Despite the huge success of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and the proliferation of web-based distance learning, online training is often perceived as a supplementary or a second rate, budget alternative to “proper” classroom-based training. I accept that online training isn’t the best way to develop skills for certain trades. No one’s going to go online to master their plastering skills or their gymnastics, although a decent “how to” you tube video can be a good starting point. I would argue, however, that online training can be at least as effective as traditional classroom-based training for a broad range of disciplines.
A possible reason for negative perceptions of online training is that historically it has often been offered in webinar-style monologue format. If the goal is to impart knowledge in the style of an academic lecture, this can work but if we’re trying to get trainees to acquire new skills, we need to make sure classes are interactive, engaging and include a good proportion of kinaesthetic, skills-based learning.
Being engaging online is easier said than done though. Not everyone has the broadband speed to stream video and the lack of physical immediacy, eye contact and body language that forms a major component of effective communication is missing. In a traditional classroom environment, you can use eye contact to draw people in. You can walk around the classroom. These things result in “stage presence” which creates focus – a key part of the magic of live performance we experience in theatre and other performing arts, which is often lost on screen. Rather than trying to recreate that inherent advantage of live performance, good film makers exploit the unique advantages of their medium and we need to do the same when training online.
If we can’t fall back on body language and physical presence in order to be engaging, the content, structure and online delivery style has to make up for it. When I plan our online training sessions for Accordant, I make sure we allocate more of the class time to trainees carrying out activities where they are actually using the target skills rather than passively listening and this approach helps me to be as concise as possible when explaining and demonstrating how to use our workspace management system. This “tasks versus me waffling” ratio is a key metric during the planning process. It’s easy to forget that a trainee is in the session if they don’t say anything, so I’ve got into the habit of looking through the list of attendees and talking to them regularly through the class, making sure they’re comfortable with the activities; basically making sure I remember to do the same things that I would naturally do when training in a classroom.
Although this is just an example of mitigating a disadvantage of online training there are definite advantages too. One of these is that we tend to be a bit less inhibited online. Outside of training, the negative manifestation of this is the “keyboard warrior” or the social media “troll”. Most of us have either sent or received emails saying things that would never have been said face-to face. Conversely, in online training this can be an advantage. Reducing inhibitions can remove a major barrier to effective communication. Trainees can be hesitant to ask questions or fully participate due to the fear of looking silly. It’s much easier to raise a virtual hand than it is to ask a question in a classroom where (you think) everyone’s going to stare at you.
From a trainer’s perspective, online it’ s easier to control distractions and manage the flow of the class. Admittedly, other than making the class more interesting, sometimes you can’t do anything to stop an individual online trainee getting distracted and switching to Facebook or turning on the TV but you can prevent that from having an impact on the rest of the class. You can also control when trainees ask questions without being rude. I put everyone on mute at the start of the class to eliminate background noise and everyone understands that. You couldn’t really ask trainees in a live classroom environment to put fingers on lips and put their actual hands up when they have a question.
Another obvious advantage of online training is that the cost can be much lower both for training provider and trainees. Although this is an important benefit in itself, it also allows more freedom to choose an appropriate duration for a training session, which in turn can increase the effectiveness of the training. You wouldn’t expect someone to travel for hours to attend an hour long course and because of this, classroom based courses can last a day, a week or longer. Not only is this significantly more expensive, and disruptive to the trainee’s work, it also runs the risk of overloading the trainee with information. How much of a week-long training course do we really remember when we get back to work on a Monday? We offer one-hour, online classes that make it easy for trainees to attend and add to their skills at a more manageable pace and they can put what they’ve learned into practice straight away in the workplace.
These are just some of the benefits of online training but its real potential is still far from being acknowledged or fulfilled. This might all sound a bit obvious in a “the internet is going to be massive” sort of way but consider the major high street retailers who seem to have ignored the obvious and have taken a beating from competitors with online strategies in tune with what their customers want – the same product or better at a reduced cost and increased convenience. I’m confident that we can do that with online training.