Oceans and air miles are no longer a problem thanks to virtual training. But is remote learning as effective as seeing the whites of the trainer's eye? Annie Hayes looks at the challenges.
What is remote training?
Remote training has filled a need to drip-feed the time-poor yet knowledge-hungry modern executive with learning that doesn't require a hike across cities and time zones to a musty classroom. It's learning via the web, a virtual classroom, a podcast, from a PDA, any kind of technology-enabled gadgetry or even a phone (although this is more popular in the realm of distance coaching). Central to the whole idea is that the delegate doesn't have to remove themselves from their ordinary working life to learn.
Steven Parkinson, Transnational Management Associates
Andy Fleet, a director at Oakridge, which carries out management training, says training remotely is not a new idea: "It has been on the agenda for years. About 20 years ago we saw the advent of open distance learning and as the technology developed we then saw CDI (compact disc interactive) technology with the use of videos and it's gone from there."
Today there is all sorts of technological wizardry that has put the foot on the development accelerator with opportunities for delegates to get involved and participate in virtual learning. Yet despite the advances the challenges of making remote learning effective abound. Steven Parkinson, a senior consultant for Transnational Management Associates - a global training and talent development company that works with companies in 35 countries - says the challenges are most obvious when compared to face-to-face training.
Whilst delegates would happily attend a day's face-to-face training programme, Parkinson says the same is not true for virtual classrooms, which run for an average two to four hours. Having a time limit in this way presents some issues: "Essentially it doesn't allow you to enter into as much detail but it does allow you to go through the key issues." The upside to this of course is money – the participant is taken away from their work for a shorter period of time and has saved on the expense of travel. The trainer cost per participant is substantially lower too.
Time also presents problems when the training is delivered across cultures. Parkinson explains: "In some cultures time is seen as a rare resource, i.e. if we turn up late it's seen as a lack of respect whilst in other cultures they believe that respect is more relationship driven." The implications for remote learning are very real when you need delegates to attend a virtual classroom at a certain time. Parkinson says this is particularly pertinent in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East and Thailand, to name just a few.
Time zones present a further challenge with lunch providing a sticking point for many. In France, explains Parkinson, lunch is eaten at 1pm but in Spain it is 2pm – you have to work around this, he says.
Building rapport is a massive challenge when training remotely and the opportunity for break-out activities, to ask questions and brainstorm with other delegates, is important and is an issue which has been overcome - to an extent - with the advent of virtual classroom 'white-boards' and messaging facilities. Tim Drewitt, who has 15 years' experience in international management development and technology-based learning (and is currently a director at Academy28) says that the danger with remote learning is that it can quickly become a broadcast: "If that is what the content is about you might as well give the delegates some PowerPoint slides or reading." Even where levels of interactivity have been built in, Drewitt says they have to be meaningful.
Tim Drewitt, Academy28
Parkinson agrees and says that virtual classrooms can be fantastic but they largely rely on the skill of the training manager to keep the interest going: "The distraction of incoming emails, talking to colleagues etc. is a problem – the skills of the trainer are very important here. Periodically asking questions to check understanding and running surveys as well as asking everyone to answer certain points before moving on helps."
Technology and effectiveness:
Whilst technology is improving all the time, there are always snags. Parkinson says: "If you have 10 or 12 (people online) you can guarantee that someone will have a connectivity problem. If someone can't hear you, or the other way round, this creates a communication barrier." In most cases, virtual classroom software involves looking at the screen of the trainer where they might, for example, be going through some PowerPoint slides – these programmes can only work well where the connection is reliable.
Fleet points to a further issue. He says that whilst elearning is great at helping people acquire knowledge it's not so good at assisting in its application: "Knowledge is facts and that's the easy bit." Fleet says this is where blended learning wins out in building on what has been delivered by elearning. Workshops, says Fleet, are great at doing the next steps: "There's also the attitudinal aspect. As a delegate I could say, yes I've read everything but I still lack confidence, I'm still scared. Workshops are great at helping people overcome this."
Topping up learning can work both ways. Drewitt is seeing a trend amongst his clients who are turning to elearning after a classroom learning event.
On the positive side, another advantage of the technology, adds Drewitt, is the opportunity to record training events so those that can't make it can still participate.
Parkinson points to culture as a further challenge. "Brits are happy to brainstorm with strangers for example." But it's not the same in Japan, he says, where the idea would be met with silence: "In cultures where face is important, they are more reticent to throw ideas around, there's a high level of politeness."
Andy Fleet, Oakridge
There are further difficulties in the differences presented by simple versus complex thinking: "In the UK and US we have a simple, thinking approach – we like to get to the bottom line, the conclusion, we're more factually driven. In other cultures – in France for example - they have a more complex way of thinking and examining issues."
In a similar way, most Anglo-Saxon cultures, says Parkinson, like to have agendas for meetings whilst the Italians, Spanish, Argentines and Chinese are comfortable considering a range of issues whilst at the same time not limiting creativity: "For training that means people are comfortable wondering off the agenda." Such can be the problems of training remotely, and across borders, that Parkinson uses an elearning tool – the country navigator – to compare culture orientations with other countries.
So where next on the remote learning journey? Fleet believes that it's about going back to basics: "We've got to make sure we are adding real business value. If something is only cheaper at the point of sale but it's not effective and doesn't add any real commercial value – it's no good."
Parkinson believes that 'adding value' in the future will be about increasing the use of collaborative technologies including Facebook, Linked-In and Instant Messaging, but says that for some types of intervention you still can't beat face-to-face.
Drewitt agrees and believes remote learning of this kind will never replace face-to-face training and says a key problem is that people don't really like learning in isolation: "There are still lots of lingering issues – web conferencing is still not a big tool in the UK." Having a conversation around a table sometimes wins out. It's for this very reason that pundits believe that remote learning the e-way will never survive as a stand-alone solution. But as a means of delivering knowledge it cannot be denied that it is proving very cost effective and time efficient.