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Article - November 2002
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Online Training: Lessons Learned

Chariti Young, Training Manager 
Automated Logic Corporation

  • Aim low (for low connection speed, that is). 

  • Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle.

  • Flexibility is key. 

  • Simplify, Simplify, Simplify! 

  • Allow sufficient development time, and then double it. 

  • Do to learn - Simulate! 

  • Give me feedback immediately (if not sooner).

  • Communicate - internally, externally, and eternally.

In June 2002, approximately one year after development began, Automated Logic Corporation launched a web-based training program for our international network of system service providers and customers. Overall, the program has been very well received and use of the e-learning program has exceeded all of our expectations. Following are a combination of many "glad we did" and a few "wish we had" ideas that we hope will be of use to anyone launching an e-learning program.

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Aim low (for low connection speed, that is). Most US residences, and many businesses, are still connected to the Internet via a 28.8 kbps modem connection. No matter how fast your training department's server, chances are a large percentage of your students will not have the screaming Internet connection you wish they had. This means that you will need to aim all of your infrastructure, course material, and interaction at the lowest common connection denominator. If you don't, you risk not just frustrating, but disabling some of your students. This is not a wise thing to do if you're trying to convince people to participate in your new e-learning program. Optimizing file sizes and especially optimizing any interactive content for low speed connections will be transparent to your students with high-speed connections, but crucial for those students without.

Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle. If you already have an instructor-led training program, you probably have a wealth of material that can be converted to e-learning content. No training program, you say? Do you have a sales group equipped with PowerPoint presentations? How about help files for your product? Or a tech support department with a knowledgebase? Don't be afraid to get creative with existing material. Ask around, and you may find a whole training program just waiting to be reborn as e-learning.

Flexibility is key. One of the most commonly touted reasons for launching e-learning is that users can access the Internet anytime, anywhere! Beware of setting up a web-based training program around a traditional training paradigm. When we initially launched our e-learning program, we ran our web-based courses on a weekly schedule, Monday through Friday, so our instructors could monitor online discussions and quickly answer any questions the students might have. We quickly discovered that this didn't work well for our students taking training on their own time, so we changed our weekly schedule to Tuesday through Monday. This was better, as it allowed students to work on the course over the weekend, but was still not ideal. We still required the students to register for a specific one-week offering of a course, and re-register if they didn't complete within their chosen week. We recently revised our infrastructure to run all web-based training classes continuously, and students can work on multiple courses at their convenience over a much longer period of time. Overall, this has worked much, much better!

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify! Don't make me think! Is this a button or a graphic? Somewhere in this paragraph of information lies the word that will tell me what to do next. I can't open the simulation - you mean I was supposed to dig through your tome of policies and procedures to figure out that I needed one of these two plug-ins? How am I supposed to figure out which one I need? Make sure that all instructions everywhere are as simple and clear (and short!) as you can possibly make them. As John Ruskin said, "Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them." Make sure that links are consistently identified, and that buttons look like buttons. Avoid confusing clutter on any and every screen the student will encounter. Also consider both your internal and external registration process for simplicity and usability. As much as possible, it's helpful to have these processes identical.

Allow sufficient development time, and then double it. Even if you're repurposing existing material to develop your e-learning program, don't underestimate the time it will take. For instructor-led training development, a good rule of thumb is 3-5 hours of development time for each hour of training. For web-based training, expect at least 8, and perhaps as much as 15 hours of development time per hour of training. Without allowing sufficient time, we trap ourselves in the same corner as Blaise Pascal, who apologized in 1656, "I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter." Conciseness and clarity are essential for training in general, and especially for online training. Keep in mind that course material, course descriptions, objectives, simulations, activities, instructions for course exercises and your registration process, exam and review questions and answers must all be developed, reviewed, and edited with conciseness and clarity in mind. In addition, make sure you program time to incorporate feedback from testing and from student evaluations. Feedback is great, but if you aren't going to incorporate it, why collect it?

Reliable Controls Do to learn - Simulate! One of the cornerstones of e-learning, especially for software training, is the ability to guide the learner through the actual software. This allows the student to practice using the software in a safe environment, learning how to use it without endangering or damaging a real system. The more practice, the better. Make sure to allow sufficient time for simulation development, as well. If you hire someone to develop simulations using a package they already know, allow time to get them up to speed on your product. If the person developing your simulation already knows your product, allow time for them to get up to speed on the simulation development tool you choose. Keep in mind that there should be more to simulations than just screenshots with selective interactivity: instructions, tips, and feedback to the student all aid learning and all take time to incorporate.

Give me feedback immediately (if not sooner). In our society of instant gratification, there's something to be said for knowing as soon as you finish an exam how well you did. As a matter of fact, your students expect it. So it's no big deal if you provide instant feedback, but watch out if you don't. The same holds true for course completion information, registration/purchasing, exam and review history, certificate generation, and instructor feedback. If you aren't going to have someone accessible to answer questions 24 hours a day, your students will accommodate, but only if you've communicated to them how quickly and during what hours they can expect an answer from an instructor.

Communicate - internally, externally, and eternally. Communication rests hand-in-hand with buy-in, which is critical for the success of an e-learning (or any other) program launch. Why is it important? How can it help me? How does it work? What's expected of me? What is the scope? How long will it take? The answers are important, and need to be communicated regularly to those supporting, developing, testing, and using your program. On the flip side, make it easy for those populations to communicate with and provide feedback to you! Getting and incorporating their feedback quickly can make a huge difference in how well you are meeting their needs and in how quickly you can evolve and improve your product.


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