The classroom trainer in the online world
by Clive Shepherd
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
e-learning for you?
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.
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.