Can Core Skills Really be Learned Online?
Recently, someone posed a question to me - How well do you believe on-line training works for non-technical subjects? My first reaction was to answer the question with this question. How do on-line training courses know the difference between technical and non-technical subject matter?
Although a bit sarcastic, my experience tells me the effectiveness of on-line training is not directly related to the subject matter content. So, like answers to many questions, "it depends", applies to on-line training regardless of the content. There is not a difference in value between on-line training for technical versus non-technical topics - even if we could measure it. The more relevant question is, ‘What makes on-line training effective?’
The primary factor in determining effectiveness is design. Design approach should place the learner experience as the top priority. On-line training design needs to provide more than static material delivered through text, audio and video. If all on-line training does is talk to the learner or require reading - then, all it's really doing is appealing to passive learning styles that would rather read or listen, rather than engage and experience. Nearly all learners prefer the latter.
Learning design should create value-added experiences - typically through games, simulations, interaction and adaptive scenarios. Many on-line learning courses are nothing more than "souped-up" presentation materials where a “good old fashioned” PowerPoint would suffice for much less. Also, the advent of desktop software for training development allows nearly anyone to create on-line courses - but, that doesn't make it effective either.
Sound instructional design and adult learning theory remain important considerations, yet these principles alone are insufficient for an engaging design. In today’s information-rich and saturated world, the ability to chunk content, design in an applied sense, accessible by learners when needed and delivered on-line can be tremendously powerful - think "YouTube.” Recently, my high school age son learned to tie a bow-tie for a dance through a Google search of short YouTube videos - allowing selection from a range of choices and deciding on the best-fit training experience he preferred. Emerging micro-learning ideas and concepts not only hold potential to deliver on-line training differently, but also integrate the concept of learning reinforcement – thus, avoiding the perennial “one and done” nature of frequent approaches. These are simply a few learning design ideas to increase probability for on-line training effectiveness.
The other important dimension is positioning your strategy for on-line training in the overall organization’s learning context. Thoughtful consideration is a must regarding the quantity and type of on-line training to “push” and require, rather than be available for “pull” driven by individual motivation to learn. Understanding both the current and desired state for your organization’s learning culture is important context. Where is the organization on the continuum from mandated training completion to individualized learning for development and performance improvement? If your organization is not where you believe it should be then your priority should be to address the strategy first rather than continue to produce and deliver more on-line training.
Recognize any on-line training 'pushed' and required, no matter how good the design, may likely be rejected in some cultures – if not actively, then passively, an even bigger challenge. Yet, make the on-line training 'pull-based’ allowing individual identification of needs and motivation to learn and the same course is viewed as wildly successful. Strive to position on-line training from the perspective of the learner. Learners desire to meet or exceed performance expectations and on-line training resources will be valued when it is viewed directly helpful.
I see far more 'push' orientations than 'pull' approaches in organizations, particularly when viewed as a remedy for a perceived large-scale, enterprise need. This approach typically leaves organization leaders and training professionals with a sense of accomplishment – without regard to achievement of learning objectives, and evidence of cost/value realized. I am familiar with one large, successful organization annually delivering on-line ‘code of conduct’ training sponsored by senior corporate compliance leaders. More company resources – time and money – are spent on this course each year than any single training event. Yet, each year the same result - management applauding the completion and learners exhausted to the brink of frustration.
I leave you with a summary for reflection. Remember, design and context are more important that subject matter content when delivering on-line training. Designing to engage learners and satisfy their needs are more direct paths to effectiveness. Focus on influencing the context and avoiding delivering on-line training that competes with the culture are also important considerations to support effectiveness.