One of the enduring challenges in the learning and development world is disseminating training classes to the largest audience in the least amount of time. Supporting a distributed workforce through effective training is an increasingly important challenge as companies expand across larger geographic regions.
Conquering Distance Education: Top 4 Ways to Train Staff Across the Miles
It isn’t uncommon for offices to be spread across the country (or even the globe) as companies try to place their employees in the most cost-effective locations, or expand their talent pool outside the home office.
Training a distributed workforce can be especially taxing for an L&D office if they are using an instructor-led training (ILT) model. As the company’s geographic footprint expands, instructors will be forced to travel to each office or have employees brought to a central location for each new class. In addition to the costs of traveling, there is also an increase in the amount of time it takes to get all employees trained on a new policy or procedure.
Let’s say an employer has six offices across the country and all employees need to complete a new course. Based on the number of employees in each location, the company’s two trainers estimate it will take one week at each location to train all the employees without disrupting the company’s day-to-day business. Assuming both instructors are available and can be away from the home office for three weeks straight, it would take a minimum of three weeks to roll out the new training. The rollout time can become even more challenging if the class time or the number of locations increases.
Happily, there are other ways to conquer distance. Through video chats, webinars, and web-based training, trainers can reach a global audience from their desks, eliminating the need for travel and its associated expenses, and reducing the time it takes to rollout new training to the company.
All of these solutions have their advantages and disadvantages. Below is a list of the most popular ways to tackle of the problem of training a distributed workforce, along with a summary of pros and cons.
1. Web-Based, Peer-to-Peer Video Conference
A good example of a web-based, peer-to-peer video conference product would be Skype (although there are other tools out there). Essentially, these tools allow you to conduct a video conference across the web with one or more people.
Advantages: These services are of good quality and most will allow you to share your screen so you can present PowerPoint slides or demonstrations directly from your computer. Many of these tools are free or extremely low cost, depending on your needs. Additionally, they will allow you to communicate directly with each of the participants, so you can answer questions as they arise.
Disadvantages: These tools are dependent on the available bandwidth in your and the recipient’s offices. Low bandwidth at either end can cause problems. Additionally, there is usually a limit on the number of people who can participate in the conference call. Finally, the conference needs to be scheduled when all attendees can join.
2. Dedicated Web-Conference Programs (Webinars)
Advantages: With these programs, you are going to have a more robust infrastructure within the tool. For example, most have whiteboards, chat windows, the ability to send handouts to the participants, and dedicated phone numbers for users who find it more effective to use phones over computer audio. As with video conference tools, you have a live interaction with the learners so that you can address their questions. The webinar provider uses your maximum number of attendees to calculate your monthly cost. Generally, webinars for 500 people will cost around $150 per month. That is about $3 per attendee per month—a considerable savings compared to the travel costs required to reach the same number of people.
Disadvantages: While the infrastructure is more robust, it can be prone to network lag, as you are still dependent on your web connection. You’ll need to work with your learners’ schedules to ensure everyone can attend at the same time, as even though these tools allow you to record the webinar, a recording doesn’t offer the same level of interaction that’s one of the main benefits of using these tools.
3. Self-Directed, Web-Based Training
Web-based training (WBT), where learners log on and take a course at the time that is best for them, is another alternative. Some people use other terms for this type of training, such as online training or elearning (learning via electronic media). These are usually created with programs like Trivantis Lectora, Adobe Captivate, or Articulate Storyline. Beyond simple presentation, you can use these programs to create interactive, self-directed learning modules the learners can complete individually. These modules are usually stored on a learning management system (LMS) or other web-based portal, and the learners complete the modules asynchronously—meaning the module can be accessed at any point.
Advantages: Unlike the previous choices, your delivery schedule isn’t dependent on your audience’s schedule. These presentations can be loaded on a shared resource like an internal web page, and your remote staff can access it when it is convenient for them. Another advantage is the consistency of the message your learners receive. Since each of them will participate in the same course, you can be confident the training isn’t drifting off message. In a live training, every class is a little different as every instructor has their idiosyncrasies when conducting a class. For example, Instructor A may focus in more on one topic than Instructor B, giving their class a skewed idea of what is most important. With web-based training, each learner receives the same training, with the same emphasis, the same content, and the same delivery.
That doesn’t have to mean that your training has to be dry, however. Web-based training allows the L&D office to build an engaging experience for the learners through activities like drag-and-drop functions and responsive hotspots. These activities require learners to interact with elements on the screen. Additionally, periodic learning checks like quizzes or reviews can help keep learners engaged with the material, encouraging them to think about what they are learning in the course. With these techniques and many others, you can help ensure students have ample opportunity to learn the material. Likewise, because these modules require more hands-on participation, they tend to stick firmly in a learner’s mind. As with other solutions, use of these programs can significantly reduce the time and costs associated with travel.
Additionally, tools like Lectora, Captivate, and Storyline are designed to work with most learning management systems, which means that you can use the presentations to conduct learning checks and see the results within your LMS. The LMS can also provide you with a record of all the learners who have completed the module and when they completed it. If you are not using a learning management system, you may need to find another method to measure learner achievement.
Disadvantages: WBT lacks the live interaction between instructor and learner that other methods have, and this can be a challenge if learners need hands-on practice in applying a policy or skill. Additionally, there is a significant cost associated with purchasing the software to build these modules. But compared to the cost of sending trainers and manuals across the globe, it isn’t overwhelming. Building these modules requires not only the purchase of a program, but someone with the skills to create the modules. Another potential problem is the need to edit the files every time a procedure or policy changes. Before opting for an in-house solution, evaluate the skills that already exist in your group, and make sure you have the time necessary to build a lesson that meets your company’s expectations. For a more comprehensive list of things to ask yourself before taking on WBT, check out our blog on the topic of things to ask before developing your project in house.
4. A Hybrid Approach
Another option is to use a hybrid approach, combining one or more of these tools to develop training that incorporates both online and in-class elements. The goal with a hybrid, or blended learning, course is to maximize the impact of the time you spend with the learners, while giving them knowledge or simple skills in an online environment. This allows you to optimize the time an instructor spends with learners, being there to answer their questions and ensuring the learners are implementing the skills correctly.
For example, the learners could log on to the company LMS, or any other shared intranet location and complete a module that outlines the new concepts or policies. Then, once all the learners have completed the online portion, the instructor can host sessions where learners can practice what they’ve learned. The instructor can answer any questions the learners have regarding the training and reinforce the message of the online modules.
Advantages: One of the benefits of this approach is that you can stagger the training time allotted for each employee, so not everyone has to be in training at the same time. For example, if you implement a three-day elearning plus two-day onsite solution, you can effectively double the use of a classroom space. By scheduling one group to be in the classroom on Monday and Tuesday, while another group works on the elearning portion and goes into the classroom on Thursday and Friday, you double the use of the training space by hosting multiple classes per week. This method can be significant benefit in an industry like customer service or call centers where the company needs to maintain some degree of availability at all times. Additionally, this approach can also help you conquer the challenge of varying employee schedules, as all employees may not be available at the same time.
Ultimately, the goal with a hybrid class is to increase the quality of time the trainer spends with the learners. By delivering basic concepts and explanations in an online recording or module, it may be possible for the instructor to focus more on helping the learners apply the knowledge. The Military Child Education Coalition used this approach when training teachers, counselors, and others near U.S. military installations around the globe, using in-person training to provide the more highly personable aspects of their courses.
Disadvantage: This approach requires expertise in both instructor-led training and elearning approaches. This may require bringing on additional staff or engaging an outside agency, depending on the skill sets available in your organization. Similarly, a hybrid approach does not completely eliminate the need for training space and the associated costs and scheduling problems. Finally, it can be challenging to fine-tune a hybrid class. Since it is easier to make adjustments to the live portion of the class than the elearning portion, there will always be a temptation to update only the ILT materials. However, updating on the in-class materials can, over time, make your elearning materials less relevant and diminish the impact they have on your learners.
Finding the Right Approach for Your Distributed Workforce
All of the tools and techniques discussed above are focused on increasing your reach without needing to be physically present for every moment of class. Accurate and timely training is crucial to a business’s success in today’s rapidly changing economy, so it makes sense for trainers and L&D professionals to take advantage of every technology possible to decrease the time to delivery and the reach of their training. The trick is finding the approach that works best for your company’s unique situation. If you are a single trainer charged with keeping an entire company abreast of rapidly changing policies, you may find webinars are best, because you can reach large groups with minimal preparation. Conversely, if the skills you are trying to teach need a lot of hands-on practice like physical or soft skills, you may find a hybrid approach effective.
Training Technology: Looking Ahead
Finally, one area that I haven’t touched on is the exciting future of training technology. From app-based microlearning to virtual reality simulations, there are many technologies on the horizon that have the potential to increase your ability to reach and interact with students from around the globe. While aspects of these applications are still unproven, there is a lot of potential for creating effective, engaging, and exciting training that meets the unique needs of a distributed workforce. I cannot wait to begin applying them for our customers.
Would hiring a learning and development company help your team discover new strategies for your distributed workforce? Contact us — we’d be happy to walk through your situation with you and help you reach your organization’s performance goals.
Especially for Training Managers
- The Training Manager’s Guide to Accessible Elearning
- Creativity within Constraints: When Cost, Resource Scarcity, or Deadlines Make Effective Elearning Seem Out of Reach
- Using Video in Training: Should You or Shouldn’t You?
- Converting Classroom Training to Elearning [Audio Interview]
- The Year in Learning—89 Hand-Picked L&D-Related Articles from 2017
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