Students will soon be in a class of their own

Classrooms and instructors are fast becoming a thing of the past, according to International Data Corporation (IDC) Canada Ltd. country manager Michael O’Neil.

Internet-based training may be the answer for busy workers who can’t afford to take a day out of their full schedules to further their education and catch up on ever-changing technology. It might also be the solution for companies looking to provide a large number of employees who have diverging skills and clashing schedules with skill-enhancement opportunities, since education and training are critical to staff retention, according to IDC Canada research.

In the future, travelling virtually through the Internet may be as important and effective as travelling somewhere physically, suggested O’Neil, speaking at the recent IT Skills Breakfast held in Toronto, sponsored by IDC Canada and LTI.

“What we’re looking at in the future is a wholesale substitution of communication for transportation,” O’Neil said.

The Internet and company intranets offer several advantages, he said. The Internet allows employees to fit their educational needs around their own individual schedules and lets them choose the educational method – texts, charts or presentations – best suited for them, O’Neil said. Night owls could go to class at 2 a.m. through the Internet from home, if they desired.

“The ability to shift time is really one of the most compelling [aspects of] the Internet – the ability to do things according to your own schedule rather than according to standard business hours.”

Students who don’t understand a particular concept can pause a class at anytime to get additional information. Students who are further behind will no longer have to listen to instructors talk about things they don’t understand and advanced students will no longer become bored listening to instructors explain simple concepts or procedures to other students, O’Neil said.

But when students lose the ability to interact with each other and their teacher on a face-to-face basis, the value of the education they receive is significantly diminished, according to social critic Neil Postman, head of culture and communications studies at New York University and author of Technopoly.

Body language and facial expression are an integral and significant part of communication, Postman said, and that is why teaching requires the presence of both teachers and other students.

“Communication, when it’s done properly, involves the totality of the human response system. And just to have people typing messages to each other – that might be useful for certain types of things, but I think it’s a very inadequate way for most teaching,” Postman said.

When students are sitting in their own rooms with only a screen to look at, they miss out on most of the benefits of interacting with other students, Postman said. “Teaching involves feeling, and in order to teach people you have to know what they look like and how they’re reacting to what’s being said and how they respond to other people. All of the things that are lost are all of the things that are lost when you’re alone,” Postman said.

O’Neil agrees that Internet-based education has its drawbacks and doesn’t believe that it can completely replace instructor-led training, at least not in the foreseeable future.

“I think, in the long run, you’ll find that effective teams will need a combination of in-person and virtual communication and that training is going to have to [include] both aspects of that,” O’Neil said.

But technology-based training is soon going to replace instructor-led as the number one delivery method in Canada, according to IDC Canada projections.

Keith Ellis, a training specialist at Toronto-based Intria-HP, has used on-line training for both himself and some of his staff. He likes the economy and ease of scheduling. Although people who are completely new to a program, such as Excel, might be at a loss if first introduced to it through technology-based education, on-line teaching might be useful for someone already familiar with a program and wanting to learn more about it, Ellis said.

“We recognize that it’s not useful for all kinds of training.”