Five online training strategies for small businesses

Previously associated with large corporate organization, online training is quickly becoming a popular employee education medium down market as small businesses increasingly recognize the cost savings and convenience that new electronic learning tools bring.

Online education (also known as e-learning) refers to instructions in a learning environment where teachers and students are separated by time or space, or both and where course content is mainly provided and managed through the use of Internet and multimedia resources.

“One of the toughest hurdles for SMBs used to be price. Online training was linked to big businesses and expensive prices, but in recent years price tags have gone down and the variety of offerings has increased, according to Allison Kohn, public relations manager of the online division of Citrix Systems Inc. a Webinar development company in Santa Barbara, Calif.

For example, with the company’s Go To Webinar package, small businesses can conduct unlimited Webinars for as low as $79/month on an annual plan.

Apart from pricing, high availability and flexibility are strong suits of a good online training program, says Adam Cole, director of specialty technology for McKessons Canada, a healthcare product and services provider in Toronto.

He said companies often need not create expensive classrooms of make special work schedule changes or appointment to enable students and instructors to meet. “Online training erases the boundaries of geography. Very often, it is available whenever and wherever the student is available.”

PROPHIX Software Inc., a financial and performance management software developer in Mississauga, Ont., saved as much as $50,000 to $75,000 a year in travel expenses by using Webinar tools to reduce face-to-face meetings and training among its remote employees.

However, not all online courses are created equal and to achieve a successful Web based training program, companies must carefully evaluate their needs against the product choices available, says Kohn.

Types of online training

There are generally two categories of online learning.

Synchronous e-learning, occurs when individuals access information at the same time. Examples of this could be real-time chat, Webinars, video/audio conferencing or virtual classrooms.

Synchronous learning enables instant feedback on student performance and allows immediate adjustment of training when the need arises.

The method has become very popular with organizations that have widely dispersed workers because it establishes learning communities and encourages greater student engagement by simulating a classroom atmosphere although the participants may be thousands of miles apart.

Asynchronous or store-an-forward, e-learning involves communication between people that does not occur simultaneously. Some examples include taking a self-paced online or DVD-based course, exchanging e-mail messages with an instructor and posting messages to a discussion group.

This method is ideal for individual learners or smaller groups.

The main advantage of this method is that students can take the course at their own speed. However, students can feel isolated and lose motivation because of the lack of real-time human interaction. In addition, there is a lag in feedback and very little room for course adjustment.

In some cases a “blended learning” approach is ideal in ensuring student engagement and topic retention, according to Alan Quilley, principal at Safety Results Ltd. a firm that provides e-learning and in-person course safety training in Sherwood Park, Alberta.

Blended learning is characterized by using a combination of traditional face-to-face lectures, tutorials and workshops with online activities such as e-mail announcements, discussion boards and quizzes. In this manner, students can receive faster feedback on online tests they have taken and can benefit from in-person discussions of class topics with instructors or fellow students.

Best Practices

Finding the appropriate online learning model does not depend so much on the industry as the nature of the topic being taught, says Quilley.

1) Determine training needs

“Carefully evaluate what health and safety training needs you employees have and then consider your online training options and materials,” advised the Safety Results Ltd. consultant.

Before starting a program, Quilley said, instructors must clearly set course objectives and metrics to judge the effectiveness of the course.

2) Evaluate audience and topic

Course developers must also consider the competence level of the audience and complexity of the topic.

“Some people are not comfortable with technology and might need more in-person instruction,” said Cole of McKesson.

3) Avoid information overload

Cut information into small chunks. Do not allow sessions to stretch over one hour. “Any longer and you risk losing the student’s attention, “advices Cole.

If the topic covers more information than can be contained in the session, provide links to online sites or a list or materials to research at a later period.

4) Make text easy on the eyes

Provide key concepts and messages in point form for easy reading and recall.

5) Mix it up

Keep audience engage by using a mixture of text, illustrations, video or slides. Provide students and opportunity to ask questions, pitch in on discussions activities, quizzes or tests

Some workers functions best when they are able to connect with fellow students or instructors. It is also advisable to create a channel of communication for students to contact instructors if they have any questions about the subject or would like to go back to previously discussed topic.

The best e-learning courses provide students a means to get in touch with a live instructor either online, by phone or in-person, said Quilley.

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