An Introduction to Distance and Distributed Learning

In today's fast-paced and ever-changing business environment, corporations realize they must use technology as a competitive advantage to stay ahead of their rivals. Technology has become a critical, strategic weapon in survival, and using technology for training to supplant traditional - and costlier - instructor-led classes makes good business sense. Technology applied to training, or distance learning, is able to offer convenience, ease of use, and on-demand service. It is estimated that corporate universities will provide 50 percent of their training by technology in the first year of the millennium.

Just like any other business venture, distance learning is increasingly being viewed by companies as an investment that needs to be thoughtfully planned. Successful corporate distance programs have two features in common: first, they look at the big picture by clearly mapping out and budgeting all the resources and technology before they start, and make sure they have the right budget approval for every phase. Second, these companies realize that their distance program is comprised of a number of key elements, and that achieving a successful distance learning curriculum requires an in-depth understanding of all the elements involved, how they fit together, and integrating all the elements into easy-to-use programs.

Let's examine the five essential elements used in successful Distance Learning programs: content, media, infrastructure, management, and people.

Content: corporations first need to consider who are the intended users and what is the content that needs to be presented. The needs of the people being trained, and the training to be delivered, drive the technology, not the other way around.

The most successful corporate training programs take a look at what has to be done, for whom, and then search out the right technology to do it. After the program objectives and content has been defined, they need to be integrated and placed in one, but more likely multiple, media formats for delivery.

Media: The next choice businesses make is what media - or combination of media - will best support their users and the curriculum. Does the curriculum require video, for instance, to view a delicate operation? Is a talking head really necessary to explain a new product to clients? Often a hybrid solution is the best. Perhaps the company announcement of a new technology can be done via satellite or high quality video. The technical training that accompanies this can be delivered by CBT, shipped by FedEx or across the internet.

At this point, the organization must balance the needs of the users with the technology that is available to them, or allocate the appropriate funding to buy new technology. Discovering at the last minute you can't afford streaming video after the curriculum is finished from video is not a good experience. Once the curriculum is mapped to the right media elements, it then needs to be distributed.

Infrastructure: infrastructure pertains to how the training will be deployed or delivered to the user. It is important to fit the right distribution vehicle with the right distance learning application. What is needed to support the media, content, and users ? Some companies base their decision to deploy purely on the technology that is already available. For instance, if a company uses satellite for training, this is appropriate for classroom style training. However, if the distance learning program requires a 7 by 24, on-demand training, an internet/intranet distribution may be a better solution.

Once the infrastructure has been deployed to support the chosen curriculum and media, the resulting program will have to be managed.

Management: The company needs to consider how the program will be managed. The big payoff of distance learning is the ability to train thousands of people economically. Without proper management systems, the distance learning manager will be flooded with e-mail and phone messages to return. Registration, evaluation, and tracking systems need to fit the needs of the program. Users need to be tracked and evaluated; curriculum developers need their courses evaluated; and administrators need students to be tested.

Managing distance learning applications depends on how much a business can automate along with how comprehensive the automation is.

People: Successful corporations Insure that the entire program runs smoothly by requiring everyone involved with the details of running, participating and maintaining a distance learning program - Instructors, users, I/S personnel - to be trained.

A final thought: it may be human nature, but there always seems to be a strong impulse to "wing it" in building anything. Fight the urge. According to the most successful corporate distance programs, there are two critical success factors to consider: first, distance learning is a complex solution that requires a structured method to build and maintain; and second, problems and hurdles are a part of building any application but there are fewer if one plans and anticipates. Also, they claim, it saves wear-and-tear if you work with someone who has already experienced the obstacles and can offer creative solutions.

from Teleconference Magazine, August 9, 1999, by Joanne Carle-Accornero