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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Online Learning As A Source Of Low Cost Training

Most organizations are concerned with developing staff skills and keeping skills current with evolving technologies. Traditionally, training has been expensive, whether it is outsourced or done in-house. According to an article from Forbes Magazine, corporations in the U.S. spent over $70 billion on training in 2013. The article also mentions the increasing use of online training sources by companies. A survey conducted by Training Magazine in 2014 ranked the top 125 corporations for training and found that they spent nearly 6% of payroll on training. It is clear that these organizations devote a significant amount of resources on training and expect a return on their investment.
Given the costs of training, organizations should be interested in ways to lower these costs while maintaining or increasing the effectiveness of their efforts. Per the OPM Training and Development Policy Wiki, it is evident that the Federal Government is not exempt from this concern. As noted on this site, one approach to lower costs is to take advantage of the increasing availability of high quality online learning opportunities, many of which are free or low-cost.
The Internet has allowed for the emergence of various online learning options. From the beginning, the Internet has been a source of information; users have used search engines to find answers for their specific questions for years. However, recently, new formats for teaching have emerged. These formats are teaching focused, rather than just platforms that provide information. Examples of these include webinars and videos, self-paced online courses, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Each of these formats has different advantages, but they all provide the opportunity to acquire knowledge and learn new skills.
It is useful to review some of the attributes of different types of online learning:
  1. Whether a course is live or not. Live courses allow for student participation in real time and have a fixed schedule, but are hard for those with busy schedules to manage. Examples of live courses include live webinars and MOOCs. Non-live courses are self-paced and give students maximum flexibility in scheduling, but may lead to procrastination in completing the coursework and less engagement in the subject matter.
  2. Whether a course is interactive. Interactive courses include testing and hands-on exercises that provide feedback to students, so that they can gauge how they are doing.
  3. Whether they offer certificates of completion. These provide proof of participation.
As noted in a recent article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the growth of MOOCs over the past few years now means that individuals have a wealth of opportunities to take free or low cost classes on just about every subject, taught by instructors from well-known universities. Some of these courses offer certificates of completion and a few are beginning to offer college credits. Organizations can benefit greatly by encouraging their employees to enroll in and complete these courses by providing some additional incentives and opportunities to do so.
MOOC sources include edXCoursera, and Udacity. These sites offer verified certificates for a fee, but they also allow students to take the courses for free without a verified certificate. It should be noted that these fees are relatively low when compared to the cost of traditional classroom training. However, unlike traditional classes, MOOCs can have thousands of enrolled students, which makes it impossible for instructors to answer all questions or communicate with more than a small fraction of students. MOOCs make up for this by establishing monitored forums for students to post questions and communicate with each other and by using teaching assistants to monitor the forums.
Other sources of free online training include W3C SchoolsCodeacademyKhan AcademyMIT Open Courseware, and Microsoft Virtual Academy. These courses are mostly self-paced and provide varying degrees of feedback to students. Many also offer unverified certificates of completion. Taken together, these sites cover a wide variety of subjects, many of which would be of interest to organizations looking to develop specific skills in their employees, and many others which students may find personally fulfilling.
How can organizations take advantage of these training opportunities to supplement or replace their current training programs? At a minimum, they can simply publicize the availability of courses and provide some guidance as to what subject areas are of interest to the organization. However, many employees may be reluctant to dedicate the time to taking online courses after hours. Therefore, organizations may consider creating a formal policy to encourage or even require employees to take external online training. In either case, there are many beneficial and successful ways to support employees in taking online learning opportunities. These include offering monetary incentives, reimbursing costs, encouraging group learning within the organization, and providing the time and resources for their employees to participate.
Monetary incentives are a straightforward means to encourage enrolling in and completing courses, but they do not necessarily need to be extravagant. People are often interested in taking online courses, but it can be hard to commit the time. A small reward is often significant enough to convince employees to give up some of their leisure time. An organization can also provide time during working hours, in addition to or instead of a monetary reward. Similarly, employers can reimburse all course related expenses such as certificate fees and supplementary texts. Finally, organizations can offer other resources, such as a virtual server or software, in which students can practice their new skills. These steps can be justified when the training is directly related to the organization’s line of business with the goal of supporting clients in a more effective way.
A complimentary approach could also be taken to encourage completion of online training, such as having employees take the courses as a group. This can both foster friendly competition and promote discussion/mutual support between participants. Many people will find taking a course in a group more fun and engaging than taking it alone. To further complement the training, organizations should assign mentors who are already subject matter experts in the field to answer questions or to talk about their own experience in the field.
Organizations do not have to spend a lot of money to keep their employees up-to-date in key skills or to expand their knowledge. Employees can also enrich themselves by taking other courses that interest them and gain skills proactively in a low-cost manner. The affordable aspect of online learning allows students to feel free to experiment and learn about subjects outside their current role. While online training cannot completely replace intensive, hands-on instruction, it can certainly provide a wide variety of basic knowledge to get employees started in acquiring new capabilities.

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