Although the electronic age has made it much easier to learn at a distance, the roots of today's distance learning courses are more than 100 years old. Some date distance learning back to 1889, when it was used as a way to provide learning opportunities for teachers who were unable to attend Montreal's McGill University during the cold winter months to study for their degree.
Of course, technology has cranked distance learning up to new levels of complexity never dreamed of by chilly McGill students. While originally entirely paper-based, distance learning evolved to include radio broadcasts, slow-scan videos, audiotaped lectures, and satellite broadcasts.
Today, distance learning means different things to different companies, but often involves stand-up instruction in combination with the Internet, telephony, and videoconferencing technologies. (E-learning, or "electronic learning," is simply the delivery of these training opportunities strictly in an electronic fashion.)
It is fast becoming a viable alternative for companies and universities alike, despite technological expense and complexities.
Remote learning saves money and retains employees
The benefits of distance learning are that it is a cost-effective way to train a widely dispersed workforce, saving on travel expenses and time away from work. It provides flexibility convenient for individual schedules, allowing learning to take place anytime, anywhere. And it gives companies a good way to retain their most valuable employees.
Peter Rothstein, former general manager of Lotus's Distributed Learning Business Group, said, "The benefits are obvious. Companies who need to train their customer service people, for example, don't want to train them for just one week a year. They need to train them throughout the year, as their products and markets change. So being able to train in smaller chunks, closer to when the learning is of value in the market, is a great benefit. And it means that learning is retained, as well."
No more paper, no more books
While distance learning varies from company to company, it generally involves a combination of technologies. Using the Internet, a company's intranet, and a variety of online tools including a Web browser, students can engage in online discussions, review course material, take exams, collaborate on assignments, and even interact with an instructor at their convenience.
Assessment managers, built right into the software, allow instructors to monitor quizzes, schedules, and performance. Distance learning enables learning to be self-directed, provides a high level of training, and makes it easier for organizations to achieve their goals and objectives.
Rothstein explains that there are two kinds of distance models. The first is synchronous learning, where you can broadcast a lecture or have a "live" virtual classroom where everyone connects to the same server at the same time. An instructor is "present" to teach the content, and electronic tools allow for hand-raising and interaction.
Asynchronous learning, on the other hand, is self-paced. All the content is put on a server and people access it whenever they have time. But Rothstein says many of the discussion group models of learning work asynchronously as well, allowing for more time and schedule flexibility.
Skills-based and knowledge training are the major uses of distance learning at the moment, but advances in technology - greater bandwidth and more dependable dialup access, for instance - will likely expand its range in the future. Capabilities such as streaming video and audio, videoconferencing, PowerPoint, and Java-based applets will help students interact on a more personal level around the globe and advance successfully from one level of learning to the next.
Companies typically provide a wide range of off-the-shelf courses to their employees: HR courses, management education, and IT training, to name a few. But some training needs to be customized, such as the training of a company's sales force, new employee orientations, and customer service skills.
"The most successful companies use different models and both purchase and develop content," Rothstein said. "Some even blend the models, combining classroom training with take-home computer-based materials. It depends on what's most appropriate."
Looking to the future
What's the future for distance learning? Experts estimate that 90 percent of major corporations have been piloting distance learning models for the last few years and are now starting to use it much more broadly. Reduced travel costs, combined with access to "just-in-time" information and course consistency add up to big returns for most companies. Workers also prosper from the new systems. Most e-learning opportunities are asynchronous and allow the employee to work at his or her own pace by supervised by a training manager or human resources representative.
And some companies even offer tuition reimbursement for accredited online university studies, combining distance learning and e-learning opportunities into one comprehensive package. Remember, research your company's training options, match your needs with the best possible program out there, and then ask about your potential opportunities.
- Linda Jenkins, Salary.com contributor