In an effort to attract and retain employees, companies are offering increased opportunities when it comes to education. Support may take the form of additional tuition reimbursement for external learning. Companies, too, are expanding onsite staff development efforts. There are more seminars and workshops, and a wider range of programs intended to enhance the skills of all employees, from entry-level workers to senior executives. Some organizations have even created in-house corporate universities. But perhaps the most significant change is the way in which staff development takes place. Whether onsite or off, employers and employees have seen the future, and it’s name is e-learning. From online degrees in almost every discipline to instruction in new technologies, Internet-based learning and CD-ROM training offer a convenient and economical ways to deliver course content. Faster Than a Speeding Human In an article in the National Post, author Earl W. Stafford cites the many advantages of high-tech training, including the fact that large groups of people can be trained anytime, anywhere. Stafford points out that this, in turn, allows companies to save on travel costs associated with training. He notes that, given the wide range of programs available, companies can also tailor instruction to fit individual requirements. Because there is no instructor involved, the method of delivery is consistent and, therefore, so is the course content. According to Stafford, training time can be reduced from between 20% and 50% with high-tech course delivery. Not to mention that, when an employee needs to refer back to material, it’s there. Fast, yes, but does something get lost? Like, maybe, the human element? From Out of the Classroom So says author Gerry Bellett in an article in the Vancouver Sun. Quoting Amar Dhaliwal, vice president of e-commerce and co-founder of the corporate learning solutions firm THINQ, Bellett presents the other side of e-learning. Dhaliwal says e-learning is best as a supplement to classroom training, and points to studies which indicate that more than 50% of people who begin Web-based training don’t finish the programs. According to Dhaliwal, studies also show that classroom learning lends itself to better retention of information and better application of knowledge. But while some electronic courses lack instructors, not all e-learning eliminates the human element. Most college and university online courses include some “live” interaction. Connecting with Students However, “live” online isn’t the same as “live” in the classroom. Dr. William Hahn, a faculty member of Nova Southeastern University, says he tends to agree with Dhaliwal’s assessment of e-learning. Hahn teaches two online courses, Introductory Accounting and Business Finance. Both are prerequisites for Nova’s online MBA program. He points out that students in the courses are typically professionals, many with other advanced degrees. Still, according to Hahn, some have difficulty with the format. “It’s not for everybody,” he says. Although students meet online in a chat room once a week, Hahn indicates that one of the biggest drawbacks is lack of interaction. “You need some interaction with students to help them over theoretical issues,” he says, explaining that, in a classroom, material gets covered and there is discussion, but online this can’t happen in the same way. The two courses are structured so that, prior to weekly chat sessions, students read textbook chapters and utilize online aids, including lecture notes from the instructor. According to Hahn, such a format is “for a certain type of individual, a small segment of the population.” Learning e-nvironment “I think a lot of people still need the classroom,” says Hahn. He also teaches business courses in a traditional environment at the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vt., where he is chair of the business division, and where he doesn’t believe online learning would work with his undergraduate students. With online learning, he says, “they’re basically teaching themselves.” Yet, he indicates that it has its applications and cites acquiring a technology-based skill, such as how to use PowerPoint, as an example. Like Dhaliwal, Hahn says he sees more of an opportunity to blend online learning with the classroom experience. But he also acknowledges that once technology allows for the utilization of features such as a middle-of-screen blackboard and two-way communication in real time, e-learning will improve. “I think it’s coming,” he says. Hahn cautions, however, that there is both a social side and a technological side to the process and that the social aspects of learning cannot be overlooked. Offering Instruction Many respected colleges and universities, such as Nova Southeastern University, offer accredited online degrees. But there are also online diploma mills. When seeking educational opportunities for employees, online or off, it’s important to research and evaluate programs. Even if an employee is not interested in pursuing a degree, a college or university may have an online course that can fulfill a learning need. There are also organizations offering online training. While courses by training organizations may not be accredited, they may provide the necessary instruction. One organization, eMind.com, offers more than 1,200 online courses. Covering a wide range of subject areas in the fields of accounting, insurance, securities, information technology and personal development, many eMind.com courses, though not accredited, do offer continuing education units which may be applied to professional certification. The Science of Learning Jobscience.com also features online courses. The site, which Director of Business Development and company founder Mimi Elliott calls “a one-stop shop for empowering your career,” is currently focused on providing course content for nurses. Although Jobscience.com is an employment site for all healthcare professionals, Elliott says that, to date, online education has been focused on nurses because they make up 40% of all healthcare workers. According to Elliott, the site offers education as a service to Jobscience members, and the courses, which are available through an agreement with AHC Thomson/CE-Web.com, are therefore offered at a substantial savings. The first three courses in the series are free and all additional courses are discounted by 40%. There are currently 371 courses available at the site. A recent partnership agreement with The Kaplan Colleges gives job seekers another online learning option, and there are plans to incorporate educational offerings for other healthcare professionals in the near future. One program under consideration is an online MBA for physicians. In connection with expanding educational offerings at Jobscience.com, Elliott has researched various online learning in the healthcare field. She points to The Answer Page as a site having a unique approach. In its section for anesthesiologists, for example, the site features a question of the day, which can be answered and applied toward Continuing Medical Education (CME) credit. Although there are time restrictions, the basic concept is that each question and answer session earns 1/4 hour of Category I CME credit. Elliott notes that the site is for busy medical professionals and has been designed to accommodate people’s schedules. While e-learning is faster and offers greater flexibility, Hahn and Elliott both point out that the electronic approach to education, like the Internet itself, is still in its infancy. “It will be interesting to see how online learning gets integrated with other learning,” says Elliott.