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Cost-effective computer-based training

One of the important ways in which an enterprise can manage knowledge is by disseminating it in the form of training. Yet all too often, the potential costs of training loom so large that organizations decide to try to get by with informal, on the job training or even less. In the long run, that decision can cost money. Employees take longer to reach productive levels, and they may make errors that are expensive to correct. Training is big business, accounting for more than $50 billion a year in direct and indirect expenses, according to the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD, www.astd.org). Expenditures per employee vary widely, from nearly $1,000 per year for high-tech industries down to under $200 per year for customer service organizations. Heavy industry reports the highest percentage of companies planning to increase their expenditures for training. Various forms of computer-based training have gained popularity over the years because they can reduce costs, increase flexibility, reduce learning time and improve retention of knowledge. Those alternatives to traditional classroom training include products that run on local or network hard drives, CD-ROMs, Web-based training and instructor-led distance learning. Electronic training techniques still account for only 20% of instructional time, but that is double the percentage a year ago and headed up to 50% within the next couple of years. The cost reductions generally result from reduced travel expenses for the students and instructors, and reduced salary costs for instructors. In addition, after the development is completed, the incremental costs for adding students are low, making electronic training particularly cost-effective for larger groups. Flexibility comes from being able to learn in various locations and (except for instructor-led distance learning) at user-determined times. Learning time goes down because the student can move quickly through familiar material, rather than being constrained by the pace of other students. Also, the material is usually presented more concisely in a CBT format. Finally, retention is increased because computer-based training products are often highly interactive, which promotes effective learning, and review of the material is convenient.

Strategies for efficient development

A few key decisions can point your organization in the right direction.
  • First, make the best possible use of existing materials because curriculum development is an expensive, labor-intensive process. Many companies already have developed training manuals, course materials and other resources that can be used in electronic instruction products. Rusty Roesch of Universal Systems Inc. (USI, www.usiva.com), which provides work process automation solutions and distance learning services, said that virtually all of USIÕs training clients want to repurpose existing materials rather than develop new ones. "The critical step in this case," said Roesch, "is to organize that body of knowledge so it can be used effectively." Materials such as forms and regulations and even live databases can be integrated into the training to provide a rich learning experience without having to generate new content. Select just the portion of the training that can be effectively presented electronically, which means eliminating the group exercises such as team building, which are experiential, from consideration for conversion.
  • Second, use templates whenever possible to reduce design and programming time and costs. Particularly if a series of courses is being developed, a little extra time up front can save a lot of time later. After such elements as screen design and standard procedures are specified, they do not have to be redone. Ideally, select a vendor with which your company can develop and maintain an ongoing working relationship so that any time invested will be of lasting benefit.
  • Third, modularize so that different components can be upgraded independently as new versions of the software become available. "We have integrated numerous COTS software products in our training," said Roesch, "which allows the customer a lot of flexibility." For example, your organization might save money by maintaining the HTML portions of a product in-house, while still contracting out the more specialized portions such as Java scripting or Authorware programming.
  • Finally, if your organization has a content expert who is reasonably proficient with computers, consider training him or her to use a development tool to produce a training product. Several of the leading products have "lite" versions that can generate a training product without requiring the developer to program. The tradeoff is that the resulting training will not be as flexible or full-featured as that which is programmed, but in many cases the limited edition can accomplish what's needed.
A number of software tools can greatly facilitate the design and implementation of training for non-programmers. For example, Designer's Edge leads a user through the steps for instructional design and includes templates to assist with screen design and content placement, and Synergy exports from Designer's Edge into various authoring products. Both are from Allen Communication (www.allencomm.com). Although Allen has its own authoring tool, Quest, the tools can be used with products from other leading companies. The Internet version, Net Synergy, can export directly to HTML and Java. A new concept for using multimedia to transfer skills from experienced workers to new hires originated at Boeing (Seattle) a few years ago. Training was needed in a number of manufacturing techniques, yet development was prohibitively expensive and slow. In desperation, a trainer at Boeing began making video clips of a skilled worker demonstrating and discussing the process rather than taking the traditional approach of developing a script and using professional actors. That streamlined approach reduced course development from weeks to hours. However, the implementation into CBT courseware posed a challenge until Asymetrix (www.asymetrix.com) produced a drag-and-drop tool, Toolbook II Assistant, which simplified the authoring process. One of the underlying philosophies of skill training is that perfection in the presentation is not essential. "The subject matter expert may not be a professional trainer," said Asymetrix's Jan Utterstrom, "but knows the material well and can communicate it." The approach works particularly well when an acknowledged expert is training a group that knows him or her. The credibility is there, even if the performance is a bit uneven. Skill training is most effective when the instruction is a demonstration of a relatively simple physical process, rather than complex concepts. Part of the value in the interactivity of CBT is that the users can, for example, identify the appropriate tool for a job by clicking on it. Those concrete actions do not substitute for hands-on experience, but are a better approximation than simply looking at a picture. The streamlined approach of skill training is not appropriate when projection of a polished corporate image is needed or when formal instructional system design principles need to be applied. In those cases, learning objectives are defined, training is provided and subsequent performance is measured. An example would be when certification is required for a particular job. A more sophisticated approach is required, with carefully scripted instruction, extensive and systematic testing, and feedback to the user regarding the level of achievement. Nevertheless, for many applications, multimedia skill training is not only good enough but may be more effective than training perceived as "canned." It also makes training accessible to many organizations that previously could not consider it. Development time in many projects has been reduced from a year to a couple of months, and costs are also a fraction of what they were previously. Many companies that hear about the process have the immediate reaction that it is what they have needed all along, and it is being used effectively in countries throughout the world.

To the Web or not?

The Web is an enticing medium for delivery of computer-based training, and is the optimal one when:
  • no video and audio content is involved;
  • frequent updating is required;
  • large, geographically dispersed groups must be trained;
  • collaboration via bulletin boards and E-mail is beneficial;
  • Web access is readily available.
The last requirement may seem self-evident, but government and industry alike have begun to limit Web access, so it cannot be assumed. Ease of distribution is one of the most appealing features of Web-based courseware. In addition, having students connected to the instructor and to each other can foster a virtual community. Design can help emphasize that; for example, in courses developed by USI for the Federal Acquisition Institute, a campus metaphor was used in the design, complete with administrative building and student union. Despite some advances in bandwidth management, video and audio delivery can still be sluggish. If the connection or user platform is not up to the task, training can become frustrating to the user because of delays. If you are working with a developer who assures you that Web delivery is "no problem," ask for some sample addresses and test performance for yourself. Many organizations are using Web delivery successfully, after having carefully chosen the content to be provided. Web Navigation is another issue to discuss in the design phase of the training. If a CBT product links to sites outside of the training, users can get lost in cyberspace. Be sure that the interface provides for the return trip from the Web. Also, explore whether the user will have to download any additional software such as plug-ins, which can sometimes pose problems. If both CD-ROM and Web delivery are desired, find out how easy it is to port from the authoring package to HTML and whether significant functionality will be lost in the process. The Internet can also play a role in cases where live instructor-led delivery has been chosen as a component of the training. Videoconferencing is a well-known but expensive option for distance learning, requiring special components such as video boards, extra bandwidth, and routers. An alternative is to deliver data and audio only. "We find that this technique often meets our clientsÕ needs," said Norm Ainslie of Interactive Learning International Corp. (ILINC, www.ilinc .com), "but without incurring additional hardware costs." ILINC offers LearnLinc, a virtual classroom product that can support both video and audio conferencing. "We also recently began offering video streaming, which provides a one-way delivery of video and is also less expensive than full-fledged videoconferencing."

A cost tool for training development

CBT is famous for producing sticker shock. With programmer rates at $30 to $65 per hour and media experts upward of $100 per hour, development costs can add up quickly. In the long run, expenditures will be lower, but facing the upfront costs can be a sobering experience. SP3EED is a new software product that helps calculate training project costs. SP3EED can be used by either developers or by organizations planning to develop training via a vendor or in-house. It can also be used to educate clients or management about the multimedia development process. By showing the phases of training projects and the impact of including various elements in the training, the product facilitates informed decisions about the most cost-effective approach. The product comes with templates for various types of training, including multimedia training and standup training, and lists the various phases of a training project down to the task level. Default values for the percentage of time spent on each phase of the project (design, programming and so on) and for labor rates provide a starting point. The phases and rates can be modified, and the resulting file can be saved as a new template, allowing SP3EED to be completely customizable. One of the most appealing features of SP3EED is its real-time interactivity. Change the labor rates, add new elements such as video and then click on a calculator icon to see a new bottom line. As the focus of training continues to move away from the classroom and toward CBT, more organizations will become first-time consumers of multimedia development services. That group in particular needs to have a clear idea of the direction and costs of a project to avoid disappointment later. Like any support tool, SP3EED is not a substitute for experience. Accurate estimates of labor rates and development time are essential in order to end up with a valid total. However, at $495, it is a valuable addition to a training software collection and should prove useful to developers and clients alike. Training is a long-term investment in intellectual capital. Like any investment, the payoff is greatest when the investment is made wisely. Although organizations in today's environment are pressed to find low-cost strategies for all their operations, choosing the least expensive option is cost-effective only if the objectives are reached. But general strategies such as repurposing existing materials, using a standard presentation format and simplifying the training to reduce authoring expenses are legitimate approaches to making the most of each dollar spent.

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