Are You Ready for WBT?

Gary C. Powell, Ed.D.
Wayne State University

  Special thanks to my students who were enrolled in IT7240 Designing Web-Based Instruction for their research and input to this topic.  You were a great community of learners!

Web-based training (WBT) is here to stay. Many companies that previously viewed WBT as a fad are now quick to offer on-line training programs because of the supposed savings, flexibility, and interactivity these courses often provide. But is your organization ready for a web-based training delivery solution? Despite the excitement, possibilities and glamour associated with delivering courses over corporate Intranets and/or the Internet, jumping in headfirst without analyzing the who's, what's, where's, when's and why's could lead to disaster.

Given today's need for HR to justify training costs, provide evidence that training and development contributes to business success, link training intervention with the bottom line, and calculate the strategic value of training, why start down a path that could be doomed for failure? Too much is at risk to blindly launch a web-based training initiative; regardless of how new, in vogue, creative, flexible, cost-effective and exciting we hear it is.

Often, training departments are mandated to develop online learning initiatives (Driscoll, 1999). Such mandates are often instigated by a technological imperative – a pressing need to use Internet technology for the sake of technology. In some organizations, web-based training has been launched merely to justify the costs of the corporate Intranet. Satisfying management’s demand to develop or maintain an innovative or prestigious corporate image jumps some organizations onto the WBT bandwagon. While not the best reasons for ushering in a web-based training initiative, they can in fact lead to profit, cost savings, growth, marketability and prestige if they’re done well.

For the fortunate, these courses help train, retrain and retain employees. Although these are wonderful benefits of successful web-based learning initiatives, they alone are not good reasons to enter the business of delivering WBT.

For whatever reason, the business of delivering WBT is steadily increasing. The popularity of WBT programs is growing at such an astronomical rate that about 500 products are now on the market for online learning (Torode, 1999). According to McGee (1999), "technology-based training, including Web-based solutions, will represent half of all training by the year 2002, up from 25% [in 1998]." Torode (1999) predicts that the next major shift in the training industry will be the hybrid approach: combining instructor-led training and technology-based training, which will include synchronous and asynchronous online training, CD-ROM’s, and video and satellite broadcasts.

Training can be delivered using a multiplicity of media, such as the traditional classroom and computer-based training. Choosing Internet technologies to deliver training should occur only after careful consideration of a number of factors. These factors include what is taught, who is taught, where the teaching takes place, how the teaching is supported, and when the teaching takes place (see Table 1).

What is taught
Who is taught
Where the teaching takes place
How the teaching is supported
When does the 
teaching take place
Domain of learning
Culture of the 
Stability of content
Size of the 
Technical support
Importance of 
content consistency
Corporate support
Content complexity
Number of 
Union/labor support
Media complexity
dispersion of learners
Developmental support
Requirements for 
special equipment
Number of 
training sites
Format of 
current materials
of time off the job
Preferences of learners

Table 1. Factors to consider when deciding to adopt web-Based training.

Who is Taught

What is the culture of your organization? High tech, fast paced organizations – as opposed to "mom & pop shops" – will be more accepting of WBT. What is the value of "water cooler" dialog during training breaks? This refers to the informal interaction that employees, often from different offices, have as a result of coming together for training. This sharing is often one of the highlights for even attending a training session. If this kind of rapport is highly valued, you might run into an initial resistance to eliminating classroom-based for on-line training. Finally, consider how well your organization can accept the notion that training can actually occur at the desktop. Even though computer-based training (e.g., CD-ROM) has been around for awhile, not everyone is ready to accept non-instructor led training.

What is the size of your organization? If it’s too small, it will be difficult to justify the investment. For populations greater than 200 students – especially when they are geographically dispersed -- WBT becomes most cost effective compared to classroom training (if the course is presented several times). At that point, the cost of course development, delivery hardware, and production hardware/software is less than costs of trainee’s salaries, material reproduction, travel, tuition, record keeping and administration.

What are the characteristics of your learners? Learners that tend to succeed in on-line courses are self-disciplined, self-regulated, self-directed, independent and responsible. Likewise, learners should be focused, and not easily distracted. While WBT does offer the flexibility of learning anytime and anywhere (such as at home), the amount of potential distractions versus a traditional classroom are enormous. Bosses, co-workers, computer games, children, TV, pizza delivery guys…to name a few. Naturally, on-line learners need to be very comfortable with written communication, somewhat savvy with web technologies, and proficient with computers. Finally, another learner characteristic to consider is fear of job security. Some learners assume that since WBT involves a computer and Internet technologies, performance scores are automatically "zapped" to management and other HR decision-makers. Those who make such assumptions may be hesitant to use WBT.

What is Taught

In what learning domain does the course content fall? As expected, psychomotor and hands-on topics are not well suited for WBT. While it is possible to teach foundations of forklift operations on-line, the actual operation of one is not possible. Also consider the stability of the course content, is it dynamic or static? For example, training topics that include laws, regulations, or sales figures would be dynamic, versus a training class on business-writing skills (static). Laws, regulations and sales figures are apt to change over time, whereas business-writing techniques would not. Software application training is also quite dynamic; each time a new software version is released, the training must be updated. Content that frequently changes is perfect for web-based delivery because it is relatively quick and easy to update. If content consistency is important, web-based delivery is ideal. Technology-based instructional systems do not have bad days or tire at the end of a long day. Technology-based Instruction is delivered in a consistently reliable fashion that does not vary in quality from class to class, school to school or one company location to another. Web based courses deliver the same information every time the course is used. (Note: this does not necessarily hold true for on-line classes that involve an instructor, such as a college course).

How complex are your training courses in terms of content and media requirements? Topics that are highly complex (such as surgical procedures) can be better taught in more traditional settings. Topics that call for great amounts of media (such as video clips demonstrating how to properly extinguish a fire) will suffer from bandwidth constraints if delivered on-line. Consider special equipment requirements for students enrolled in the course. If special software or machinery is required, on-line learning may not be the best approach. Consider the format of current training materials. Naturally, those in a digital format will be more web-ready compared to those that are not.

Finally consider how confidential your training materials are. If they are highly confidential, resistance might come from those with a fear of hackers. While precautions can be implemented, some management staff may be nervous about putting confidential material on-line.

Where the Teaching Takes Place

What is the technical infrastructure of your organization? Consider the capacity and limitations of its network, Internet and Intranet connections (bandwidth). Consider the capacity and limitations of desktop computers, and web servers. Naturally, if these systems are very limited (due to age, condition, etc), a WBT initiative may not succeed. Consider whether or not your employees have permission to install extra software such as plug-ins on their desktop computer. Many web-based courses require students to install plug-ins to experience interactive content. Consider your access privileges to currently installed technology. Without technology for production or ready access to web servers, WBT will be difficult to implement. Finally, consider the presence of corporate firewalls. It’s not unusual for web-based course participation to require access to materials out on the Internet. Some organizations do not allow its employees access to the Internet.

When does the Teaching Take Place

When is the training needed in your organization? Training that must be provided just-in-time or on demand is well suited for WBT. Training that must be available anytime is also well suited for WBT. Consider how rapidly your courses must be distributed. While development time of on-line courses may not be quick, the distribution time (how fast the data travels from the web server to the desktop) is. Also, consider the locations of your offices. If they are spread over multiple time zones, the anytime nature of on-line learning can be a benefit. Consider the frequency with which your courses are taught (repetitive vs. one-shot). If training classes are typically just taught once, a more traditional training medium might be a better solution.

How the Teaching is Supported

What kind of technical support is available? Consider the technical support your organization currently has to assist learners with connection problems, computer problems, etc. Computer help desks will be a necessity to accommodate the potentially thousands of employees who will be logging on for training. Does your organization have 24 hour-a-day toll-free technical support by phone? If your WBT will truly be utilized anytime and anywhere, the learners will need that level of support. Also consider the kind and amount of in-house expertise your organization has for both course maintenance and updates. Someone must have the responsibility to quickly and efficiently maintain and update the on-line courses.

What level of corporate support do you have for a web-based training delivery solution? Consider whether on-line course delivery is aligned with your corporate vision or mission. Some organizations have a more ‘cutting-edge’ or forward thinking philosophy than others do. Consider the kind of commitment management will provide, especially in terms of funding. Consider your organization’s view of evolving technology. Internet technologies are certainly evolving, and will be for some time. If your organization tends to be fickle when it comes to funding technology that has a relatively short shelf life, WBT may not be a wise initiative. Also consider your organization’s previous experience with CBT. Many see WBT as nothing more than CBT through a browser, so if there was a terrible past experience with a CBT venture, count on plenty of resistance to on-line learning.

Consider your organization’s feelings toward high development costs versus delivery costs. Technology mediated instruction tends to be much more costly to develop than to deliver. If the employees at your organization are unionized, consider the level of union/labor support you have. Labor union contracts dictate not only who gets training, but also where and when that training takes place. Consider how much time has been made available to you in relation to when training must be launched. If management will support a web-based training initiative, but only gives you one month to implement it, short of changing their minds, WBT may not be the best choice. Naturally, consider the number of designers and ‘techies’ you have in-house for development. If there are none, you may not be a good candidate for WBT until you rectify that situation. Finally, carefully consider your team’s spirit. If there is a lack of enthusiasm or interest among those who are responsible for initiating the WBT, you might want to reconsider.

Concluding that an organization is not ready for WBT is not the end of the world. Some institutions or businesses do very well in a low-tech environment. The nature of their business and learners does not necessitate utilizing technology to deliver their training. There is nothing wrong with your institution or business if you don’t need WBT!

For organizations that are candidates for WBT, remember you must be comfortable using technology. You must have the funds and technical support readily available to meet today’s needs, and the resources available to expand your technical capabilities for tomorrow.

© Dr. Gary C. Powell, 2000