By Kenneth M. McCall, Boomer Consulting
What is Online Training?
Training technologies continue to develop as rapidly as the rest of the technology world. Only a few years ago the CD-ROM revolutionized software training because interactive multimedia simulations could be bundled on a high capacity disk and exported far beyond the traditional classroom. Now the Internet is offering a whole new range of possibilities for CPA firm trainers. What is this "Online Training", and what does it consist of?
Delivered with Internet Technologies
For the purpose of this article and discussion, I will define online training to be coursework delivered with Internet technology, meaning an origin website, a TCP/IP connection to the Internet (fixed or dialup) and a web browser on the user’s computer.
Use While Online
A further distinction of online training means that the actual learning and activity takes place while the user is connected to the delivery website, as opposed to downloading files or exercises and running them on the user’s computer while offline.
What To Look For:
There is such a wide variety of online training, of all qualities, available that the user or training manager must have a clear set of criteria in mind in order to choose wisely. Although the composition and relative importance of each user’s criteria list will vary by their need, here are a few items, which many users will want to consider.
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous
Some online courses are completely self-paced, designed to be used at the learner’s complete discretion, starting or stopping sessions at any time of day without regard to any set schedule. These courses are, by design, intended for individual use without regard to other student or instructor schedules. These are referred to as "asynchronous" because they require no time synchronization between users, learners or instructors. By contrast, other courses are designed to replicate the traditional classroom environment. Learners, who are geographically dispersed, can "meet" at specified times, with an instructor online for "lectures" and "class interaction". Typically these classes make use of audio and video, chat rooms, email and other technologies to create a virtual classroom atmosphere. Because the participants must be synchronized in time for this to occur, this format of training is referred to as "synchronous". Neither format is inherently better, but they are significantly different in the way they can be used. The ability to keep to a designated class schedule, the ability to support some of the advanced technologies used (bandwidth) and the individual learning style of the user are all factors which might go into choosing between the two styles of courseware.
Good online training is like any other form of good training. It should be adaptable to the needs of the learner. Even for standardized courses, one size does not fit all, and good courseware should allow for individual differences. At a minimum, look for online courses which feature a diagnostic pre-test to assess current skill levels, and then give the option of skipping certain training modules based upon satisfactory performance on the pretest. A learner should not have to wade through preliminaries he or she already knows in order to get to the “new” material they came for. It should also have some form of navigational aid to allow stopping the course at any point and resuming at that point later. Sequential processing (having to start all over at the beginning) is laborious and counterproductive.
Internet technology has matured rapidly, and hosts of good training enhancements are available. Look for courses that incorporate them. Possibilities include streaming audio and video for demonstrations and explanations, on-screen full motion simulations to illustrate task steps and the opportunity for the learner to perform simulations. Too many courses still rely on static screens of text or simple static illustrations, which are the equivalent of simply reading a book. Avoid these if you can, and select those which offer the learner a full range of multimedia enhancements to enrich learning. Two cautions however: (1) some sites will use multimedia poorly, almost for the sake of using it, without really adding anything to the learning; and (2) always bear in mind that rich multimedia puts heavy demands on your bandwidth. Consider the robustness of your Internet connection and the responsiveness it will allow for the training site.
Learning is an active, not a passive, event. Therefore, learning is enhanced when the user can participate in a variety of ways instead of simply reading or hearing material. At a minimum, a good training site will offer periodic “quizzes” or learning validations where the user responds to questions and receives instant feedback. And, as mentioned above, many sites now offer the opportunity to demonstrate task steps through interactive simulations. These are great enhancements to learning and offer a real value above a more passive site. Obviously, the degree to which this is possible varies widely by course topic, but look for interactivity when and where you can.
“Did you learn anything?” The best way to find out is with an end-of-course evaluation, which rigorously tests the learner’s mastery of the training objectives. Good courses will provide a challenging evaluation, often including interactive simulations, and instant feedback on performance. From a training management perspective, these score sheets should be printed or screen-captured for filing and used as documentation of successful training. Don’t accept courseware without good evaluation modules.
Depending on the topics and training objectives, some courses will offer “credit” in a variety of forms. Some will count for CPE; others will give continuing education credits, or actual college credits, while others will prepare the learner for standard certification tests. Certainly there will be many times when credit is neither necessary nor desired for the training, but if it is available and appropriate, this may be a positive discriminator in selecting coursework. Check with your provider to see what credits might be available and how they are documented and awarded.
Predictably, costs for online training are all over the map. There is a wealth of good training available for free if you take the time to dig for it. Many sites which charge for courses will offer free demo courses. These are often valuable in their own right. Most courseware, however, will be offered on a fee basis in a variety of ways. Some vendors charge by the course or for a package of courses. This is usually for a designated period of time, during which the user can access the courses as many times as they wish. Some vendors will offer site licenses or bundle “5-packs” for organizations that want multiple user access. Particularly for technical certification training, the fees will often include books or other materials to be used in conjunction with the online sessions. It is not unusual for a lengthy and detailed certification-training program to cost upwards of $1,500.
Advantages and Disadvantages:
Now that you know what to look for in an online training course, you should consider the advantages and disadvantages of using this form of training. Like all other training options, it isn’t perfect, but it does have some potential advantages.
24 x 7 x Anywhere
At least for asynchronous courseware, one of the real advantages is the ability to train and learn when and where it is convenient. Anywhere you can connect to the Internet and spend a few minutes becomes a classroom setting. This enables learning during lunch breaks, at home and during the traditional workday. However, there can be a dark side to this availability. We will examine that prospect in a moment.
One of the greatest limitations of online training is the breadth of course offerings available. There is a wealth of material for training on computer subjects such as Windows 98/NT/2000, Microsoft Office and various graphics and multimedia software. There are plenty of good courses which prepare learners for the various Microsoft, Novell, Cisco and other certification exams. There are far fewer courses that deal with professional accounting subjects, and almost nothing that focuses on specific accounting software such as the major tax or practice management programs. Obviously, none of the considerations discussed above matter much if the training you need isn’t available.
Individual learning style is a huge issue in assessing the advantages and disadvantages of online training. Some people thrive on the isolation and focus of self-paced, asynchronous training delivered through their own computer. Others need the interaction of a class group; synchronous training will fit their needs better. Some learners lack the self-discipline to study on their own, while others need the real life sights and sounds of a traditional classroom. Therefore, online training of any sort simply won’t “fit” for them. The goal for the training manager is to match the right style with each learner and maximize the overall learning success. Once again the rule to remember is “one size DOES NOT fit all.”
The last consideration is one that is hard to quantify, but is very real. That is, how does online training fit into the learning and management culture of your firm? Is the owner group willing to have staff people use their computers during the workday for self-paced learning? Or, is someone going to criticize that as simply “playing on the computer”? Is the owner group willing to invest workday hours for training at all? Or, is the 24 x 7 availability going to push them towards telling staff to “do that at home on your own time”? These are not easy questions to answer, but the answers are important. Firm owners, who recognize that training is an efficiency multiplier and who create an atmosphere that rewards and encourages learning, will take a far different approach than those who see it as a diversion from billable hours. Look in the mirror, and see which attitude looks back at you.
How Can It Fit Into Your Training Strategy?
So, after all that, how does online training fit into your overall training strategy? Clearly it is not a panacea, nor the answer to all your training needs. The limited availability of some subjects, the technical requirements for delivery and the learning styles and preferences of your users all mean that this plays a specialized role within a comprehensive training program. However, in some circumstances, it is a very cost effective and flexible component of that training strategy. Talk with your firm’s training coordinator and discuss with him or her how you might use this exciting and dynamic training technology to your best advantage!