IT training is in great demand as companies bring their staff up to date with new skills. And what better way to deliver IT training than over the Internet?
The force of this logic has certainly impressed research company IDC, which recently predicted a major surge in Web-based training. This has been prompted by the need to train suppliers to focus on delivery methods so they can distinguish their services in an increasingly competitive market.
In its report, Business Strategies for IT Training and Education Services, IDC claims that advances in technology-based training methods will make education at the desktop more timely and accessible.
But the report found that none of the training suppliers expects instructor-led training to be completely replaced by technology-based services. Instead, it explains, the two approaches will be integrated to provide complementary services.
While the market for online training is set to grow, at the moment only a few vendors are providing training that can be delivered over the Internet. And some of those not yet in the market remain sceptical.
Steve Ladlow, training services manager at Uunet, says: ?I?ve seen some awful courses on the Internet, where someone has just obviously scanned a training manual and put it online.?
He adds: ?You just can?t do that because you can?t read a screen in the same way as a page ? and there is no interaction. It needs a lot more effort to make online training work properly.?
This has not deterred vendors such as Peritas, which launched its online service last year, CBT Systems, with its Web-based package; nor Oracle, which released its online training service, Oracle Learning Architecture, at the end of last year.
But even the proponents of online training acknowledge that it is still early days for this delivery method. It is remarkable that the early users of online training are primarily technology companies, such as ICL and Tandem (see following pages), mainly because it is assumed that their staff are comfortable with the technology involved.
There are also a number of technical factors that need to be addressed, according to Mark Townsend, vice president of advanced technology at NETG. ?Internet technology itself is still evolving, so keeping up with that and exploiting it for training is a big challenge,? he says.
NETG is developing two approaches to Web-based training. Customers can browse through a list of courses and then download the full course, which avoids the need for sending away for CD-ROMs of courseware, but demands a lot of bandwidth and disk space. Alternatively, they can browse the contents of courses in more detail and download only the topics needed. Townsend believes this second option is likely to become more popular because it is more accessible.
Employers like online training because it is an alternative to sending highly-skilled, expensive staff on external courses. According to Paul Butler, director at Peritas Learning Technology, a typical 10-day classroom programme on Windows NT could cost from #2,300 just for tuition, whereas a similar online course would be about #370.
However, there are disadvantages. Students may not be motivated to work their way through an online course, and feel they do not get the benefits of interaction with tutors and other students in the same way as in a classroom.
This is recognised by suppliers and buyers. ICL, for example, which has retrained 40 former mainframe technical staff in Windows NT, says it encourages much earlier use of chat sessions between students in its next set of online training. Despite these drawbacks, though, online training is set to grow.
Subject: Tandem Computers
Activities: global IT hardware and software supplier
Installation: CBT Systems? CBT Web interactive education software for training on technical topics
Moving to Web-based training is a logical step in the development of Tandem?s overall view of its information base, says Keith Briggs, general manager of services at Tandem Computers Europe. It?s also a major investment ? Tandem has signed a $1m deal with CBT Systems for its intranet-based software.
?We?re developing a Tandem learning architecture that allows us to access the information we already hold in our marketing database and present it in different ways,? he explains. ?We have collated a lot of product, sales and market-related information on our intranet, and it is a small step to access training via the Web.
He adds: ?Ultimately, we?d like to get to the point where training modules pick up product data from the database and present it in an appropriate form, whether for training in marketing, or as detailed technical information.?
In addition to this long-term goal, Briggs believes there are a number of operational advantages in using Web-based training. ?With training modules on the intranet, there is a single point of update, and the modules can be accessed immediately,? he says.
Briggs adds: ?It?s easy to get data to known locations, and this approach also allows us to track training centrally. So we know who is doing what and how they are progressing, rather than sending out lots of CD-ROMs which get thrown in the bin.?
Holding training modules on the Tandem intranet also cuts out the cost of distributing software. And one of the key benefits is having a single, known cost, says Briggs, although he acknowledges that this comes on top of the investment Tandem has already made in its infrastructure.
Briggs says it?s good for Tandem, as a technology company, to get a taste of its own medicine. These are the kinds of services Tandem wants its customers to buy, he explains, and it?s important the company absorbs its own marketing. ?We?re forcing ourselves to learn by doing it,? he says.
Tandem picked CBT to supply its Web-based training on topics such as C, C++, Windows NT and networking, mainly because it was the only company which could supply the necessary products on a worldwide basis.
Users and managers at Tandem like using relatively small, easily accessed training modules, says Briggs. ?It?s inefficient to take out staff for long periods. With this approach, they can work for half an hour on a training module when business is quiet.?
Subject: Haydn Evans
Activities: former building contracts manager
Installation: Peritas Online training in Microsoft applications, including Word, Excel and Access
Haydn Evans is a 47-year-old former contracts manager in the building industry who wanted to move into the computer industry when he was made redundant and realised he would need to learn new skills to find work.
Evans spotted that training company Peritas was offering free places on its online scheme, as part of its work in a scheme run by Thames Valley Enterprise, the Training and Enterprise Council in his area. He used free online access provided by the enterprise to work through several Peritas Online courses in Microsoft subjects, including Word 7 and Excel 7.
Evans is working on the course for Access 7 at the moment. ?I found Peritas Online training slotted easily into my daily routine and felt the manuals were clearly written and user-friendly,? says Evans.
With online training he was able to build up his CV by completing recognised professional training courses. In turn, this helped him feel more confident about looking for a job in the IT industry.
Evans started his online training last summer and, after two years of unemployment, has found a job with a company specialising in 4GLs, working alongside colleagues with more traditional programming qualifications. ?Peritas Online has helped me retrain for a new career,? he says.
Subject: ICL Software Technologies Activities: runs ICL?s NT training and support centre in Manchester Installation: Peritas Online training in Windows NT
Re-skilling its staff has been important in ICL?s repositioning in the past year. It opened its NT support centre in Manchester at the end of last year, and since then one of its main drives has been to equip staff from its traditional mainframe division with knowledge of Windows NT.
ICL Software Technologies opted for Web-based training from Peritas, also part of the ICL group. Paul Lynch, managing director of ICL Software Technologies, says his company looked at other suppliers for cost comparisons, but found there were few other organisations actually supplying Web-based training.
So far, 40 staff from the high-performance system operation, ICL?s historical mainframe division, have used the Peritas online courses to retrain on two Microsoft accreditation programmes. ?We now have 30 Microsoft systems developers and 10 Microsoft systems engineers. We are just putting another 20 or 30 staff through similar training,? says Lynch.
ICL believes that by grafting NT skills onto staff who already understand the way a mainframe works, it will be well-placed to support customers as demand grows for NT as an enterprise system.
The 40 staff were given an intensive, three-month training period at the end of last year, using between five and seven self-study training packs, depending on which stream they were in.
Lynch says online training was chosen because of sheer economics. ?It is cheaper to do virtual training, and we couldn?t afford to take people away from their everyday jobs,? he says.
But staff were not expected to work all day and train themselves in their free time. Instead, the company set aside classrooms, and staff were asked to train themselves over a 10-week period, but to be available for their jobs should they be needed.
?One or two people didn?t like the intensive nature of the courses, but on the whole it worked well,? Lynch says. ?It helps that our staff are technically literate anyway.?
Lynch says ICL gained tremendous business benefits from using online training because it was quicker and cheaper than traditional training.
However, he acknowledges that there was an element of pioneering involved, and a number of lessons have been learned ? including the need to make online courses less intensive by breaking them up into modules.
Web-based Training lessons:
1 Weigh up carefully the demands on staff. Web-based training will be counter-productive if it is seen as something staff have to squeeze into their lunch-hours. Realistic, self-paced programmes, dedicated learning classrooms and clearly designated times are important for success.
2 Encourage students to make as much use as possible of online interaction ? not just with tutors ? but also between themselves ? using dedicated chat
3 Web-based training looks cheap, because it?s a one-off cost. But it requires substantial investment in the underlying infrastructure.
4 Because online training relies on the IT infrastructure, it needs careful planning and clear communication between the training and IT department.
5 There are not many suppliers to choose from, so it?s difficult to do real cost or product comparisons, but this situation is changing rapidly.
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