01 December 2004
E-learning in automation, instrumentation
Bill walks into work Monday morning and immediately logs on for his fifteen-minute update on the latest developments in industrial data communications. This is part of his daily routine and part of the sacred training contract he has with his company. They give him access to learning facilities and he improves his skills—a win-win situation for the company and Bill. He clicks on his e-learning icon and automatically goes to a classroom in Perth, Australia. His instructor has delivered this presentation 11 times today to classes in the Asia Pacific, Africa, and Europe. The instructor begins his lecture on Ethernet applied to the new industrial protocol for super-smart instruments. Before the session ends, Bill holds up a new flowmeter to his screen and shows problems with water getting into the data communications port, and asks for any suggestions from the others.
This scene is typical of remote or distance training—also known as e-learning—and it's popping up more frequently in the technology and engineering education areas. Proponents have made some extravagant claims about the cost effectiveness of this training compared to the traditional instructor-led and classroom-based training. But considerable challenges still exist for companies to provide effective training in these areas and significantly improve productivity.
Some believe using e-learning and streaming video provides improvements in the ratio of a corporation's productivity to costs. Engineering and management e-learning stacks up favorably against the traditional instructor-led training approach. But there are a number of pitfalls in achieving this level of improvement. It's important to think of e-learning in the automation and instrumentation businesses as part of other traditional forms of training—classroom and instructor-led—and not as the only solution.
What e-learning is and isn't
The minimum requirements for e-learning are an Internet connection, a computer, and access to an e-learning provider on the Web. This means that employees at work can do a variety of training activities over the Internet ranging from skills certification, live updates on company products, and on-demand short courses for short topics that will benefit them in their day-to-day training.
Learning is not an end in itself, at least in business. It's for improved productivity and a safer workplace. The benefits are clear for e-learning compared to other approaches such as instructor-led training in a classroom. There's a lot less traveling to class for students and instructors, which means lower costs for the company and more time on the job. You can learn at your own convenience. You can absorb the materials in smaller chunks.
Your company can dramatically lower the costs of training. You can respond to business requirements quickly and effectively. You're able to update multiple sites with new material quickly. You can build a community within a business. It easily fits into the e-business and existing IT infrastructure.
But there are some disadvantages. Among the greatest challenges with remote Internet training are the lack of instructor/participant interaction and the difficulty of using real tools for practical hands-on exercises (such as working with a valve or instrument). Studies also show e-learning classes aren't completed as frequently; there's less motivation to complete the course. The current low completion rate of less than 20% of e-learning exercises means we need more incentives and persistence to drive the participant through the process of learning. None of us likes to sit in front of a computer all day without at least some interaction with our colleagues and the instructor.
Exercises requiring significant face-to-face contact, such as negotiating and sales training, and lab exercises that require access to real hardware are a couple of areas where e-learning would not be very effective. Most e-learning solutions are built on an ad hoc basis with no understanding of the material or the course participants. So even though we have access to this marvelous new technology of e-learning, we still need to keep our feet firmly on the ground and understand we are focusing on solving a learning problem.
It's difficult to picture the traditional e-learning—a book placed online with a quiz at the end of each section—working for automation and instrumentation students. The big opportunity is in interactive learning with an instructor online in video-conferencing-type mode, using synchronous e-learning (such as video conferencing and streaming). This is where the big successes will be in the future. This synchronous training combined with the classroom experience is the most workable.
Behind the byline
Steve Mackay is technical director at IDC Technologies in West Perth, Western Australia.
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