E-Learning Stretches Training Dollars

July 1, 2004
Although most companies are willing to invest in training and building a skilled workforce, their biggest complaint has been difficulty in finding meaty courses and seminars for a reasonable dollar.

The courses and seminars that equipment builders and professional associations offer seasoned workers not only carry a high price tag, but also cost in travel expenses and days away from the job. Courses at the local community colleges are convenient, but often too basic or too general to be practical to all but entry level employees.

So where can manufacturers find the training and continuing skills development that their employees need? Many have turned to courses and seminars available over the Internet. The online “schools” offering these programs can draw from a larger pool of students than traditional schools, so they can offer highly specific, meaty courses and seminars geared to seasoned employees without placing outrageous costs and demands on their time. They can combine advanced and specialty instruction found through associations and vendors with the convenience and cost of a community college.

Consider the electronic-learning programs available through the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA, www.isa.org) in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Every year, the society offers hundreds of self-learning courses and group seminars on automation and information technology over the Internet. In live Web seminars, for example, instructors present 90-minute PowerPoint presentations to engineers and technicians at as many as

20 sites. In each, an instructor speaks in three 20-minute intervals, opening the telephone lines after each interval to field questions for 10 minutes. “We’ve found that’s a good amount of time to have someone’s attention for an on-line presentation,” says Dale Lee, director of training.

To allow interaction and avoid bandwidth problems, the society requires participants in these seminars to make two connections, one to the Web to give them access to the graphics in real time and the other to conventional phone lines to establish two-way audio communications. “Typically, each of our sites have 12 to 15 people participating,” says Lee.

Study online

Web seminars are not the only form of training and skills development available online. Several organizations also offer online courses for individual study. ISA, for example, has collaborated with a developer of electronic courses to create some of its courses and offers other online courses and CDs created entirely by third parties. While ISA’s programs focus on automation, systems and management, a Cleveland-based educator called Tooling University (www.toolingu.com) offers a more nuts-and-bolts curriculum. Its courses teach students to use machine tools and to design, make and deploy the various fixtures that machine tools and automatic machinery need.

At both online schools, students can register for courses online. The students can do the work in one or several sittings and can use bookmarks to keep track of where they stopped so they can resume their studies where they left off. Before logging off, those at Tooling University can send an instructor questions by e-mail and retrieve answers at their next sessions. In both schools, students take a test at the end of the course.

Although both schools accept individual students who pay for the courses out of their own pockets, they also take students through corporate sponsorships. In fact, the schools offer software that helps companies to design and manage their own training programs. They also allow the administrator to view each student’s transcript so he or she “can see who has done what, when, in the planned courses of study,” says Lee at ISA. Now, manufacturing companies can invest in their employees without breaking the bank.

James Koelsch, [email protected], is an Automation World Contributing Editor.