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The classroom trainer in the online world
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by Clive Shepherd
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The forecasts for the growth of e-learning are becoming more extravagant by the month. If these forecasts are even half right, the effect on the IT training industry will be enormous and even the most skeptical classroom trainer must now be looking anxiously over their shoulder. In this article, Clive Shepherd examines the implications of the e-learning revolution for those who have made their living delivering learning face-to-face, and looks at ways for trainers to make a contribution in an increasingly online world.

Contents

Reality check
Causes for complacency
Causes for panic
Best of breed
Survival tactics
Adding value
Do something special
Find that niche
Is e-learning for you?

Reality check
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"The market for web-based training will exceed $6 billion by 2002 (IDC, 1999)."
"Classroom training will fall from 55% of all training to about 30% in five years (Epic/DfEE report, 1999)."

Any classroom IT trainer who's been 'treading the boards' non-stop for years, surviving only on adrenaline and the occasional whiff from their flip chart pen, is entitled to display more than a little cynicism when informed of the amazing predictions for the future of e-learning.

'Who do these people think they're kidding?'
'We've seen it all before. Remember videodisc? Anyone still got a CD-I player?'
'It's just another problem looking for a solution.'
'No-one ever learned anything from a computer.'
'The classroom is the only natural place to learn.'

Sound familiar? Heard it in the bar after the course? Of course you have. But you haven't participated in these discussions because you're open-minded. That's why you're reading this article.

It's time for a reality check. Just what are the real prospects for e-learning in the field of IT training? If e-learning takes off, what effect will that have on classroom training? Should I be looking for another job?
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Causes for complacency
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The world is changing fast, but not that fast. Surprisingly, the forces of conservatism can be at their strongest in the training department. We may send our executives on expensive courses at top business schools to learn about the management of change, but we'd rather not have too much of that around here, thank you. And even more surprisingly (touch of sarcasm here), the IT department is even more resistant to change. They'd like you to carry on training in the classroom, preferably with an OHP, because then they don't have to provide any support.

And many learners will be understandably sceptical about the prospects of learning from a computer. After all, they're used to just turning up at the required time and place, smiling nervously and waiting to be processed. Rather like the dentists, in fact. Although the idea's been around a long time, many people have yet to come to terms with the idea of taking responsibility for their own learning and, indeed, their own careers. That requires self-discipline and facing the reality of an uncertain future. 
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Causes for panic
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Come to think of it, the old truth that applications lag well behind technology is not as convincing as it used to be. A healthy dose of bureaucracy and general bloody-mindedness used to slow most changes down to a snail's pace. But somehow the barriers seem to have come down. Change is frighteningly fast. The World Wide Web was invented less than ten years ago, yet already 300 million are online. And even your granny now wants her own mobile 'phone.

Other factors tend to suggest that e-learning will have more than a peripheral part to play in IT training. First of all, it is not such a leap of faith to believe that you can use a computer to learn about computers. After all, as enlightened, TAP-accredited trainers, you would agree that we learn best by doing, by getting actively involved. And you don't need to go to a classroom to find a computer to do that doing. It's probably sitting there right in front of you. Anyway, this idea that the classroom is the natural place for learning, doesn't stand up to analysis. Ask yourself, how did people learn before schooling became available to all? How much of what you now know and can do did you learn in formal education? What about trial-and-error, personal reflection, reading, one-to-one coaching, learning on-job, learning by observation? Back in medieval days, the classroom developed as the predominant method for formalised learning, not because it was the most effective, but because it was the most convenient and the most practical given available technology. As, no doubt, was the horse and cart.

Unlike soft skills training, IT training lends itself rather well to e-learning. Not only can the medium become the message, but the majority of the learning required is in the cognitive domain and therefore well suited to self-study. Not surprisingly, even prior to the online revolution, the suitability of IT as a subject has encouraged the development of self-study materials and publishers such as NETg, SmartForce and DigitalThink already have extensive libraries of IT training courses converted from CD-ROM to online delivery. So there will no be a shortage of content to slow down the growth of e-learning.
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Best of breed
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Most trainers, and indeed teachers, are big fish in relatively small ponds. Because classroom training requires real people to be in real contact with each other, it helps if the trainer and the trainee are in the same time zone, preferably the same town. Being the best trainer in the use of Microsoft Office in Basingstoke will not win you fame but it will win you contracts from companies just down the road.

If e-learning takes off, things will never be the same. Because IT is much the same world-wide (thanks to Microsoft for being a monopoly), e-learning materials can be and increasingly are built for a global market. The high costs of development can then be offset by the potential revenues, not only from Basingstoke, or even the USA and Europe, but also such promising little markets as India and China.

The implication of all this? Well, whether you're in Basingstoke or Beijing, with the help of the Internet, you can access the best training going in any subject you care to mention. Being the 1000th best Java trainer in the world can earn you a very good living in the classroom era, but puts you way out of the reckoning when customers can afford to choose best of breed.

If it's any comfort, university professors should be equally anxious. You want an MBA? Don't bother with the local offerings, there's one going at half the price and employing the world's top experts from a new online college in New Zealand.
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Survival tactics
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What are the options for the classroom trainer in an online world? Well you could try good old-fashioned competition. Rubbish the benefits of e-learning and exploit the virtues of the classroom. Make sure that you deliver the best classroom training, training that makes optimum use of face-to-face tuition and group interaction. Lectures and lengthy presentations are out. Challenge the group. Help them explore the technology and their own potential. Get them to work together to solve problems and provide each other with support and encouragement. Concentrate on the practical. Most of us (some programmers that I know excepted) are social animals and will be happy to participate in the occasional group learning activity, even if we're also e-learners. In the same way, e-commerce won't stop us enjoying our favourite outdoor leisure activity - shopping.

But if you can't beat them and you haven't the funds to consider early retirement, then you could consider joining them. If you're thinking of tackling the giant publishers head on then you've probably got so much money that you wouldn't be reading this article at all - you'd have someone to do that sort of thing. For the rest of us, there are three realistic choices:

  1. See where you can add value to e-learning materials already out there.

  2. Look to create something genuinely unique.

  3. Search for untapped markets.

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Adding value
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Most off-the-shelf e-learning products do a good job, but they often fail to provide a completely self-contained solution. Often there's a gap between what the course teaches and the specific way that an organisation works. You can add value by creating additional online materials that fill this gap, providing the user with not only the general principles but also the specific usage. The DfEE did this when they introduced Windows 95 across their organisation: to supplement online courses from NETg and others, they created a range of additional guides and job aids for easy reference on their intranet.
You can also add value by providing tutorial support to online learners. Using the interpersonal skills you've acquired as a trainer, you're well placed to offer subject-matter expertise and coaching, whether online or face-to-face.

You may be able to use your classroom training skills more directly, by presenting real-time seminars online. Although synchronous communication on the Internet is limited at present by the availability of bandwidth, it is already feasible to combine one-way video, PowerPoint presentations, multi-way audio and text-based chat, along with application sharing, assessment questions and audience polling, to create truly interactive sessions for large numbers; ideal when your audience is widely dispersed geographically.

Another option is to build integrated curricula, combining face-to-face workshops with online materials. Exploit the benefits of the classroom, not necessarily to present new learning material, but for group projects, discussion and additional hands-on practice.

Another possibility is to provide accreditation services for online learners. You could proctor online examinations or assess students' assignments and portfolios. There will continue to be opportunities in this field as long as online assessments are restricted in the learning objectives that they are capable of measuring, and as long as it is difficult to authenticate students without face-to-face contact.

Finally, your organisation could act as an e-learning gateway for your clients. It is increasingly easy to establish your own, branded learning portal, with access to a wide range of learning resources, e-commerce facilities and collaboration tools.
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Do something special
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E-learning is young enough that there is still plenty of scope for outperforming the opposition. Even if you are not able to offer the scale of content of the major publishers, you could certainly advance the state-of-the-art with a more restricted portfolio. If I knew where the greatest scope was for advancing e-learning, then I certainly wouldn't broadcast it, but here's some general areas for improvement. First, in the area of applications training, there's a need for content that is task rather than product-based, that explains how a range of products and technologies can be exploited to advance a whole business activity. Secondly, so much more can be done to build intelligent learning materials that are truly personalised and respond to an individual's unique requirements.

Alternatively, you could move away from interactive self-study and design courses that use a much wider array of methods. Adapt the materials you're already using - books, handouts, whatever - and combine them with real-time seminars, individual and group assignments, tutorial support and online assessments.
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Find that niche
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A third approach is to look for areas of the market that are not being addressed by the major publishers. For example, can you develop online materials to train the users of company-specific systems? If the user population is large enough, the development costs can be easily justified.

Another possibility is to look for vertical market niches. Who's providing online training in systems for accountants, dentists or librarians? If the market is relatively small, it may be that customers will pay a hefty premium for training materials, as long as the overall cost-benefits are greater than for a more traditional classroom approach.

Finally, there are of course geographical niches. Some IT systems are specific to a particular country or language. Again, there may well be a sufficiently large audience to justify the development of online materials. 
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Is e-learning for you?
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So there's plenty of ways in which you can contribute to the e-learning revolution, whether you create your own materials or add value to someone else's. But that doesn't mean you'll necessarily enjoy this change of direction. Although many of your existing skills and qualities will be useful to you when working online, you may find the lack of face-to-face contact with learners leaves you feeling deprived.

If you're already more of a learning designer than a deliverer, then you'll probably have no trouble in making the transition to the development of e-learning materials. However, many up-front trainers will not find the required attention to detail, individual working, analytical and creative thinking is really for them.
Online tutoring may seem a more logical direction for the classroom trainer. The regular contact with individual learners may satisfy the need for human interaction, but remember this will largely be in text and in many cases you will never meet your learners face-to-face. Cold turkey may set in when you're deprived of the buzz of 'being on stage'.

Although the world of e-learning may not provide a happy home for all trainers, many will find rewarding new career and business opportunities. Some may leave the training business, others will join, bringing with them new skills and perspectives. Training will be the richer for it.
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