You can lead learners to the Web, but can you make them stay—and learn? It’s one of those lofty questions trainers will ponder as Web-based training (WBT) continues to gain acceptance.

Designing training for the Web is a formidable challenge, especially if you’ve spent most of your career working in the classroom. You have to reconfigure your instructional design techniques, think in a nonlinear fashion, and design your courses so students can actively gather information rather than having it fed to them. You’ll also find that those clever games and activities that keep students from getting bored in the classroom are useless in the virtual world.
This article originally appeared in the February issue of Inside Technology Training and appears on TechRepublic under a special arrangement with the publisher. Sarah Fister is a contributing editor to Inside Technology Training.

Frustrating? Sure. But once you figure out how to design for the Web, you can put your courses online, then relax and let employees train themselves while you take long lunches, right?

Not so fast. Just because technology allows employees to take courses on the Web doesn’t mean they will do it. And if they do decide to enroll in a course, how can you be sure they’ll complete it?

How many fall off the wagon?
Statistics on the percentage of learners who fail to complete Web-based courses are, for the most part, anecdotal. According to Eric Parks, a Fair Oaks, CA., WBT designer, 50 percent of trainees who start WBT courses don’t finish them—a troubling figure that’s gleaned from his own research and experience. Others would argue that percentage is low.

Trainers would like to believe that people don’t finish courses because they learn what they need to learn, then go back to work whether they’ve completed the course or not. That’s rarely the case. Instead, Parks says, the high dropout rate is a result of three things:

  • Poor instructional design
  • A mismatch between the user’s computer system and the technology required to do the WBT
  • Organizational disincentives that compete with the training, such as not being allowed work time to take Web-based courses.

How to make it work
So how do you prevent these problems and create WBT that holds learners’ attention? Here’s what trainers on the front lines have to say:

1. Make sure the content has value
Before you invest in a Web-based course, make sure the end users need it. “People will take time to do those things which they feel are important,” says trainer Pete Blair of Pete Blair and Associates, an independent consulting firm in Raleigh, NC.

Because of today’s demanding work schedules, nice-to-know training can’t compete with vital day-to-day responsibilities. So when creating WBT programs, leave out segments that focus on the history of the topic or other irrelevant material. Work closely with managers to find out what critical performance-related mistakes are costing them money.

Also, ask employees what skills they believe will make them more marketable. “These are your WBT training targets,” says Gerald Gschwind, a consultant for VisionCor, an information development company in Charlotte, NC. “The result will be courses that people care about, that provide obvious value, and that sell themselves to learners and managers.”

2. Make the technology invisible
Be sure you know what kind of computer systems the learners will be using to do WBT and design your courses to run on them. If you don’t know, create courses for the lowest common denominator—a 486 computer, a 14.4 kbps modem, and early versions of Microsoft Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator.

Tom Cooke, an instructional developer in Rockville, MD, admits he has failed to complete several Web-based courses. In one case, faulty technology derailed his effort. “It was too great a hassle to take the course, so I bagged it,” he recalls.

3. Make the personal investment considerable
If employees have something at stake—whether it’s a mandatory deadline, a performance review, a promotion, or their own money—they will be more inclined to finish the course. Cooke, who dropped a Web-based course his employer was paying for, admits he might have been more likely to complete it had the tuition come out of his own pocket.

4. Make yourself accessible to end users
To give learners a sense that there really is a person behind the training, Blair uses his name and photograph in his Web-based courses.

He also issues an open invitation to send him feedback and questions by e-mail. This gives users a forum to comment on the courses and their effectiveness, and it gives Blair a measure of how well he’s doing. “You can bet your bottom dollar that if I start getting adverse feedback, my days and nights will be filled to overflowing with revisions,” he says. “I will get good feedback. If not at first, then eventually.”

By connecting with your learners, you also make it more difficult for them to quit. Because Cooke found the WBT course he took impersonal, he says, it was easier to drop the course than if it had been taught by a living, breathing instructor.

5. Chunk material into small bites
“Take full advantage of the flexibility offered by the ‘W’ in WBT,” says Gschwind. He recommends breaking large blocks of content into modules that can be completed in a short amount of time—say, the last 15 minutes of an employee’s lunch hour. While Gschwind admits it’s not easy to do this, he believes it’s vital for effective WBT.

Robert Zielinski, vice president of sales and marketing at Allen Interactions, a Minneapolis interactive multimedia training and development company, agrees. “If people aren’t finishing the training, it must take too long to finish,” he says.

Gschwind and Zielinski say dissecting a skill into many segments allows users to gain competency quickly. Modular training also serves as a helpful tool for users who need to brush up on a skill once they’re back on the job. Employees can quickly scan a course module list and find the lesson they need without wading through pages of unnecessary content, says Zielinski.

6. Give minimum presentation, maximum hands-on work
“People are always more interested in seeing how well they can perform rather than how much they can learn,” says Lynn Fassnacht, learning program director at the Middleburg Heights, OH, office of CAP Gemini America, an IT and business consulting firm. She suggests starting lessons by testing students’ skills to see how much they know.

“Some people will tell you this approach is unfair because you ask questions before giving answers,” she says. “But which do you remember more: the question you answered right because you read some stuff and remembered it until the test? Or one you answered wrong, received corrective feedback about, and couldn’t wait to try again?”

7. Make sure learners have enough time for the training
WBT is usually sold as an “anywhere, anytime” solution, says Gschwind. Unfortunately, managers who buy that argument often don’t allow employees the time they need to complete the training during business hours. Employees are then forced to take courses during lunch, early in the morning, or at home after getting the kids to bed.

“The learning experience comes under time pressure, so employees become much more concerned with finishing than actually learning,” he says. If you expect employees to complete training, educate managers about the importance of the learning experience. Make it clear to them—and to the employees—that time spent on WBT is not time spent goofing off.

8. Give learners a chance to speak out
Create group participation activities to help people keep on track, says Patti Shank, president of Insight Ed, LLC, an educational technology consultancy in Boulder, CO. She recommends creating discussion groups so learners can talk about the training while they’re going through it. She also suggests including links to subject matter experts in case learners have questions or need more information.

9. Get rid of the eye candy
Try to remember the last time streaming video of a talking head added value to a Web site or training course you visited. “People endure animations and video clips with the hope that they will find information that is valuable to them,” says Zielinski. If you are going to include these elements, make sure they’re meaningful and aren’t just there for the “gee whiz” factor.

10. Add elements of suspense
Instead of presenting the objective, teaching the material, and then testing knowledge, trainers should make the learning an experience, says Zielinski.

He describes a course his company created to teach preflight preparation to flight attendants. It begins with an animation of the plane pitching and yawing. The pilot screams “mayday” over the intercom, then the plane plummets before making an emergency water landing. Students are asked to explain what happened. When they can’t, the course tells them the plane went down because the cabin wasn’t pressurized.

Such an experience is much more likely to teach the importance of remembering to pressurize the cabin than a written test on the 10 steps to preflight preparation, says Zielinski. “It’s not about telling and testing, it’s about testing and telling.”
How have you been able to keep students interested in Web-based training? Let us know by sending an e-mail or by posting a comment below.

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