Web training means different things to different people. The range includes simple, text-based web pages designed for individual reading, all the way up to highly complex, simulation-based multimedia programs. Both methods offer benefits and drawbacks.
Companies move to online training to cut training delivery and travel costs, and to reach large audiences-both employees and customers-rapidly and at multiple sites.
Through online training, a manufacturer with sites across the U.S. or around the world can assure that it delivers the exact same information to all its engineers.
According to Albert Koval, an online learning consultant, "The most effective self-study training is typically very graphic- and media-intensive." That's the need, yet, according to Albert, "Many of the target audiences for just this type of training today don't have high speed data networks or cable modems that will allow them to access this training online and in real time. That is changing, but not as quickly as we'd all like!"
What are the alternatives? One of the more effective (and costly) delivery methods is to use a hybrid approach, which delivers media-intensive graphics and video to the student locally via CD ROM or DVD. In addition, a web link can provide collaboration between the students and tutors. This approach also allows just-in-time updates to ensure the training is always pertinent.
The best e-learning sites offer convenience (24/7 access), continual feedback via interactivity with a tutor and other e-students (e-mail and chat rooms), the comfort of self-paced learning, and an interesting and entertaining learning experience (often multimedia based). But the real key behind web-based learning is a company's ability to provide employees and customers with technology upgrade training at their fingertips without having to participate in month-long courses or all-day seminars held outside the office.
A major supplier of online training programs is Digital Think (San Francisco). The company furnishes both standard courses and custom learn- ing experiences to aid companies such as Lockheed Martin, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, and Amdahl Corp. to provide continual training via the Internet or intranet.
Amdahl Corp., a wholly owned subsidiary of Fujitsu Limited, relies on Digital Think for courses to train everyone from the company's sales force to its engineers. Engineering teams learn about Amdahl's products, processes, and solutions to keep them ahead of the technology curve. The Digital Think courseware enables Amdahl to cost-effectively teach employees any-where in the world, the company says. Further, e-learning systems not only allow companies to reach a global work- force, but also to continually measure the effectiveness of the training at any point.
Web-based training (WBT) creates the unique opportunity for companies to provide training when it's needed. Standard training methods require that students be scheduled into a seminar when employees are available. WBT's convenience and flexibility allows a company to provide small packets of learning when the employee needs the specific information, or when they need a quick refresher course. In this way, employees don't take a night course and forget much of the information when it comes time for them to actually apply it on the job.
According to one user, "Digital Think online courses allow for the best combination of self-paced and guided study."
A recent student, Melonie Swanner, claims that she was, ". . . able to come back to the course and pick up where I left off, asking questions along the way." Another student claims, "It's an expedient and effective way to receive training. The ability to interact with the tutor and classmates is useful in getting help and others' per-spectives on various issues." Two more Digital Think students reiterate the key benefits of WBT: "I found the world of applets to be exciting and new. The examples were solid and it was fun to watch them unfold," said one. Another student commented, "The best part is taking the classes at my own leisure."
For companies that need to stay on the leading edge of technology, training should no longer be considered a discretionary expense, but a capital investment. And thanks to the Internet, engineers can get their training using the same online access that helps them do their jobs day to day. The web provides 24/7 access, multimedia capabilities, continual information upgrades, and, most of all, individualized and customized content for a specific group of students. Web training further provides the ability of one company to make sure that everyone involved in a project speaks the same language, no matter where they are located in the world.
Companies are realizing the importance of Internet-based training. Consultant and author of the "Web-Based Training Cookbook," Brandon Hall, estimates that the web-based training market will top $1.5 billion by the end of this year. The Masie Center, a New York-based training think tank, estimates that more than 90% of large American firms will have adopted Internet- and/or intranet-delivered training programs by the end of this year.
Manufacturers have always provided training on their own equipment, sometimes for a fee and sometimes not. Among independent training sites is PLCS.net, a free site providing training using animated simulation examples for the program- mable logic controller (PLC) user. According to industry records there are over two billion PLCs in operation today. Don Caputo, who runs training programs at Parker Hannifin, says he sends many engineers and technicians to PLCS.net for a quick refresher or in-depth training on the subject. "It's a good site and it's free," he says.
Unitec (Middletown, CT), a CADKEY reseller, provides a blended learning situation through Microsoft's NetMeeting software. Once a company verifies that it meets the minimum computer system requirements, it installs Microsoft NetMeeting Version 2.0 or higher. After a few setup pro-cedures, a phonelink with a Unitec trainer allows all those present to be trained in how to use CADKEY software. Although this training is not typically free, Unitek has conducted several such sessions through statewide funds to train handicapped people in need of CADKEY software training.
Pittsburgh-based Algor has an extensive web-training program to teach engineers fundamentals and how to use the company's finite element analysis software. Regular web casts every week are among the offerings.
Cautionary notes. Web-based training, like all things computer, meets up with the emotional fears of users. Even with highly technical subjects where the students are regular users of the technology, there is often an uncomfortable feeling when going into the first online training course. Besser Associates (Mountain View, CA) provides online training for RF, microwave, wireless, and DSP engineers, as well as non-engineering professionals who have to work with engineers. But, says Merwin Shanmugasundaram, who manages much of the training effort, what works best is live classroom-based instruction. "We address the demand for online training, but the need for human interaction in education is undeniable," he says.
On the technical side, there is the problem with bandwidth. Typical web connections have a tough time handling streaming audio. Therefore, web course designers who try to include video often run into problems. Technological concerns can cause web training courses to include little more than text and image, resulting in little to engage users or to push the medium. To solve the bandwidth problems that can occur, web course designers often provide a "blended learning" solution that mixes web-based training with more traditional approaches from partial "in-person" instruction, to in- cluding multimedia content on CD ROMs. These methods, like all e-training solutions, are meant to reduce, if not eliminate, classroom time.