Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Going the distance

More training online than face to face

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With schools and universities opening for fall attendance, I find that at this time of year, one personal recollection of my school history always comes to mind.

The recollection involves my desire to obtain a PhD in leadership. Since I had completed my first degree while working in the North, I was accustomed to the self-learning strategies offered through correspondence courses. I remember trudging to the post office every Saturday to pick up my lessons and marked assignments.

After completing a master's degree, I started looking for a self-study post-graduate program. Since I could not attend school full time and there were no self-study programs available in Manitoba, I quite naturally directed my interests toward one of the first distance education colleges in the United States. In fact, I made a deal with them.

I agreed to act as a program co-ordinator and recruit potential PhD students in Manitoba in exchange for free tuition. With the agreement signed, I advertised and held two information sessions with over 90 participants each. The instructors flew in from Florida and met our participants, individuals from all over the world. Most of the participants had incomplete post-secondary degrees from other educational institutions and were frustrated with their inability to gain credit at our local universities.

However, I did not anticipate the response that resulted from the information sessions. While participating students were thrilled to be presented with such an opportunity to complete their degrees, there were representatives from our traditional educational institutions who weren't so happy. In fact, they commented loudly that distance education didn't compare to face-to-face class time, didn't have value in the eyes of institutions and was frankly a waste of money. Once this backlash hit the newspapers, potential participants slinked away with only one person who successfully registered. Unfortunately, I was back to finding another way to get a post-graduate degree.

So why do I laugh at this incident so many years later? Well, guess what? Today, technology-driven distance education is a blockbuster business for all of our educational institutions. In fact, there are now multiple university and college degrees available online by distance education. Study "anywhere, anytime" is often the motto used to encourage this type of programing. So what happened to the importance of face-to-face time? Perhaps it is a fallacy after all or maybe I was just ahead of my time.

Yet technology is continuing to drive change in both the educational and professional training and development fields as quickly as in the family home. When people want to know something, they turn to the Internet. They have iPhones, iPads, laptop computers and all kinds of technical tools to enhance their learning. In other words, learners are taking control of their own learning experience; they want information when they want it. They resolve their information challenges by surfing the net, joining online groups, reading blogs, requesting news alerts and reading online magazines called ezines. People take information and learn from every source possible.

While high schools might be debating whether children should have laptops at school, corporate training and development is changing with lightning speed. Larger corporations, for instance, have their own web portals where employees can access multiple learning programs. They can also create their own learning communities where they can engage in formal as well as informal learning activities with colleagues both inside and outside of their organization.

Training and development is expanding beyond the use of CDs, static PowerPoint presentations and web-based training with 3-D animation, video and graphics and it is moving into the application of powerful simulations that give real-time experience. Streaming videos and downloaded podcasts are becoming common with more and more content being downloaded onto mobile devices so that individuals can indeed learn anytime and anywhere.

And video games and digital gaming programs are no longer just for kids. Today, gaming is being used as an interactive tool and creates effective corporate training. For instance, sales organizations have rapidly adopted gaming simulations to train their sales agents. The games start easy and as the agent wins, moves into harder and harder sales challenges. Agents compete against one another and build progressively more sophisticated skills in analysis, strategic thinking and competitive positioning. Trainers can easily keep track of each participant's success or areas of challenge. All in all, this type of on-the-job learning has proven to be effective and to reduce the risk of mistakes on the job.

Trend-watching human resource professionals suggest that gaming and online learning will be the hot trends in training and development over the next few years. For instance, gaming is now used for training in health care and emergency services as well as various aspects of the military. All of this has been made possible because of the convergence of virtual worlds, games, social networking and Internet applications. As a skills building professional development tool, gaming is growing at such a dizzying pace that it's now a multibillion-dollar business with multiple vendors vying to develop the latest and most up-to-date product and service.

What then is the future of face-to-face classroom training? While the demand might decrease over the next few years, corporate training and development will be all about integrating technology solutions and melding this into traditional training so that individuals have a choice to access learning according to their learning style, their time and availability.

Traditional stand-up trainers will need to ensure they integrate experiential learning through a combination of technology and powerful in-class discussions to create a rich training experience. Applying technology as part of training will also allow organizations to more accurately measure the effect of training as sustained changes and improvements in performance can easily be detected.

One of the challenges already arising from this melding of technology and corporate training is the shortage of programmers who have the skills to develop online training resources. Curriculum and learning experts will have to work closely with game and program designers to design programs that meet the needs of learners. This will also require that significant work is done to closely examine each of the worker tasks, align this with the different levels of proficiency and design programs for both training and evaluation.

All in all, training and development continues to be an exciting field. New career opportunities and educational programs are being created and this will continue as technology becomes more involved in the profession. So, hold onto your seats -- and be prepared to play the game!

Source: Serious games: Online games for learning, Anne Derryberry at I'm Serious.net; from E-learning to mobile learning, Bill Roberts, HR Magazine, August 2012.

Barbara J. Bowes is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at barb@legacybowes.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 H1

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