advantage of the capability to assess the learner in creative ways and advance them through the programs based on responses. This capability certainly exists, it just takes time and programming. The one thing that can set on-line training delivery apart from giving them a book to read is the assessment capability. Development of this feature will really serve to unlock the power of on-line learning.
In addition to these items, if companies are going to really rely on on-line training for employees, they need to create a program that includes the ability for the on-line course to asses and identify learners that need more personal attention. There needs to be a formal, defined method that allows participants to ask questions and get answers from real people. When it comes to occupational safety training, there also needs to be a commitment from the employer to accept the fact that the method won't suit everyone and they need to have a means to identify those individuals and provide them with alternative training.
The final issue that exists with on-line training is that of intent and engagement. If the intent is to simply provide a quick fix for obtaining a certificate of completion, then the result will be the same whether an individual takes a course on-line or in person. OSHA 10 and 30 Outreach courses are a great example. If an individual takes part in one of these classes with the attitude that they are participating for the sole purpose of "obtaining the card," and an attitude that they are not going to learn anything new, then the result will be the same regardless of the delivery method. If the in-person trainer does not incorporate ways to engage this learner, they will take very little away from the course. Likewise, if the on-line course does not engage the participant, they will sit through the course so they can say they completed it.
We have the ability with on-line course delivery to do many of the same things we can do in person:
We can incorporate elements and exercises that engage the student
We can develop assessment vehicles to evaluate the participants knowledge
We can be available to respond to questions within a reasonable time, and we can enable discussion among participants
We can use assessments to identify participants who need additional attention or an alternative means of education (particularly important in something like required occupational training)
We can recognize activities that need a hands-on approach and provide for a means to obtain this additional training
On-line course delivery, whether it is used for employer based occupational training sessions or on-line academic courses from a university, has the potential to revolutionize access to knowledge. We are in the infancy of this delivery method, and easy access to self publishing tools and platforms have made it easy to publish anything. The platform needs to continue to mature. Media quality needs to continue to improve and instructors need to collaborate with programmers to deliver improved assessment vehicles. When this is combined with acknowledgement and facilitation of skills based content that truly needs a hands-on delivery component, on-line education can be leveraged by both instructors and learners to vastly improve access and knowledge transfer.