Whether it's virtual universities, or simply online corporate training, learning via the Web has finally passed that all important teething stage, and is finally approaching levels of customisation and end user interaction promised from the beginning.
Believing the future holds ever stronger ties with knowledge management, Arthur Richardson, general manager for Sun Educational Services in Asia Pacific, says the core challenge when it comes to implementing Web-based education is how companies manage the change.
"If poorly implemented e-learning can be seen as a punishment, because there is suddenly extra pressure to do the training as well as work," Richardson says. "Companies can't just expect to offer content and expect people to use it without giving them the time to do so."
According to Richardson, the purchase and implementation of Web-based training is increasingly overseen by upper management, and there are a few things that are often overlooked.
1 - Don't underestimate the implementation time
The first, and often most dangerous mistake with e-learning implementations Richardson believes, is that they are expected to immediately produce results. While on the one hand he is concerned mistakes may be made with the technology as it is rushed, on the other Richardson says it is important to allow people time to become accustomed to new systems.
"Like any corporate implementation you need to leave time for change management to take place," Richardson says. "While the technology itself has become a lot simpler, and quicker to implement you still have to make sure the staff are ready and understand how to use it."
2 - Involve the end users in the development process
"One key mistake is not identifying and communicating with all the stakeholders," Richardson said.
As the decision process surrounding a project is increasingly pushed up into the upper echelons of management, Richardson says it is important to focus on the end users as a project is rolled out, because its success or failure will depend very much on their willingness to make it work. Work practices, and expectations are an important part of this process.
3 - Conduct extensive user acceptance testing
"I've even seen ruggedised mice put in place in a steel mill, because one of the guys testing the program broke the mouse on the first try," says Richardson. "It doesn't matter how many projects you have worked on you will always find something new."
Richardson pointed out user testing was an important time in which to identify cultural norms which the software might be infringing, clarify the end users expectations, and even pick up on some development tips.
4 - Build quality content
"Content developers need to understand how much extra information they put into their classes through things like gestures, and the tone of their voice," Richardson explains. "You can't just cut and place a lesson plan online and expect people to follow it."
While he says the techniques associated with online teaching are still in a state of flux, some interesting developments are taking place in terms of the use of facilitators who assist with real time content delivery. Most importantly Richardson believes content should be developed to capture the full functionality of the Web, and says it is early days in terms of the sophistication of such content.
5 - Take advantage of the technology
In describing browser-based technology as the key to the effective delivery of online training, Richardson says developers in this field should try to keep abreast of technologies they may be able to integrate into an offering.
"At the moment we are looking at technology which has developed from a client server offering to embrace thin client technology," Richardson says. "If you are aware of what different technologies have to offer you can borrow from different areas."
6 - Clarify technological expectations
"It is important to be aware of all the other elements in the system, and how they are expected to interact with the eLearning package," Richardson says. "Companies will invariably want to get access to different types of data they have on their system, through an eLearning package, so it is important to familiarise yourself as much as possible with what already exists."
While he is convinced a knowledge management approach will become increasingly important in Web-based training overall, he also sees a role for Web services as eLearning packages become more complex.
"We are now entering a phase in which Web-based training in called upon to map the roles, skills and knowledge gaps employees have within a company have," Richardson says. "Customers are looking for a more customised approach, so it is important to fully understand what they want and expect from their technology."