As online learning platforms have become more available in recent years, many companies jumped at the opportunity to offer low cost, low infrastructure learning to its employees, in place of more traditional training. The self-paced online training industry has grown dramatically in the past decade, even seeing industry heavyweights as LinkedIn jumping into the field to offer their own training platforms. But how well is this new model of employee training serving students, as well as their employers?
The traditional model was to send employees to training seminars for intensive instructor-led, hands-on training to get the skills they needed to keep the company’s skillset competitive and advance employees’ careers. Generally, employers sent their staff to such training when they saw a need to develop specific skills within their workforce. Students could raise questions, and get answers from their instructor; if they didn’t understand how material was being offered, they could ask for clarification. The instructor was even in the position to tailor the training method to the specific real-world scenario of the student.
The new model has involved into a one-time (or possibly subscription) investment in a library of online training content, encouraging employees to take courses from the library on their own time, and often as their interest dictates. The upside of offering a training library is that employees could choose to engage with training that may be outside of their current position, in hopes of transitioning to other work within the company, that they may feel more engaged with. One of the obvious downsides is that finding uninterrupted time to focus on training modules, while sitting at their desk during working hours, is often impossible for busy employees, and the incentive to do so on personal time is small.
Another drawback of virtual learning libraries is that the training usually comes in the form of videos, recorded PowerPoint presentations, or text to read. The student can, obviously, watch the video multiple times, if they feel they missed something the first time through, but if they are truly failing to grasp the information as it is presented, there is no way to request clarification. Also, the information tends to be presented in broad universal language, that often fails to tie the skills into the student’s specific work scenario. This lack of context can make a student fail to connect with what could be useful knowledge, disregarding it as irrelevant to their job.
A recent article from eLearninglearning.com reported one client that invested in a massive online learning library for their 200,000 employees. A year later, they found that less than 100 employees had accessed the library at all. A recent publication from a leading online learning platform, found that 57% of students who engaged with the platform’s training library only completed one course, with another twenty percent only completing two. They also reported that their most successful courses contain one to three lessons, and that the courses were most often completed (90% completion rate) if they had a duration of 15 minutes or less, with a dramatic drop off in completion (42% or less) if the course took more than two hours to finish.
The above statistics reveal that employees are not finding much value in dedicating time to courses offered via virtual learning libraries. Given that virtual lessons must be kept short for employees to engage at all, there is an inherent lack of complexity built into knowledge that can be conveyed through such a platform. Virtual learning may be a viable option for a sales force to be kept abreast of new features of this year’s product line, but the platform’s limits mean that learning a complex skillset, or wrestling with paradigm-shifting knowledge, is just simply beyond what can reasonably be offered via an online learning library.
In recent years, many employers have shifted their focus when it comes to what skills they desire in their employees; this is a shift away from specific task skills toward “soft skills,” such as flexibility of thought, curiosity, and emotional intelligence. The thinking, here, is that task skills can often be learned on the job, while soft skills are more difficult to develop, and often take more dedicated effort to master.
Soft skill are another area in which the virtual library model falls short. Often, when it comes to developing these skills, our usual behavior and assumptions need to be challenged, and then the desired behaviors need to be practiced for them to become our new norm. For example, one soft skill valued by employers is the ability to communicate effectively, and an essential component of effective communication is learning to read how our message is being received by our audience. This is a skill that must be practiced with actual people, often with a knowledgeable trainer to steer us through interactive exercises. Such an exercise cannot be done via a prerecorded computer module.
Employment Council recently conducted a study to find out what training models Millennials prefer. One could assume that, as a generation that grew up immersed in online culture, that they would prefer online training. In fact, they found the exact opposite to be the case: “In-person training is very important when learning is from a subject matter expert. Keep the trainings varied, interactive, with hands-on exercises and a personal touch. A key component to training for Millennials is information needs to be applicable, so it applies to the real world. Millennials appreciate an explanation of why something is relevant.” Such training helps with retention, as well as the ability to translates the new skills to their current work.
What is true for Millennials applies to the rest of the work force, as well, as those statistics cited earlier suggests. Students want to be able to ask questions, apply what they just learned with interactive activities, to ensure that they “got it,” and they want to understand how this new knowledge is related to their real-world scenario. These are goals that simply cannot be met by an online training program. The tried-and-true model of focused, live, and interactive, instructor-led training continues to offer the best return on both an employer’s financial investment, and an employee’s investment of time and effort. While the notion may seem old-fashioned, the preference of Millennials for this model attests to the fact that the live training model is one that stands the test of time.
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