Editor’s Note: To be successful and sustainable, transition from face-to-face instruction to e-learning requires new commitments from faculty, students and administrators. The extent of change is often underestimated. It involves learning methodology, delivery systems, technology, and new ways of planning, designing and implementing instruction. It also requires organizational changes and a new business plan. It is an opportunity to incorporate best practices and customize curriculum to meet the needs of multi-cultural and global communities of learners.
Best Practices for Sustaining
Distance Training in the Workplace
Andrew Gibson, Zane L. Berge
eLearning initiatives, powered by cutting edge technology, have the ability to offer just-in-time and just-in-case training designed to facilitate performance improvement and creativity. When compared with time-consuming traditional training methods, elearning can offer immediate results and this has led many to implement it with haste. However, while proficient human resource management and financial planning can lead to the establishment of an elearning solution, failure to take further steps necessary to affect cultural change within the organization may, in the long term, seriously jeopardize the prospect of making such a strategy sustainable. This paper explores examples of best practice in managing the factors necessary for elearning sustainability, namely: detailed planning, creation of a sound business case, involvement of champions, harnessing of technology, transitioning, a blended solution, and sustained evaluation.
Berge and Kearsley (2003) state that in many cases, “even after distance training has been successfully implemented, sustaining it remains a struggle” (p.6). This need not be the case. The impact of elearning can be immediate (David, 2006). It can offer significant cost-savings. However, the move to elearning must be more than convincing executives to fund a pilot; more than succeeding in the short term, or boasting about initial financial rewards. Given that the organization has a goal of integrating elearning into their performance improvement arsenal, best practice exists to bring about long term success through a change in culture from training to one of learning. How an organization learns determines to a large extent how successful they are in creating strategic competitive advantage. As Brodsky (2003) states, “elearning is increasingly converging with other management tools, providing managers with a unified view of all financial, customer and employee considerations” (p.2). The impact on an organization’s bottom line of sustaining elearning can be tremendous.
This article will examine crucial elements involved in transitioning from traditional training to elearning. Two synonyms of the verb to sustain are to nourish and to feed. Without the right amount of planning time on opportunities to nourish elearning, growth may be seriously diminished. Best practices are discussed as follows: detailed strategic planning, creation of a sound business case, involvement of champions, harnessing of technology, transitioning, a blended solution, and a sustained evaluation.
To go from in-person classroom training to elearning represents no small shift within an organization. Copying print-based materials into electronic formats on an intranet is an inappropriate strategy with little chance of success. Transition from traditional training to elearning requires a well-planned strategy (Berge & Smith, 2000). To be sustained requires an innovation roadmap, detailing how the project will run, who it will benefit, in what ways, and how it will be consistently funded in the years to come (Berge & Kearsley, 2003).
The significance of sound planning is equally relevant to those already offering elearning. Poor initial planning can fail even after a successful implementation. Going back to the drawing board may not be the worst thing that an organization can do. From the start, planning must involve representatives from all key stakeholder groups: executives, administrators, employees, and any outside parties such as elearning providers.
There must be a clear vision, aligned with the organizational vision and goals. This must be discussed openly if buy-in is to be successful. The value of the communal sense of ownership derived from openness at this stage cannot be overestimated. If staff are “landed” with a new training culture that they feel they have had no input in creating, the chances of sustaining it are limited. In a nutshell, elearning must be part of the organization’s strategic planning if sustaining is a goal, not simply separate or sporadic elearning events that occur in the organization (Berge, 2001).
Plans cannot become a reality without funding and support. To that end those intent on transitioning from traditional training to elearning must gain support from the organization’s senior staff. Because business leaders are used to thinking about business problems and opportunities, the transition to elearning requires a sound business case including some of the major cost projections for training.
A Sound Business Case
Rosenberg (2001) states that a business case is a value proposition, and that the value of elearning to an organization is “the sum of its ability to save money, generate benefit to the business, be available to anyone – at any place and any time – and do all of this at the speed of business” (p.227). Several key incentives for choosing elearning over traditional training practices stand out. The opportunity to save money on travel expenses by offering courses on computers instead of physical locations that employees must travel to for varying lengths of time is clearly attractive, especially if large numbers of the workforce must attend such courses. The closely related diverted labor savings of having employees remain at their place of work, while also studying elearning materials, usually makes good business sense. It should be mentioned that the same savings are available to both those in small and large scale situations (Rosenberg, 2001).
Beyond the financial savings, time savings, in terms of course duration afforded by elearning are certainly appealing (5 day classroom courses take often take just 3 days with elearning). The efficiency of elearning can also be seen in the time it takes for course materials to be created or updated. With elearning software, when an organization sees a learning need, a training course or product can be developed and delivered much faster than is possible with traditional methods. Changes can actually be made to elearning materials seamlessly while courses are ongoing. These courses, or changes to them, may relate to new business practices, product innovations or critical market research. The impact on an organization’s finances could be significant and speed offers competitive edge.
Armed with these reasons many organizations will be tempted to stake everything on performance improvement (Rosenberg, 2001), but they must go further. The opportunities elearning offers for community building, advancement of leadership potential, retention of staff and centralized knowledge management (Reamy, 2004) all have the potential to improve the bottom line for the organization in a positive fashion.
Organizations must also be aware of how much elearning is going to cost (Bersin, 2003; Brown & Voltz, 2005, ¶1). To do it right will take significant investment. eLearning’s digital reach does not automatically make it cheaper than traditional methods, and cutting corners to reduce the scale of this investment may jeopardize sustainability. In addition, cost projections must reveal total costs. It is common for organizations to focus on the cost of developing course content, neglecting other significant costs. The cost of installing and maintaining the required technological infrastructure must be budgeted, as must oft forgotten costs like marketing (Weaver, 2003).
Those who put together a business case for elearning must work hand-in-hand with financial planners in the organization. They need to be certain that money to initiate elearning is available and they need to know that money will be there for long-term sustainability. As Weaver (2003) states, “elearning can be cost-effective, especially with a large number of users in multiple locations. But a meticulously planned, effectively implemented, well-marketed system that meets or exceeds expectations should not be expected to come cheap” (p.1). Therefore, a written business case for elearning should include sections related to people, time and money (Geolearning, 2006; Mayberry, 2001). The document should be developed by a small team of people. It should include graphical representations of cost and training time comparisons between elearning and traditional practices. Such frameworks can save time and improve the chance of success for companies new to change management. While return on training investment may be appropriate to be convinced and convincing for a particular training event or program, it usually is not an effective method on which to base the overall business case. There are simply too many intangibles to account for when changing the organization’s culture to elearning.
One of the most critical factors in sustaining elearning is to obtain support from senior management. Without champions at the top level, an overall culture shift will not happen (Arora, 2004, ¶ 5; Barron, 2003). Best practice suggests involving a variety of stakeholders from the beginning of the project, but senior managers, more than any other group, are required in order to validate this new training process.
Employee acceptance of elearning is often a bigger concern than management acceptance (Learning Circuits, 2005). Champions need to explain to employees why the organization is embarking on this new approach, how it will affect the workforce; and be seen as users of the technology. By making active use of elearning, champions demonstrate that cultural change is necessary and underway. Champions thus serve as role models, encouraging learners (Arora, 2004, ¶ 7).
This is easier said than done. Senior managers themselves need to be convinced of the value of elearning in the form of a sound business case. Even after this, some may not automatically adapt to it. If this is found to be the case, project managers must design situations in which to involve senior executives in elearning and reiterate the business case for training culture change.
Best practice indicates that organizations think of technology as a facilitator in elearning. It is more important for the technology platform to be robust, secure, scaleable and accessible than to feature the most advanced multi-media elements. Success with technology in elearning has proved to come from products that are easy to access, easy to understand and feature a “low learning curve” (Arora, 2004, p.1). It is essential that the technology chosen has interactive functionality (both synchronous and asynchronous), for example, audio, web and video conferencing, a simulation engine and assessment tools. It must offer an equivalent service to traditional in-person training in terms of its potential for communication, feedback and support but does have the potential to offer much more (authoring and editing tools, for example). Therefore, choosing technology platform is very important. Before talking with elearning providers, organizations must be clear on what they need and future capacity (Driscoll & Dennehy, 2002; Mortimer, 2002; Woodall, 2001).
Successful transitioning to elearning involves the transition to learning and communicating online. The pedagogical potential of elearning is considerable but the transition must not be a quantum leap for staff. Often, people must be helped to become comfortable with it. Best practice in this area requires a proactive stance to be taken by a variety of stakeholders. The senior champions of the project need to be seen to be making use of the new system, as do those responsible for training. It is also important for employees to be part of the transition. The points raised by all these stakeholders during the development phase should be addressed and incorporated into the final delivery of the platform (Weaver, 2003).
To sustain elearning within an organization it is critical that users are offered well-designed, relevant and engaging materials (Boehle, 2006). It is equally crucial that they have effective support. As previously mentioned, this cannot be achieved by simply computerizing what was formerly offered in classrooms.
Materials must be suitable for the given audience and the existing technological infrastructure. In terms of instructional design, organizations can either develop instruction in-house or employ elearning providers. Instructional design is a skilled field and investment in experienced designers can be money well spent. Best practice requires in-depth knowledge of the audience and pedagogy. Different people learn in different ways, for example, story-based works for long term retention in some cultures (Boehle, 2006, p.34). In a survey of 350 elearning practitioners, Barron (2003) discovered that “greater use of custom-developed content and greater personalization capabilities” (¶ 25) would improve the effectiveness of elearning. As with any training, elearning is usually not a case of one size fits all. As Brown and Voltz (2005) state, this is particularly important when there are culturally sensitive issues (p.5). The sense of ownership that this gives the learners can have a positive impact on sustainability.
Course materials should feature clear instructions and intended outcomes, and be designed to encourage reflection and interaction. If research is used, it should be up-to-date and of high quality. To make learning materials effective, the activities should be rich, and provide opportunities of student engagement (Brown & Voltz, 2005, p.3).
eLearning technologies are highly effective at presenting automated simulations. Citing Gery, Brodsky (2003) states that simulation-based elearning can be an effective solution for developing more advanced skills such as decision-making (p.2), customer service, sales and coaching skills. Best practice involves making use of available technology but not be driven by it. Procedural training, featuring simulations, can be part of long courses; they can also take the form of short ‘just in time’ sound bites that employees can use like a reference manual while working. Such a strategy has been effective in reducing attrition at the Nike organization (Marquez, 2006).
The flexibility of elearning is both a great advantage and a significant challenge. The elearning environment can be a lonely place for many people. Learners need the right type and amount of motivation. They also need the right amount of feedback, and at the right time. To deliver such support takes skill. Organizations need to be keenly aware that if current members of their training department are to fulfill supportive roles in elearning they must be properly trained in order to do so. In situations where facial expressions cannot always be seen, misunderstandings can develop very easily if not for skilled mediation. Organizations can also employ virtual guest lecturers.
Feedback can also come from people other than trainers. Mutual feedback from fellow learners can help to reduce feelings of remoteness. Indeed, the interactive potential of most elearning technologies affords many opportunities for course and non-course related communication. Making friends around the organization, feeling part of a team, having others congratulate you on your ideas, can be highly beneficial. One of elearning’s strengths is its potential for encouraging communities of practice; “by building communities of practice, you enable your organization to be more innovative” (Frazee, 2002, p.4).
eLearning as Part of a Blended Solution
To sustain elearning, organizations need to know when to use it, and when to turn to traditional methods. The failure to recognize this is a common pitfall of organizations transitioning to elearning (Weaver, 2003). People often see things as all one thing or all another (Brodsky, 2003, p.2). Best practice in sustaining elearning suggests that replacing traditional practices for elearning practices completely is often misguided. It’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Most organizations have a long history with in-person training, and they are good at it. Because they need the speed and versatility of elearning to compete in the 21st century should not preclude them from maintaining a capacity for in-person training. There are times, in spite of the abilities of elearning technologies to manage interactive training sessions, when in-person training will be the best solution. Humans are social learners. Instructor-led face-to-face sessions provide this in a way that web-based training often cannot (Rosenberg, 2001; Weaver, 2003).
It is also important to realize that blending classroom training with elearning is a way to increase acceptance of elearning (Woodall, p.4). Barron (2003) in a survey of 350 e-practitioners found that 70% cited blending as a beneficial aspect of their elearning program. The two can be used together. Indeed, their power is often magnified when used in combination (Rosenberg, 2001).
Best practice here is to truly blend the two methods, not to maintain them in isolation. Classroom sessions can involve elearning technologies designed to host guest lecturers, show the most up to date market information, or include employees unable to attend in person. Traditional methods, when used, must be used to generate contemporary results: innovation and creativity. Organizations should also assess the success of blending by interviewing participants and evaluating performance. Suggestions made can be incorporated into future learning sessions. Decisions regarding when to blend are crucial, however. It is not always the correct strategy. Organizations must be proactive—fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of elearning when blending training methods (Brodsky, 2003).
Evaluation and Improvement
Assessing the success of elearning programs is crucial to their long term success. Implementation is only the beginning (Weaver, 2003). Organizations need to know that elearning is meeting their stated goals. This is a tricky proposition. Elearning technology can be used to assess certain skills but human interaction is required to fully evaluate long term improvement. To evaluate learning results effectively takes time, but it is very important in sustaining elearning. If an organization is to sustain learner satisfaction with elearning they need to be aware what works and what can be improved. Barron (2003) in a survey of 350 e-practitioners found that 49% had developed quantifiable measures of the effectiveness of their program.
Many attempted to show success in terms of numbers of learners trained, or by comparing costs with traditional methods but this kind of quantitative analysis can only show so much. Reassuringly, 32% measured success in terms of learner self-reporting, something which can result in bringing many varied issues to light. Twenty-seven percent (27%) measured the effectiveness of their program in terms of customer satisfaction.
It is important to note that staff operating in different parts of the world may have different things they believe would improve the effectiveness of elearning. Learning styles and culture play a great part in how people learn. Elearning must be responsive to its learners. Making this a reality will involve a combination of methods. Currently the personalization of elearning products and services is the direction in which elearning is going, because it is what learners want (Barron, 2003; Brockbank, 2006).
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About the Authors
Zane L. Berge, Ph.D.
1000 Hilltop Circle
Baltimore MD 21250