Education and training via the World Wide Web are growing rapidly. Reduced training costs, world-wide accessibility, and improved technological capabilities have made electronic instructional delivery to adult learners a viable alternative to classroom instruction. This Digest examines the efficacy of Web-based (WBT) training, including issues of market demand, learner participation, training options, and program design. It also discusses learning outcomes and gives suggestions for how these outcomes can be improved through implementation of appropriate instructional design principles.
Efficiency of operation is another advantage Web-based training offers to companies that must now compete in a global marketplace. Intranets help to eliminate delays in introducing new products by offering companies the capability of training their entire sales staff simultaneously, even when they are located at different sites across the globe. Additionally, as organizations become increasing flat through restructuring, Web-based training delivery is a welcome alternative to managers who have little time to devote to the training of new employees and to administrators who no longer need to find, schedule, and staff classes that will meet the varied training and educational needs of diversely skilled employees (Driscoll 1999).
Most successful in using computer-based, online programs are people who are focused in their study habits, engaged in learning tasks that require creative thinking and analysis, and task and detail oriented (Wonacott 2000). Grill (1999) describes the typical American distance learner as one who is 25-50 years of age, taking courses to learn new subjects and skills or to update old ones, and experienced in participating in education.
In spite of its utility for a variety of purposes, the Internet is not always the best training option. Tasks that require use of interpersonal skills are better facilitated through classroom role playing and one-on-one interactions. Heckler (1999) contends that "WBT courses tend not to be as interactive as instructor-led ones, and the absence of an instructor means that most studen ts will not push themselves as hard" (p. 4). However, Clark and Lyons (1999) note that the type of training offered on the Web is the determining factor in whether or not learning occurs. For example, when multimedia instruction that includes sound, animation, and/or video is used, the learner can become actively involved in learning processes through online animation. When interactivity is added to the mix, the program's capabilities are similar to those of CD-ROM programs and "can be used to construct 'guided discovery' environments, e.g., courses that teach physicians to diagnose patients by taking a medical history, conducting an examination, and running lab tests" (ibid., p. 54).
Web-based learning tasks should require students to construct meaning rather than repeat information they have read or heard. The instructor must assume the role of facilitator or coach and develop activities with advanced organizers, hyperlinks, and appropriate scaffolding to help students in their knowledge construction. This constructivist approach to teaching and learning, when applied in Web-based learning environments connects "content (knowledge), form (documents and activities), and thought processes (cognitive progressions and assistance)" (Giroux, Hotte, and Dao 1997, p. 3).
With more advanced program designs, the networking power of the Web must be well integrated with the design elements. "Designers make use of learning communities, foster communication between teacher and student, and use the computational power of the Web to provide rich media that enhance the learning process" (Driscoll 1999, p. 25). Recommendations for designers of Web-based instruction that are consistent with current research in Web design include the following (Mory, Gambill, and Browning 1998, p. 106):
* Give a detailed timeline, but provide external cues and imposed deadlines to help students stay on track.
* Obtain data and evaluate student reactions to the course throughout the semester to gain insight into the workload a student must handle at any given time.
* Provide adequate technical support.
* Offer a variety of presentation forms to gain and maintain student attention and continuing motivation.
In the classroom setting, students perceived that the content was covered more adequately, there was more interaction and participation, and faculty preparation and expertise were more important to learning. Students expressed the need for better communication skills, self-discipline, and knowledge of computer technology. In general, however, the WBT students felt that electronic instruction facilitated greater depth of learning and afforded greater ability for them to participate in discussions as no one student was able to monopolize the conversation. In discussing the difficulties with electronic instruction, students mentioned that they felt disconnected from their class members, frustrated by a poor flow of communication and technical problems, and confused by feedback that was not always clear. They missed having face-to-face contact with their instructor where they could experience verbal as well as nonverbal communication. A significant outcome of the study was that teachers came to recognize their need for better preparation, time, and effort in delivering electronic instruction.
* Offer short classes.
* Make graphics simple and easy to read.
* Foster collegiality by asking students to contribute information about themselves and their interests.
* Vary the way you interact with learners.
* Avoid superfluous media; e.g., it might be important for a nurse to hear the sound of a pulse beating, but unnecessary to hear the package ripping when extracting a disposable needle.
* Use a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction to reinforce new material, make assignments, and improve learner retention.
Web-based education and training are here to stay. Companies can train thousands of employees in interactive sessions that allow for consistency of messages and facilitate the exchange of different insights and perspectives as well as sharing knowledge and asking questions. Teachers can use technological capabilities built into the Web to advance their teaching and learning goals and foster construction of meaning. All learners--business, college, and community--can engage in collaboration with many people or groups as a means of enhancing their learning. These advantages, however, can be realized only when Web-based training is of the same quality as the best classroom instruction.
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