How Online Training Works

Employees learn at their own pace.
Employees learn at their own pace.
Duncan McKenzie/Photonica/Getty Images

If you've taken a job recently, chances are you've done some online training. From retailers like the Gap to the U.S. military, more employers are using online training. But it doesn't stop with corporate America. Driver safety, college classes and certification courses are also offered online in non-workplace training environments.

Online training has become a major industry, with many training and human resource managers relying on it to educate employees. According to a survey of 2,000 managers by Bersin and Associates, 60 percent reported using online training and another 57 percent used virtual classrooms and related training tools.­

Employers prefer online training because people can learn at their own pace. Ever want to ask the teacher to repeat something, but you were too embarrassed to interrupt the class? Online training, which is private, allows you to read the material at your own speed, go back and review the material, as you need to.

In this article, we'll explore what online training is, how to get started and potential problems that may arise. We'll also look at options for online training outside the workplace.

What is Online Training?

Online training is a software-based teaching program installed on a computer or a computer network. These programs feature a section for teaching, informal quizzes and tests and/or a final exam. Depending on the software, tests may be multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blanks, and sometimes even essay. Some online training is text-only, but programs that are more sophisticated have video, flash animations, audio content, or a combination of all three.

Online training comes in two forms: closed network or over an Internet connection. Closed networks require users to show up in person. For example, major retail stores, such as Old Navy, provide a closed network to train employees on handling shoplifters. Retailers want to keep these procedures private and on a "need-to-know" basis, so it uses an "in-house" computer network. Users log in to a computer system with their employee number and password and complete the training, ensuring that company secrets stay within the company's network. No printouts, documents or other materials leave the office, avoiding the potential of it falling into the wrong hands.

The second type of online training uses public Internet connections. For instance, distance education programs, driver's safety training and online test preparation courses are conducted over public connections, allowing users to log in from anywhere in the world around the clock.

Online Training Needs

Employees share a computer to train.
Employees share a computer to train.
Intl St. Clair/Getty Images

When training is a simple review of company policies, rules or procedures, an online entry in a company Wiki serves the same purpose as a seminar or group instruction. For example, the United Nations uses this format for gender issues training through its Web site, which provides learning material, teaching resources and additional information.­

Training needs vary, and material that's more complex requires a more sophisticated approach. Gap, Inc. relies heavily on high-tech "learn-as-you-go" online training. Its Gap Employee Help System gives on the spot training for a number of systems an employee might need during inventory, in the stock room or at the checkout counter. The Gap system lets employees solve routine problems on their own, just by looking up the right information.

When it's time for more formal training, such as military computer security training courses, "self-paced" is still a guiding principle. At one time, the U.S. military used "mass briefings" to teach recruits the military's policies on computer security issues, but now an online program goes step-by-step through the information. At the end of each chapter, an overview of the material is given with the chance to start the chapter over if needed.

Prior training involved a one-hour class with little time for review. The lack of a time limit to complete the modern online version plus a chance for one last look before testing is another major benefit.

The best online training is flexible and lets a user stop and repeat. The U.S. Air Force's Safety Manager introductory training program offers a quiz at each chapter end. If they miss too many questions, users can start that chapter over, or they can review previous chapters before starting new material. During the final exam, users can't return to training.

Online Training Problems

Online training should be flexible and self paced.
Online training should be flexible and self paced.
Manchon/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Online training can be a big advantage, but it only works as well as the computer systems it has been installed on. Running software on outdated or slow computer systems can cause problems. Most training software comes with a list of system requirements and should be followed exactly. These requirements include:

  1. Minimum hard drive space needed for program installation
  2. Computer RAM requirements (i.e. 500mb RAM required to run the program)
  3. Operating system requirements (Windows or Mac)

Some training programs may conflict with other programs. If the instruction manual says to close other programs before running, this should be followed. Interruptions in electrical power may affect training. A power surge or a single second of interrupted power may cause the program to shut down or crash. Surge protectors can prevent these problems. Using an uninterruptible power supply, or UPS, prevents losing data during temporary power outages. The UPS is a battery backup, which automatically starts when the electricity is cut off. The UPS keeps the machine running for as long as the battery reserve lasts, keeping the training or testing session from being interrupted.

During the testing phase of online training, you may be required to take the entire test session over again if there's data loss, computer crash, or other technical problems. Many online training tests don't allow users to stop and start the test over again.

A third issue to contend with is computer hacking. The illegal compromise of a computer or computer network is the classic definition of hacking. People break into computers and networks for a wide variety of reasons, including data theft. If an online training program is hacked, third parties get illegal access to username and passwords, test results and any other confidential information. To avoid hacking, many companies offer training on closed systems. If training is offered on public Internet connections, steps need to be taken to safeguard private data. These may include using:

Online Training at Home

Many online training programs can be done from home.
Many online training programs can be done from home.
bilderlounge/Getty Images

Online training has many uses outside the workplace. Distance education is one of the best-known examples. Triton College in Lake Forest, Ill., offers online classes ranging from art and history to astronomy and earth sciences, depending on course availability in a given semester. Students can register online, attend classes and even turn in final exams online.

Online drivers' training programs are another option. With online driver's safety, defensive driving and other programs, those who successfully complete the training program may be eligible to get speeding tickets and other minor moving violations dismissed from their driving record in participating states. Some Web sites even offer "court-approved" driving programs [source: Defensive Driving].

The Texas Education Agency offers a comprehensive list of state-approved online driver's safety courses. Many of the companies offering these programs have online courses designed for every state, but it's important to check the laws in your area to make sure you're eligible, and that the program you choose is state and court-approved. One Texas-approved Web site,, warns that eligibility for driver's safety training also depends on the nature of the traffic offense.

Some Web sites claim discounted auto insurance rates are offered for seniors who take "Mature Driver Safety" courses online. Companies, such as Geico or Allstate, may offer discounts for those who complete Web-based driver safety training. While this type of safety training can be helpful, it's important for anyone considering it to contact their insurance provider to ask if the training will indeed earn them a discount.

According to a recent study, millions of people are taking advantage of online training, teaching, and learning opportunities [source: Educause]. In 2004 alone, there were nearly 2.5 million students taking college classes online. The future of online training, according to a survey of 12,000 college instructors and administrators, indicates a huge upward shift in reliance on online training and teaching. Nearly half those surveyed believe the quality of online training over the next 10 years will be greater than that of traditional, classroom based teaching and training methods. [source: Educause]

Employers see the value of online training in a similar way. Companies are spending more on online training and increasing their budgets to take advantage of the increasing availability of job-related training. If your company or university doesn't offer online training yet, don't worry. Chances are they will very, very soon.

For lots more information on online training and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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