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Learning at home? Bah! IT training should be a hands-on experience.

There has been a lot written about the miracle of e-learning and how it will would fundamentally change the way companies train their employees to meet the increasingly rapid evolution of information technology.

Proponents hailed its development as an educational breakthrough enabling employee-students to work at their own pace, time, and place. Advocates have touted it as the cure-all for everything that ails corporate IT training: the expense, disruption, and dislocation of employees who have to enroll in live, hands-on training seminars, often in cities far removed from their place of employment.

But after more than half a decade of e-learning, the numbers tell another story-57 percent of respondents to one study described their e-learning experience as “frustrating, lonely, and stressful,” and even the best e-learning environment (which includes audio and visual techniques) yields only about 40 percent retention of the material covered

Humans, by nature, learn best through social interaction. But much of e-learning course material is simply live lecture material posted to the Internet, resulting in a poor learning experience in which crucial context is removed because there is no human instructor to impart it

Just as important as the human element is the crucial need for hands-on lab-based coursework. The best way to learn is by doing, not by reading. Some Internet-based training providers have tried to overcome the lack of human interaction and the inability to provide meaningful hands-on experience by incorporating audio and video reinforcement in their online courseware.

But often bandwidth issues cause a significant number of students to omit these tools. When human interaction is involved, such as with live training classes, retention virtually doubles to the range of 70-80 percent, depending on the quality of the hands-on lab experience.

Why is hands-on lab experience so important? Because it builds competence. You’ll hear many training providers talking about helping their students achieve certification, which often involves little more than cramming for a test, with no regard for whether the student actually becomes proficient in the IT skills being taught.

For students to attain true competence and confidence in their new skills, they must have facilitated hands-on practice, something unavailable from e-learning programs.

Instructor-led training is so important that many e-learning providers have turned to “blended learning”–a hybrid form of training that includes some real human coaching. However, if the coaching is in the form of instructor-led presentations or instructor-facilitated labs, the e-learning has morphed into what it is trying to replace.

So too often that coaching consists simply of a send-and-receive e-mail process and a phone number the student can call to talk to someone during certain specified times. While certainly an effort in the right direction, this methodology in no way can replace the instant feedback and face-to-face dialog between student and instructor.

The acceleration of the learning process through real-time instructor facilitation is absent. Given limited free time for training, the difficulty of keeping up-to-date becomes exacerbated.

As a result of less-than-satisfactory attempts to provide a meaningful online experience, e-learning programs suffer from a high dropout rate. According to a study published by Learning Tree, a national IT training provider which conducted its own e-learning trial, only 30 percent of the trial’s participants completed the pilot program, despite receiving persistent e-mail and telephone encouragement from the instructor and course manager.

To ensure this was not a one-time fluke, Learning Tree conducted a further, in-depth study involving four e-learning programs with full, online facilitation, including online registration, top-notch instructors, streaming video, and a response team dedicated to responding to student questions within twelve hours. There was even a proprietary online process that enabled students to actually use the technologies being taught.

Despite the concerted effort made by Learning Tree to make the online experience as easy and tactile as possible, the dropout rate was even higher–81 percent dropped out by the end of the program. An analysis of the trial yielded a simple conclusion: the longer the course, the higher the dropout rate.

By contrast, there is a nearly 100 percent completion rate for live, instructor-led training regardless of course length.

It has often been stated by e-learning training providers that their process is much more efficient in terms of time needed to complete training, and therefore lowers total cost.

Learning Tree’s study supported this claim, citing that e-instructors presenting material identical to that taught by classroom instructors were able to do so in almost half the time. Why is that? The same study concludes that it is because critical dialog and hands-on practice is missing from the e-learning experience.

In fact, over half of live classroom time is taken up by interaction in some form–students asking questions, instructors clarifying key points, complicated technical issues being discussed. When you combine hands-on exercises with lectures and discussions, that student/instructor interactivity climbs closer to 75 percent. No wonder e-learning programs get completed more quickly. The sticking point is that most e-learning programs of any length never get completed at all.

Even worse, those completing an e-learning program are demonstrably less competent than those completing comparable live training, working more slowly and making significantly more errors when performing technical tasks. According to a comprehensive study Thomson NetG, a leading provider of e-learning systems, students who participated in hands on training “performed with 30 percent more accuracy” and “performed real-world tasks 41 percent faster” than those who trained via e-learning.

Let’s look at cost. If money’s a key factor in selecting an online IT training program over a live classroom one, doesn’t it stand to reason that a shorter duration program will cost less?

Even so, e-learning programs costs only a few hundred dollars less per student than instructor-led training that delivers more material and more competence with more consistent results. Furthermore, the overall costs of e-learning turn out to be much greater when you consider return on investment (ROI).

E-learning tuition cost calculations do not include the cost of learning management systems, loss of increased productivity due to longer calendar times to completion, the high dropout rate, and a host of other negative cost factors. And all the tuition savings in the world will not help when the returning student does not fully develop the IT skills he or she enrolled in the program to learn. That translates into lost productivity, delayed projects, and costly retraining.

As the overall online experience becomes richer and more varied with each technological advance, the debate over live training versus e-learning will continue. But at the end of the day, IT training is all about developing competence, not just completing a course or achieving certification.

For any IT training participant to achieve true competence and confidence in the skills they are learning, they must take part in a program that provides extensive, hands-on lab exercises where they can practice and hone their newly-developed skills, enabling them to put these skills to immediate use upon return to the workplace.

Until the day arrives that e-learning provides an equally rich, personally-interactive experience, the ability to gain true competence in IT training will remain firmly entrenched in the classroom.

Roland Van Liew is president of Hands On Technology Transfer Inc. , Chelmsford, Mass.

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