Educational Technology & Society 1(1) 1998
ISSN 1436-4522

Web Delivery of Training and Education for Industry: Some Thoughts

Peter Wiesner
Director, Continuing Education
IEEE Educational Activities
445 Hoes Lane
Piscatway, NJ 08855-1331 USA
Tel: (+1) 732 562 5500
Fax: (+1) 732 981 1686

The Future is here

According to the WBTIC 1996 Training Survey conducted by The Web-Based Training Information Center, 2015 organizations in the U.S. were surveyed to determine current and future training needs.

  • 373 of the respondents, or nearly 20%, said they provided web-based training.
  • 78% indicated that their organization either had an Intranet or would be implementing one soon.
  • 76% have budgeted specifically for employee training.
  • 1,402 out of 1,963 said that they have implemented or plan to implement in the next 12 months web-based training for their employees.
  • 1397 out of 1,785 believed that all things considered, computer-based training and online training are cost-efficient.

The survey data indicates that many companies are well on their way of being able to provide multimedia desktop training. Most users have access to email and a web browser, About 25% have access to chat and GroupWare, and about one-third have access to computer-based training. Nearly 75% of computers are linked to a local area network.

What Do Employers Really Want?

Many employers expect web delivery to reduce costs for sending employees to short courses and to expand the scope of educational opportunities. Web delivery is especially promising because it provides the option to have courseware delivered to the desktop at home as well as at work. In theory, this makes distance education very attractive to the employer. However, this assumes that workers can take time out for study at their desktop on the job or at home.

When students are able to free up time through time shifting, there is much promise for web-delivered courseware. The learning process should be managed effectively through an attractive user interface. Logging-on should be easy. There should be useful links to relevant sources. Help should be readily available. The advantage of a convenient delivery medium quickly evaporates when students encounter logistic barriers.

Management of Knowledge

According to Alan G. Chute & Kate M. Gulliver, Lucent Technologies, most employers do not want 15-week courses; rather, they want short programs targeted to specific audiences and focused on current performance problems and measurable outcomes. Companies are now looking to web technology to realize the "just-in-time" vision of bringing education closer to management functions. There is talk about the "management of knowledge" which links education to on-the-job problem solving. In that sense, web courses serve as a reference guide. Accordingly, web technology links users to relevant resources indicted by the course, such as a searchable database of articles available through the IEEE. For example, a short course on wireless communication might include a process by which users could benchmark what they need to know (a diagnostic test or "gap" analysis) and use the course to link them to the resources need to fill the gaps. Here the emphasis is on customization, rather than the "one size fits all" approach of the typical course. The question is whether customization can be built into the design of the course without having a "real" instructor available in real time or even delayed time. The instructor’s time is a significant cost factor, not to the software development and computer-related resources needed for course development and offering.

The wide availability of the Internet gives the impression that economies of scale can be easily achieved. This is certainly true for "canned" mass-produced experiences, similar to those provided by traditional books. The reason these are cost-effective is that no labor is involved in adding value while information is consumed. When labor is involved, such as in a college course taught by a professor, the costs rise dramatically.

When the web is used to replace books, which is possible, then the issues is whether the user really prefers to devour text in electronic rather than print form. Judging from the tendency to print out computer files, many users still prefer to read printed pages than their computer screens. The availability of multimedia and some level of interactivity, assuming it adds value to the learning experience, might tip the balance in favor of electronic delivery.

Is the Medium Really the Message?

Issues pertaining to the web-delivery of education often revolve around the value of personal contact. Some educators feel strongly that "meaningful" learning takes place in a social context, and if the social fabric is ripped away, as it is to a large extent with web-delivered courseware, educational effectiveness, depending on how it is defined, suffers. Of course, that depends on context, circumstances, and expectations of the users and clients. To think of web-delivery purely as an alternative mode of instruction may obscure its usefulness in supplementing other more conventional modes. For example, a short course offered at a conference center might involve online registration, testing and discussion groups. Conversely, web-delivered courses can be augmented by audio conferencing and by the use of face-to-face study groups.

The web has a long way to go before it can come close to replicating the interactivity of an instructor-led course. Electronic delivery truncates face-to-face instruction but adds value by making courseware more accessible and convenient. By doing this, electronic delivery trades off the advantages of face-to-face communication for convenience. Face-to-face instruction, at its optimum, involves all the senses. Electronic delivery, even when supported through two-way audio and video, can only approximate but not duplicate face-to-face interaction.

The extent to which virtual "teaching" and learning meet user/client expectations depends on the desired learning outcomes. The web is an excellent delivery mode for information-based learning. When learning concerns the "affective domain" of learning, the more likely face-to-face interactivity is desired. Certainly, the rapid growth of the web opens up opportunities to exploit the potential of the web for the kind of educational content that is suitable for virtual delivery. For the educator, the challenge is to base educational offerings on what the learner needs and wants. Those who are seeking to make a strong business case for web delivery must manage client expectations by accounting for development costs, actual instructor time, as well as client and user preferences.