Educators go back to school to augment e-learning

E-learning has many advantages — freedom to work at the student’s own pace, flexibility to fit busy schedules, elimination of travel and the ability to reach many people at once, to name a few. No wonder the Canadian e-learning market approached $350 million in 2004, according to Toronto-based

research firm International Data Corp. (Canada) Inc.

But there is still a place for the classroom, where students can get hands-on experience and interact with instructors and fellow students. How do you choose — or do you choose at all?

In fact, many organizations use both, either in concert or as alternatives that employees can choose between depending on circumstances and learning styles. This idea has come to be called blended learning, said Richard Gordon, vice-president and managing director at the Ottawa office of Cary, N.C.-based Global Knowledge Network Inc.

“If the content that you’re looking for is available in three different modes,” Gordon said, “then make that available to your student base and let the students decide what’s best for them.” The three modes would be traditional classroom, a virtual classroom approach delivered electronically, or self-paced e-learning where students work on their own.

“I think a lot of it is learner-dependent,” said Greg Ambrose, training analyst at IDC Canada. “It’s what they feel more comfortable doing.”

One training challenge facing Rogers Wireless Inc. is a nationwide network of some 12,000 sales representatives, 95 per cent of whom are not direct employees and many of whom work in smaller communities, said Tara Deakin, director of sales training and development. Turnover is also high, and “the only way to get to them would be e-learning,” said Deakin. Rogers has developed e-learning materials using simulation and role-playing, teaching customer interaction through cartoon-like images of stores and customers.

A key to success was making the materials as engaging as possible, said Gord Stein, vice-president of sales operations. He said Rogers succeeded: People actually want to do training units again because they are so entertaining.

But as successful as e-learning has been, Rogers doesn’t see it as a panacea. “Our strategy is very much blended,” Deakin said. While e-learning can teach the mechanics of dealing with customers, working directly with an instructor is still a better way to fine-tune those skills. And while Rogers offers online training on new products it sells, teams also gather for hands-on sessions to gain experience with the devices.

The City of Owen Sound, Ont., has a three-person IT support staff, making it hard for Derek Sparnaay, a personal computer technician, to get away for long. So Sparnaay turned to classes on the Web, allowing him to work part of the day and train the rest. “I thought it worked quite well,” he said, noting that he does the training in a room away from his desk, with a closed door to shut out distractions.

On the other hand, Sparnaay likes the interaction of the occasional out-of-town courses he has taken, the chance to meet colleagues from all over and the break from the office — though he admits the cost of travel and accommodation is considerable.

Telus Corp. uses e-learning or a blended approach wherever possible, said Jim Hewitt, director of operations excellence and e-learning. E-learning is ideal when the company wants to reach many employees quickly, he said, and because of its flexibility it encourages employees to take training on their own time.

Nor is that the only cost saving. With employees across Canada, many in smaller centres, face-to-face training would cost plenty in travel and accommodation. Yet the savings are hard to quantify. Ambrose said IDC has no hard numbers. Hewitt has none either, but made it clear he believes the savings are there. “The real big thing is it cuts down considerably on our costs,” he said.

But like others, Telus finds e-learning won’t work for everything. Maintenance and troubleshooting skills require hands-on experience with equipment — which must not be production gear since mistakes could affect service — and trainees must demonstrate to instructors that they have mastered the material. “We’re always going to have to do that in a lab environment,” Hewitt said.

Yet e-learning technology is finding its way into new territory. Global Knowledge does extensive hands-on training on equipment from manufacturers such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Corp. “Until the last year or two,” Gordon said, “that meant that the equipment has had to be in the classroom with the student and the instructor.” Simulations weren’t a satisfactory substitute, he said. But recently it has become possible to connect students to the gear over the Internet, so they work remotely but with real equipment.

The technology continues improving, but “it’ll never be e-learning for everything,” Hewitt said. No more teachers, no more books? Forget it.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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