With the plethora of soft-skills courses such as time management and leadership skills now being offered on the Web, it could very well be signalling a death knell for classroom training for all but the most technical courses.
One of the major benefits of completing a course online is that you can fit it around your work schedule, and when you have a spare hour you can log on and do a bit more of your training. However, the drawback is that you may constantly be disturbed by colleagues. So it makes sense that one of the benefits of classroom-based training is that it requires you to be out of the office, leaving you to focus 100 percent on the course (that's the theory anyway, however mobile phones, PDAs, and Blackberries do have a way of intruding at any time).
Classroom-based training also benefits from the personal touch -- but how important is that personal touch? And are online courses really effective? We decided to put the two methods of training to the test.
We sent a journalist to complete NETg's K43021 and Dimension Data Learning Solutions' (DDLS) classroom-based Time Management  course. NETg recommends its course will take between two and four hours to complete, and the DDLS course goes for one day, 9am to 5pm, and is run by Guy Newman.
From the outset, the content of the two courses is fairly similar -- both discuss the principles of time management, the importance of making lists, the different personality characteristics, the approach to making goals, and how to create a time management strategy. However the two courses are very different in terms of approach, and result in two very different outcomes.
The online way
NETg's online course is very theoretical and structured in its teachings and it judges your performance through a series of tests. The course is split into three major sections -- Understanding Your Time, Identifying Goals and Setting Priorities, and Developing a Time Management Plan. Each section contains around six different learning's and through each of the six steps you are presented with a series of tests.
For example, in Understanding Your Time you are taught the difference between the five time management characteristics (such as the procrastinator, the perfectionist, the easily distracted, and so on). After that section you are asked to pick out those five characteristics out of a list of around eight personality types, and you are corrected on the spot.
Page II: Classroom-based training or online courses? Which is the most effective approach? ZDNet Australia put both training methods to the test.
Once you have completed all the learnings in the section, you are presented with all of the quizzes again, and this time it goes against your score and your final grade. It obviously is testing your memory and trying to drum the learnings into your head. After the quizzes comes the real test -- a "real world" simulation. You are the manager and two of your employees come to you asking for advice on time management. You are told at the outset that your goal is to teach them the importance of conducting a time audit. One at a time they both present the problems they are having with managing their time and what they want to know. After they speak you are given a choice of three responses and it is up to you to pick the right response. The program gives you immediate feedback on your choice. If, say, you choose the wrong answer you are told what you should've selected and why.
Topics covered in the NETg course included how to conduct a time audit, what the Pareto Principle is and what it means, how to make a to-do list, how to identify goals, and how to set priorities.
The DDLS course is aimed at IT workers. The class we attended consisted of six IT workers, one HR manager, and one journalist. Newman's approach to the course was very personal, he questioned why we wanted to improve our time management skills and what we thought the benefits would be to us individually. Interestingly enough, nearly all of the IT workers didn't want to be on the course, but said they were forced to attend by their managers, however they were all able to identify the benefits of improving their time management skills.
We were given a folder full of material on the theory behind time management, but Newman only selected certain sections to go through in class. He very much focused on the real-world situations and molded the class to fit, for example, he spent a lot of time on managing e-mail, and conducting meetings -- both huge time wasters for any office employee, especially IT staff.
Like the NETg course, he outlined the various personality characteristics but he spent more time getting us to figure out what each of us matched with, rather than the theory behind them all. There were no exams or quizzes.
He also gave tips on how to manage the time spent on phone calls, e-mail, the Internet, in meetings, and so on. Some tips included always schedule a finishing time, do not allow eating during the meeting, have an agenda, and discuss the important items first.
Similar to the NETg course, Newman covered the importance of setting goals, the difference between goals and objectives, and how to set goals and make useful lists.
The two courses covered similar material and had similar objectives, yet the approach and outcomes are very different. The online course was focusing on drumming the various theories into your head. It is very good for teaching theories, but it isn't at all useful for improving personal habits, the basis of time management. Also, the grade-based element of the course was quite off-putting and it doesn't actually hold any meaning. Similar to cramming for an exam the night before, once you finish the examination all that you learned quickly evaporates. The simulations at the end of the sections, while quirky, didn't really help the learning process, and it was very difficult to pick the right response. There also were no training materials to take away with you for later referral.
In terms of outcomes, we found that the online course didn't do much to change our behaviours, and had little effect on managing time.
Having completed the online course first we weren't very excited about attending the classroom-based course (after all, there are only so many times you want to go over the principle of time management). There were also doubts that we could learn anything new. Newman's course turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Thankfully the theory was only discussed briefly and Newman spent the rest of the time making the course relevant to everyday working life.
The outcome? This course left ZDNet Australia  inspired to make some changes in the office and has since repeatedly referred to learnings from the class, much to the dismay of friends and relatives. But we can proudly say that ZDNet Australia  is no longer late for meetings.
While we are sure online courses have their place, we remain unconvinced on their usefulness. It seems it really does take a very self-motivated person to get a lot of benefit out of an online-based course. You need more than just the materials to learn something -- you need a good teacher too.
And, as an aside, all of those IT workers who didn't want to attend the course ended up confessing how much they learned and how glad they were to attend.
This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine. Click here for subscription information.