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E-learning: in a class of its own

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A PROLIFERATION of remote or distance training (“e-learning”) has appeared in technology and engineering education, using the internet as the delivery medium. Typical approaches are web-based and streaming. Minimum requirements are an internet connection, a computer and access to an e-learning provider on the web.

Extravagant claims have been made about the cost-effectiveness of this type of training, compared to the traditional instructor-led and classroom-based training.

A major problem with e-learning is the lack of interaction with the instructor and the difficulty of using real tools to demonstrate and provide practical hands-on exercises (such as working with a valve or instrument).

Even so, compared to approaches such as instructor-led training in a classroom, the benefits for e-learning are numerous.

Travelling to class is minimised for students (and instructor perhaps), you can learn at your own convenience, you can absorb the material in smaller chunks, training costs can be dramatically lowered, and the speed of ramp-up in the delivery and rollout of training is very swift.

At the same time, e-learning enables you to respond to business requirements and update multiple sites with new material quickly.

E-learning is scalable up or down easily to handle more (or less) requirements such as instructors and time of delivery, there is a consistent message to multiple sites and participants, learning is 24x7 hours per week, and one is able to build a community within a business.

Finally, e-learning easily fits into the e-business and existing IT infrastructure, learning quality can be improved on existing classroom training, and it can be made more consistent and repeatable.

The downside of e-learning is that it’s boring and there’s no interaction, it’s all computer pages on a screen, it is difficult to give a hands-on experience, and there is minimal or no interaction with other class members or the instructor.

Also, e-learning is fragmented, it’s difficult to see a holistic picture for the learning process, and completion rates are low.

Up against a brick wall

AREAS where e-learning will not work well using current technologies are: exercises which require significant face-to-face contact such as negotiating and sales training, and lab exercises which require access to real hardware you can work with.

A few myths about e-learning

E-learning will make a dramatic improvement to the learning process: Some years ago, Thomas L. Russell reviewed the various technology platforms used over the past 75 years and came to the intriguing conclusion that there really was no difference in learning from different media, whether they were 16 mm films, CDs or the classical classroom. What makes a difference is the way you instruct. There is no substitute for a good quality instructor and well designed and practical learning materials.

The quality of e-learning is what distinguishes it from other offerings: Well, this is true. But in a negative sense. Although many e-learning providers have a dazzling collection of titles on offer, many of them are not much better than a book online. Totally passive and uninteresting.

E-learning will replace instructor-led training: This is unlikely to happen. No one can sit slumped in front of a computer screen for two days. Or get hands on practical experiences and talk to colleagues a few meters away in a classroom setting. Perhaps in the future but not at present. A blended approach, which is a combination of e-learning and classroom-based instructor-led instruction, is an excellent combination.

Fitting in with automation and instrumentation

MOST e-learning solutions are built on a very ad hoc basis with no understanding of the material to be taught or the course participants.

The traditional e-learning, comprising a book placed online with a quiz at the end of each section, is difficult to see working for automation and instrumentation training. Even with teaching students how to program in Java, using this approach seems to be unsuccessful.

IDC Technologies has experimented with this approach on a few occasions by placing the learning experience both online and in an accompanying trade magazine. IDC enjoyed moderate success, by keeping the content as short as possible and by offering outstanding prizes (a weekend away at a resort with a partner) to encourage people to participate.

Of a potential audience of 3000, IDC achieved an interaction level of about 50, which the company considered reasonably successful.

However, the big opportunity is in interactive learning with an instructor online in the video conferencing type mode using synchronous e-learning (such as video conferencing/streaming, etc.).

This so called synchronous training combined with the classroom experience (in a so-called blended learning approach) is the most workable.

The current low completion rate of less than 20 percent of e-learning exercises means massive incentives. Persistence will be required in driving the participant through the learning process. None of us likes to sit in front of a computer, learning all day, without at least some interaction with our colleagues and the instructor.

Building blocks

E-LEARNING building blocks include virtual presentations and instruction, virtual interaction with people, web books, simulations, virtual interaction with hardware (such as instrumentation), a virtual reference library and assessments and tests.

These would be combined in various levels to achieve a balanced and successful learning experience.

You have to make sure the technology is right for e-learning, effectively choosing between synchronous and asynchronous learning.

Here are a few points about both approaches:


• Same time, different places.

• Instructor-led.

• Focus on instantaneous delivery with very short times.

• Good for unstable content where expertise can be captured a lot more quickly.

• Promotes sharing of applications.

• Can be boring if not done properly.

This is likely to be the most appropriate and successful for instrumentation and automation training.


• Different time, different places.

• No instructor required.

• Focus is on instantaneous delivery with longer lead times.

• Good for more stable content with a larger number of participants.

• Facilitates multiple viewing.

• Has the potential to be boring.

Developing and delivering e-learning

WITH a focus on synchronous learning, the following can be achieved in developing and delivering a course:

Targets: One month cycle time from start to actually presenting the workshop. Average production cost under $2000. Event time limited to 60 minutes presentation with 20 minutes for questions and interaction.

Technology applied: Numerous companies support these efforts with off-the-shelf software. This includes Placeware, WebEX and Centra.

Graphics (e.g. using Placeware): Powerpoints are transferred to the web using Placeware. Avoid slide build-ups and video by only targeting high speed internet connections. Use minimal features initially until you’re comfortable with the technology.

Sound: This is done by using a telephone. Your local telephone company can help manage this service.

Course and content preparation

THE time taken to prepare is considerably longer than for an existing classroom course. A minimum of three dry runs are recommended with complete presentations of the topic.

You may need to build in dummy interactivity (such as posed questions) if you are unsure about your audience, which is remote and perhaps of different cultures.

Two-person support is required for the instructor: one monitoring online questions and the other playing host. Ensure that the session is recorded and the presentation is useful for an asynchronous audience as well later.

Some effective techniques

TO boost the absorption of materials and make the participants enjoy the experience:

• Provide immediate practice on concepts that have been learnt through hands-on techniques (use simulation techniques to accomplish this).

• Give anecdotes and stories to lift the interest level.

• Give plenty of demonstrations.

• Provide guided tours through the course materials.

• Place the learning in a real world context and clearly show the benefits.

• Encourage the participants to interact and work with each, and create team activities.

• Make the tests and quizzes as interesting and appealing as possible.

Counting the costs

COSTS vary dramatically from a small business with three engineers wanting to get familiar with the latest Coriolis flow technology to a large multinational, which wants to train 3000 engineers throughout the world in the latest safety instrumentation practice on IEC 61508 as applied to their new release of their instrumentation packages.

The inevitable question is always what the costs are. Well, they can vary dramatically depending on your requirements and budgets. A few scenarios are sketched below.

A single e-learning course with an instructor and 10 students using only email as the medium: There is no tracking and no automated testing of the work done by the students. This would cost less than a thousand dollars to deliver.

A single self-study e-learning course using the web to be delivered to 10 students: There is still no tracking and automated testing. This would cost two to three thousand dollars.

10 courses comprising instructor-led interactive with basic student tracking and automated testing: This would cost $30,000 to $60,000.

A corporate e-learning university with a catalogue of 130 courses and learning management system: This would cost $1.5 million and more, depending on the scope.

Being a success

TO succeed, create a compelling value proposition for your company and individual participants, determine where e-learning can apply to your company (particularly as part of a blended learning approach), and ensure you understand the e-learning marketplace thoroughly as to all the products out there.

You need to get the right support in your company from the start and to get it right first time.

Also, create compelling reasons for people to participate in e-learning, and communicate repetitively and persistently to ensure participation.

What the future holds

MOST of the hype will disappear as the e-learning environment starts to mature, there will be renewed focus on participants learning the material with demonstrable benefits for the company, and the “book on the web” will disappear as a key learning tool.

A blended learning approach will be increasingly emphasised with e-learning treated as one component of the instructional process, mobile learning will be increasingly used with handheld devices and wireless networks forming the backbone of many e-learning solutions, and collaborative learning and interaction between learners will be increasingly used to enhance learning.

Finally, simulation will be increasingly used to improve learning, as will video conferencing.

* Commentary by Steve Mackay, technical director, IDC Technologies

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