Small Bytes for eLearners: As Seen on PlanetIT

Small Bytes For E-Learners
by Mary E. Thyfault (01/25/01; 9:00 a.m. ET)

In the world of online learning, it is becoming clear that shorter is better and more personal. Today, The Richardson Company, based in Philadelphia, is rolling out Richardson QuickSkills, a series of 15- to 45-minute Web-based training modules that provide IT organizations and others with interactive online sales training. By breaking the learning sessions into small online chunks, employees are more likely to use and retain the knowledge they acquire. In addition, employees can create personalized training sessions that fit their individual needs.

The short online sessions are Richardson's response to demands from IT customers such as Dell Computer. "It's quick, it's short and our call-center reps can do it between calls at their desks," says Darcy Kurtz, former home and small-business training manager for Dell. Kurtz believes that reps who take the short online training modules will have a higher retention rate because they can create individualized training sessions that respond to their needs of the moment. "In the past, when we could do it was not when the reps needed it," says Kurtz. "When they needed it was not when they could do the training."

The Richardson announcement is just more evidence that IT organizations and others want very short educational nuggets from online training. Most companies that offer online training are moving towards offering shorter courses. "Shorter courses are especially appealing to today's MTV/Nintendo generation, which tends to have a shorter attention span," says Adam Hanin, vice president of marketing for KnowledgeNet.com, an online-learning company based in Scottsdale, Ariz. "People are looking for just that little bit of information they need."

Most learners retain little from classroom instruction. About 33 minutes after a lecture is over, most students retain only 58 percent of what was covered in class, according to a 1998 study by the New York City-based Research Institute of America. By the second day, retention has fallen to only 33 percent. And after three weeks, all but 15 percent is forgotten.

But creating small chunks of learning isn't enough to keep the attention of the MTV generation, argues Marc Presnky, founder, CEO and creative director of games2train.com and author of a recently published book, Digital Game-Based Learning. "If the stuff isn't going down with the group of young salespeople, smaller isn't going to make it go down any better," Presnky says. Companies have to design e-learning like a game if they are going to keep the attention of the younger set.

Still, short learning modules like those offered by Richardson provide a solution. "The key is to integrate the learning process with daily work," says David Park, an analyst at Delphi Group in Boston, Mass. "We're moving away from learning information 'just in case' to learning information 'just in time.' Instead of going to a class for a week to learn information just in case you need it, you can learn the information when you're stuck on a problem."

Kurtz agrees, noting that Richardson's QuickSkills modules give each rep a chance to improve the skills he or she needs to sharpen, without wasting time. "Some reps are good at questioning customers and some are good at closing," says Kurtz. "We can get more focused on what the reps actually need."

Richardson has always focused on providing training in short spurts. For years, it has offered one-day seminars that cover material other trainers spread out over three days. Now, Richardson is putting 80 percent of its training into Web-based QuickSkills modules.

E-learning is also less expensive, costing 50 to 70 percent less per person than instructor-led classroom training, says Richardson. The company is planning to release more than 75 new modules this year. Each of Richardson's core modules lasts from 15 to 45 minutes. Learners have the option of adding segments -- for example, a case-study demo -- that last as little as 90 seconds. And each 15-minute module is broken down even further, allowing students to find convenient stopping points within the course. To provide learners with mentor and peer support, Richardson will add such features as online chat rooms next year.

Richardson's QuickSkills modules can stand alone, they can be customized by industry or by company or they can be integrated with a company's own internal product training. In high-tech companies, where there is an ongoing need for training having to do with rapidly changing products, salespeople are especially pressed for time.

"High-tech salespeople face many demands and tremendous pressure," says Linda Richardson, Richardson's founder. They are, in fact, under so much pressure that many of Richardson's high-tech classroom sessions start at 7:30 in the morning and end at 3:00, freeing salespeople to squeeze in a few sales calls, too.

Even so, it is difficult for managers and students to find time for follow-up training. "One of the great headaches and real weak spots of training has been follow-up and reinforcement," says Richardson. "You may be hammered by something now and have no clue what to do because you were trained on it three years ago." But still, many salespeople realize that by the time they register and attend an off-site training session, the problem is no longer a problem. "The ideal way to get training is to get what you need, when you need it," says Richardson.

Dell's Kurtz agrees. "We knew we had to have something for ongoing and reinforcement training, but we just couldn't take sales reps away for a whole half-day," says Kurtz. "It just wasn't realistic," she says, and it could cost the company a great deal in lost revenue. And Kurtz believes that reps learn more if they do the training when they choose, not when Dell tells them to.

In fact, no matter how badly organizations want their employees trained, most prefer to avoid sending employees away from the office. "It eases the minds of others to know I'm here at my desk in case something happens," says Amy Scherer, an information systems support analyst at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., who took a series of Cisco training classes from KnowledgeNet.com, offered in three-hour sessions.

Scherer, like many others, believes that she learned more because the sessions were shorter. "I think I retained more because it was spread out," says Scherer. "It gave me a chance to absorb it." Scherer was also able to go to the KnowledgeNet.com Web site to do labs, interact with a mentor and go through a review of a class session before the next session started.
Copyright PlanetIT, 2001.