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We no longer need to be swamped by information or restricted by cost, distance or time when we want to learn new skills – thanks to technology, particularly the internet, we can now select what, when or how we want to learn new skills and where- in the office, at home, on the train.

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Helen Bradley considers the benefits of tailored on-the-job training tools for business, available to anyone with internet access.

The internet is changing the face of on-the-job training. No longer do participants have to sit for days in stuffy classrooms listening to partially relevant facts being delivered in a monotone by a course leader. Today’s business training is more democratic and interactive, it can be delivered to the participant where they are and undertaken by them as it suits their needs. With experts estimating that the amount of knowledge in the world is doubling every 18 months, the need for on-the-job training has never been greater, and anything that makes it more accessible and more palatable is to be embraced.

Online learning comes in various shapes and sizes with delivery modes ranging from degree courses  online, through web-based seminars to downloadable podcasts. It is delivered by anyone from a recognised university to an enthusiastic amateur user and priced anywhere upwards from free. When assessing the range of online learning tools, it’s important to note that only around 20 percent of what we learn is actually learned as the result of some formal learning event such as a class, workshop or online event. The remainder is learned informally, and according to Jay Cross, author of Informal Learning: the other 80 percent, in work a environment this means it’s "learned through observing others, asking the person in the next cubicle, calling the help desk, trial-and-error, and simply working with people in the know".

According to Forrester Research analyst, Claire Schooley, some of the informal online learning tools increasingly recognised by business as having a place in work learning include informal, peer-driven learning approaches such as communities of practice (CoP), knowledge management repositories, instant messaging, and Web2.0 tools for blogs, wikis and podcasts. A CoP is an informal group of people with a common interest who share expertise and information. In the workplace, Schooley says, it’s used following a learning course where "the participants form a CoP hosted by a leader to share material related to a shared experience or a course, get help on problems that arise, and share best practices". Blogs are written personal commentaries, like diary entries, regularly posted on the web and responded to by others and are useful for gathering reactions to an idea from a broad audience with many different perspectives. A wiki is a web page assembled by group collaboration over a period of time, and anyone with permission can view and edit it. A podcast is an audio or video program that is downloaded and viewed anytime and, because it operates via subscription, it’s easy to determine when new podcasts are available. In the workplace, podcasts can be used to communicate short and concise information or single-concept learning.

Some of the identifying features of these new learning technologies are that they are narrowly defined—the learning is focused on particular topics and solutions and they can be absorbed in a short period of time, often as little as a few minutes. These learning experiences are also available any time so the learner can download them to a computer or iPod for study at their leisure, often at home or while travelling. In many cases, the creation of these learning tools is driven by the same people actually using them, making them very personalised.

Even traditional learning environments are morphing into online delivery tools and, while they retain some level of formality, they also display a flexibility not seen in the traditional classroom model. For example, tools like Citrix Online’s GoToMeeting and GoToWebinar are bringing training, meetings and seminars directly to the worker. "An SME could use a tool like GoToMeeting to hold small personalised training sessions and GoToWebinar is ideal for a session involving up to a thousand people," explains H.R. Shiever, Citrix Online managing director, Pacific region. Training sessions can be recorded and placed in an online archive to be accessed later.

This lets people who weren’t available for the session enjoy the benefits of the training and receive the same information as everyone else. It also lets participants refresh their knowledge by replaying the session at a later time. Praemium Portfolio Services uses GoToMeeting to train users of the company’s financial services software. "The benefits for us are in the cost savings and that we can now make training mandatory," says Sean Crisp, Praemium client service manager. "Our clients are all over Australia and, in the past, training was optional because of the time and cost involved. Now, because it’s done online and no one has to go anywhere, we have made it a requirement of using the software."

This mandatory training has had a flow-on effect, and Praemium is experiencing less calls to client services for help. And the online training experience is very rich, he adds. "The training sessions allow us to share desktops so participants can see the product in use as we explain what we’re doing. We can also give control to them so they can show us what they’re doing."

Types of Training

What form of training is most appropriate in any given situation will depend on the type of learning required and for what purpose. Online technology training, for example, is prolific and there are free courses, podcasts, and seminars available for everything from how to create a podcast or use Microsoft Word to solving issues with server backup and data protection, to managing spam. These are generally informal courses, often offered by product manufacturers or enterprise portals and vary in what they provide from general background briefing information to an intermediate level of knowledge. However, when organising training for employees in the area of compliance with current business laws, it’s important not only for an employer to prove the training has been given, but that the content has also been understood by the employee, says Jaime Hartland, business development manager for Blake Dawson Waldron. The law firm’s Salt SME online legal awareness training addresses the needs of SMEs by providing affordable training in areas such as sexual harassment, discrimination and occupational health and safety.

The courses are studied online and include assessment modules to determine the level of the participant’s understanding. Online training offers many advantages over the traditional classroom model. "This type of learning is a cost-effective way to train a large group of people as it contains compartmentalised learning, so a participant doesn’t have to undertake the entire course all at once," explains Amy Sellers, Business Objects product manager for Knowledge Accelerator. Typical online training solutions also support different learning styles, from learners who are happy to watch processes being performed to those who prefer interactive learning by clicking through work flows step by step. In addition, testing modules are helpful as they allow a user to test their skills at performing a task at any time. "A person can enter and leave the training at any point and can isolate just the training they want. They can also return at a later date to refresh their knowledge," Sellers explains. "It’s on-demand, just in time, training and knowledge support."

For small and medium businesses, online training reduces the need for an employee to travel to attend training and saves not only the cost of travel and accommodation but also the time travel
takes. Learning can be absorbed at the participant’s own pace so faster learners can move faster through the material and slower learners get the time they need to develop an understanding of the topic.

Often participants with expertise can move direct to the assessment component and, if they pass, move on without having to study what they already know. With online training, the information is centralised so everyone studies the same material, ensuring the learning is consistent across the organisation, and it can be updated more quickly as circumstances change—something that isn’t easy to do with printed materials, for example. For some organisations, offering training online allows the business to make training compulsory, a stand it may not be able to sustain if training was classroom-based. At Kakadu National Park online content delivery is, in part, motivated by cultural reasons.

The park provides cultural and natural values, and safety training for tour guides who will have primary responsibility for tour groups in the park. While much of the training material is distributed on CD, audio and video content featuring traditional owners is only available online in a streaming format. This allows traditional owners and park management to retain control of the streaming content and allows them to replace culturally sensitive material such as images of a person who has since died.

"The other significant benefit of remote delivery for us and the tourism industry is that we can require that tour guides complete the course, something we couldn’t do if training had to be done in a traditional classroom situation," says Paul Styles, tourism and visitor services manager, Kakadu National Park. Technologies such as inexpensive multimedia development tools, the iPod and broadband connections to the internet, have made it possible to find and download a training podcast at work and watch it on the train going home—something unheard of just a few years ago. As the boundaries between work and home continue to blur, so too do those between work and learning.


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