Why Does Distance Learning Make Sense?

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Organizations are "going virtual." They have international sales offices, plants around the world, and multiple locations throughout the country. In metropolitan areas they're cutting traffic, pollution, and commuting time by setting up suburban satellite offices to allow employees to work at sites close to their homes.

Organizations are cutting costs. Everyone is under pressure to do more with less. That includes training more people with less time and fewer resources. Used appropriately, distance learning is quick and inexpensive.

In fact if you need to train a lot of people, distance learning can be extraordinarily cost-effective. Most organizations pay for traditional classroom training on a per-trainee basis, spending at least $100 per person, per day. But distance learning is priced by the program, not the participant. If a satellite program costs $500, an organization that has more than five employees to train can come out ahead by choosing that option. Of course the organization needs to be equipped with a satellite dish or have access to a viewing site. Many universities and community colleges offer access for a fee; even some high schools now have their own satellite dishes!

Distance learning isn't the best solution for every training problem, but it can work well for meeting learning objectives that have to do with conveying information or influencing beliefs. For example, a teleconference might be an effective way of bringing employees of a decentralized firm up to speed on a new corporate sexual-harassment policy. Distance learning is not as effective for training that will require participants to practice a new skill. Even via interactive television, an instructor would be hard-pressed to observe the performance of mechanics at four different plants as they simultaneously try a new welding technique.

The challenge for training and development specialists is to know enough about the technology to make intelligent choices from the options that are available.


Considerable attention is now being paid to alternative forms of assessing learning. Why do we perceive a paradigm shift that is moving away from traditional, multiple-choice, standardized achievement tests to alternative forms of assessment? Why do we need a variety of strategies for tracking adult learner performance over time? Why is there renewed interest in finding more systematic ways of looking for connections between what we do in training and development and what changes occur in employee performance on the job?


Granted "paradigm" is an increasingly trendy word, but it does capture the dramatic shift that is occurring in how we think about training and development. Paradigms are rules and regulations, stated and unstated assumptions, models and standard procedures that shape our view of the world or our understanding of the ways things are and work.

Paradigms shift when they no longer help us solve problems or explain powerful, fundamental, and emerging changes in our understandings, assumptions, and values. Such a shift is occurring in how trainers view teaching, learning, and assessment. We are beginning to question the accuracy of standardized tests in assessing outcomes important to a training or instructional program. We have gotten too comfortable with designing training and instruction to match the format of multiple-choice testing items; thus there tends to be overemphasis on drill and practice in discrete skills. This is problematic. The concept of learning as the accumulation of bits of knowledge is outmoded. Current models of learning based on cognitive psychology demonstrate that understanding is increased when learners construct their own knowledge and develop cognitive maps of interconnections among concepts and facts.

To engage learners in the kinds of critical thinking that adults will need in the twenty-first century, we will have to shift to a paradigm that focuses on practice in solving real problems and comprehending complex tasks. The establishment of TQM, ISO 9000, business process reengineering, teams, and other modern management systems requires new forms of assessment for outcomes-based training.

What knowledge, skills, and job orientations will adult learners need in order to be prepared to live in the more competitive twenty-first century? The next century will be characterized by an information society, global economic interdependence, cultural pluralism, rapidly expanding technologies, and decentralized social structures. Such a society will be based on knowledge and the ability to put it to work to create, invent, and solve problems.

The emphasis for most workers to possess "basic skills," which characterized educational preparation during the twentieth century, is no longer viable. Instead capacities once demanded of only the top 20 percent of America's society will soon be required of the masses: to think critically and creatively, to solve problems, to exercise judgment, and to learn new skills and knowledge throughout a lifetime.

What Are We Learning About Assessment? This outcomes-based paradigm shift is also shaping how we view assessment. For decades we assumed that assessment was an end in itself. Now we assume that assessment is a vehicle for learning improvement. An outcomes-based view of assessment begins with a vision of the kinds of learning we most value. These values or outcomes drive not only what we choose to assess but also how we do so.

What adult learners bring to the table is not that important. What has become crucial to business is what adult learners can be taught to do with new learning. Therefore, outcomes-based assessment requires a more diverse array of methods that measure actual learner performance over time to reveal change, growth, and increasing degrees of knowledge integration. In other words, our earlier assumptions about assessment as "one-shot" are giving way to an understanding that learning improvement is best facilitated when assessment entails a linked series of activities undertaken over time.

Outcomes-based assessment implies that we design and organize everything we do in training and education around the intended learning demonstration we want to see at the end. We base things on the outcomes so that the outcome will eventually occur for everyone. What might an outcomes-based assessment mean for a management development training program?

We start with the program by identifying what is valued. This test would only measure what discrete facts a person recalled from the training course. Instead participants might be asked to work at an authentic task that will reveal their depth of understanding through applying the management course's new information.
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