by Robin McDermott
computer-based training has been used in corporate training for more than 15 years, it has only come into its own in the last three to five years. As is the case with most technology, the early
adopters spent a lot of money on equipment and dealt with a variety of issues that the average training manager couldn't handle from a technology standpoint or couldn't afford from a budgetary
CBT is completely different today thanks to advances in hardware and software. For one thing, most CBT products can run on nearly all computers. And due to the
increased accessibility to fast hardware, more companies are developing CBT programs. No longer just for broad topics with universal appeal, such as safety and supervisory skills, today's CBT
software also focuses on much more specific topics such as manufacturing quality and productivity improvement. And, with Web-based training quickly becoming the fastest-growing segment of the
computer-based training market, it won't be long before companies can provide a variety of quality-related training topics at home, at work or on the road.
If, when it comes to
training, your company is still languishing in the dark ages--still conducting in-house classroom training or sending employees away to outside seminars--it's time to consider the benefits of CBT
and WBT. However, before you fire all of your training staff, there are some things that you should know about what CBT and WBT can and can't do for your company.
What CBT can do for your company
CBT increases both productivity and learning. Significant productivity gains are
generated with CBT because it's extremely flexible. Classroom training requires a trainer, a room, materials and enough learners to make the training worth the investment. With CBT, each learner
can access training exactly when it's needed at a time and location convenient for that particular learner. This means no more shut-down production lines during training and no more cancelled or
postponed training sessions due to production emergencies.
CBT also takes less time than classroom training. Some studies have shown it to reduce training time per learner by
40-60 percent. Most CBT programs enable the training to be customized to meet a particular learner's needs. So instead of sitting in a full-day training session where only half of the information
is relevant to any one learner, employees can focus on what's most important to their specific jobs. Less time spent in training means more time applying new skills on the job.
Another reason for CBT's efficiency is that people learn at different speeds. In a classroom, everyone proceeds at the same speed (usually determined by the trainer), but with CBT, learners
can work through training at their own pace.
The productivity gains realized with CBT don't require that learning and retention be sacrificed; in fact, learning retention is
typically higher with CBT than it is with classroom training. One reason for the increased retention is that learners don't feel embarrassed to spend extra time on topics more difficult for them.
In addition, CBT can provide interactive exercises with which learners can test their knowledge, practice applying the skills acquired and experiment with what they have learned in a safe,
nonjudgmental environment. Some training programs even offer built-in features that adapt to different learning styles. For example, some programs give learners the choice of hearing audio,
reading text or doing both. Other programs allow learners to chart their own learning paths or to work through the training sequentially. This type of adaptation to individual learning needs
simply isn't possible in a traditional classroom setting.
Regardless of the training approach, however, it's easy to lose sight of training's true objective, which is to
develop or modify skills, attitudes and behaviors on the job. Instruction should always be secondary to actual on-the-job application, whether classroom training or CBT is used. Unfortunately,
the objective of getting enough people in the classroom is often given priority over when and how the learners are to apply what they've learned. By the time some of the learners have the
opportunity to apply what was learned in the classroom, the skills might already be rusty. With CBT, learners can immediately apply what they've learned because they take the training at the
exact time they're ready to use it, not when the organization is ready to provide it. In addition, because fewer people are needed to conduct CBT, quality engineers and other subject matter
experts can spend more time helping learners use what they've learned to make tangible improvements to quality and productivity.
Starting to think that your company might need
to give CBT a second look? Then you'll be happy to hear that off-the-shelf CBT is typically much less expensive than classroom training. Developing CBT in-house can be expensive and
time-consuming, but a variety of off-the-shelf CBT exists that addresses manufacturing quality and productivity topics such as SPC, dimensional metrology, Six Sigma, ISO 9000 and QS-9000, to name
a few. Some programs come with a site license, which means that once you purchase the program, you can train as many employees as you wish at one location without any additional fees. Other CBT
and WBT programs charge a per-user fee. However, compared to the cost of attending a seminar or holding an in-house training session, even CBT/WBT with a per-user fee can cut your training costs
by at least 50 percent.
What CBT can't do for your company
Despite all of CBT's
benefits, it, like traditional classroom training, will yield disappointing results if delivered in a vacuum. How many times are people sent to classroom training only to have the manager observe
six months later that the training hasn't had any impact on productivity or quality? This type of problem usually has little to do with the actual training/instruction and a great deal to do with
the environment in which the skills are to be applied. CBT cannot be treated as an independent event unconnected to an application on the job. Don't do CBT just for the sake of training.
CBT and classroom training alike need to be linked to specific business objectives. Learners need to be held accountable, not only for going through the training, but also for
using what they learned in their jobs. And processes must be put into place to enable people to use what they have learned and to help them if they're having difficulty applying their newly
acquired knowledge or skills, a system that must be in place prior to rolling out a CBT program.
At a recent meeting with a well-known consumer products manufacturer, several quality managers and a training manager were grappling with the best way to implement
training to support their Six Sigma process. It was decided early on that, due to cost savings and flexibility, CBT would be used for the bulk of the training. However, the training manager was
quick to point out that CBT was not going to relieve the quality professionals of their responsibilities in implementing Six Sigma. The group then launched into a discussion of the best way to
integrate CBT into their Six Sigma process. All organizations should consider the five key points this group developed before launching a CBT initiative:
Provide a face-to-face introduction to the training either one-on-one or in groups to
demonstrate support for the training and to convey a sense of importance in developing new knowledge, skills and behavior.
Set a deadline for learners to complete the training. The deadline should convey a
sense of urgency. In other words, don't give people six months to complete a program. That sends a message that the training isn't really all that important.
Review the key points of the training with employees, either one-on-one or in a
group, once they've completed the training. Encourage them to ask questions about how employees will be expected to use what they've learned.
Ensure that learners have opportunities to immediately use the skills gained in their
jobs, and follow up with them one-on-one to review how they're progressing.
Make the training available to learners as a refresher even after they've completed it.
With a commitment to a process that embraces these five points, you can begin your search for CBT programs that meet your training needs. More quality-related training
programs are becoming available every day. Although it's nice to have more choices, this variety makes it even more important that you develop well-defined criteria for
evaluating your options. Here are several basic questions you should ask when selecting off-the-shelf training products. Use these as the basis for developing your own list of
"musts" and "wants" to ensure that you achieve your training objectives:
Was the training developed by quality professionals who are able to convey
sometimes-complicated quality concepts simply and clearly? Is the content accurate, consistent and presented in such a way that employees at all levels can understand it?
Because you are making an investment that should be able to benefit your company for the next several years, is the training-tool provider going to be around in the future
to provide ongoing support?
Does the developer have a suite of products, and is the company committed to developing new titles that will make it easy for you to add additional training options as new needs arise?
How does the company handle technical support and product upgrades.
How is the product licensed? Will you have additional fees to pay as more people use the program, or is there one fixed cost for your site or company?
What other organizations are using the company's programs? Are companies similar to yours using the program, and can you talk to their representatives as references?
Can you review the program in its entirety before purchasing?
Will the program run on a variety of different computer configurations or does it require specialized equipment.
Are the programs offered in a variety of formats such as CD-ROM-based, LAN-based and Web-based?
Does the CBT provide testing and tracking to document that learners have
successfully completed the program?
Successful Web-based training
The concept of WBT is appealing because it makes training even more accessible and flexible than more traditional CBT methods. Pure WBT programs run through a
browser independent of the operating system, so employees on Macs and PCs can have access to the same training.
Hybrid WBT programs require plug-ins in order to run. These programs run over the Web but may not run through all browsers. With these types of programs, runtime files
are installed on the user's computer and the media and text files are delivered over the Internet or an intranet through the Web server. Programs requiring plug-ins may be
more complicated to install and run but may enable more functionality and interactivity. The downside of plug-ins is that information technology departments in many large
corporations ban their use.
With either form of Web-based training, bandwidth is still a major concern for
developers. Although audio, video and animations work great with programs running locally, over the Internet or intranet they can bring performance to a sudden halt.
Compression technology for graphics and photographs has come a long way in recent years, so these are no longer major problems for WBT developers. The biggest
limitation today for WBT is with compression technology for audio and video because there's still a significant trade-off between quality and speed. Even though most large
corporations have high-speed Internet connections, media-rich WBT programs can take up precious bandwidth. In addition, employees who use WBT programs from home
through a dial-up connection or employees who use WBT at satellite facilities with slow Internet connections might find the speed of the program painfully slow. Consider a
paragraph of audio with three average-length sentences in an MP3 format: The size of the audio file would be about 234 KB. At best, data transfers at 3.6 KB per second on a
28.8 KBPS dial-up connection, so it would take more than a minute to transfer that file over a 28.8 KBPS Internet connection. The issue with audio and video compression has
led many developers to use text instead of audio for their WBT, at least for the time being. However, with the pace of technological advancements and the wide-scale
implementation of broadband technology, it could be a very different story a year from now.
When selecting WBT, therefore, you need to modify your expectations and
requirements to fit technology's current state. Don't expect media-rich programs; in fact, beware of them, because they may prove to be a big hassle for many of your
learners. Five additional questions you need to ask when evaluating WBT are:
How are training records maintained, and will you have access to that information?
Will the WBT communicate with an existing learning management system? (Visit
www.aicc.org for industry-accepted standards for interoperability between different CBT and WBT programs.)
Does the WBT require plug-ins, special media players or other software that may be a hassle for learners to use or install?
How do learners access the training? Can your company purchase a block of seats and assign learners to specific courses?
How long do employees have access to the WBT?
CBT and WBT present exciting alternatives to classroom training that can save your
company time and money while at the same time increasing retention and employee enthusiasm for training. However, training with CBT or WBT will only be as good as
the planning and preparation that goes into it. Using CBT technology will be most effective when its implementation is well-thought-out and when the training is carefully
selected to ensure it meets the needs of the organization.
About the author
Robin McDermott is director of training for Resource Engineering Inc., a training and consulting firm. She has master's degrees in business administration and education and
is conducting research on enhancing adult learning with technology for her doctorate degree. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .