On my own time? What Time?

A friend recently lamented to me that she hadn’t had an opportunity yet to take the latest online course offered by her organization. As she put it, “They say it is being ‘offered’, but that doesn’t mean there is any choice-we have to take it. The problem is, when?”

In this age of electronic everything, this problem is becoming more and more prevalent. Online learning is often recommended because the courses are available to employees at their desks, working alone and at their own pace, whenever they decide to do so. My friend stated the following drawbacks:

“Difficulty finding time. Like most people, I am very busy in my job. However, if I know, for example, that a traditional classroom seminar or workshop is to take place next Wednesday from 1 – 4 p.m., I book the time and I go. Fitting it into my work schedule at my “convenience” is more of a challenge. Let’s face it-it’s never convenient.

“Difficulty focusing. When I am at my desk, it feels foreign to be working on an online course instead of my work. Also, when I am at my desk, other people naturally assume I am doing my job, and they interrupt me with questions and impromptu meetings as usual.

“Lack of human interaction. The dynamic in a classroom situation is very different from sitting alone at a computer. The opportunity to ask questions of the instructor and to exchange questions and thoughts with other participants is an important part of a seminar.”

Although all three points are legitimate, as a communication specialist I am particularly concerned with the third. It seems to me to crystalize an insidious change in society at large, and in business life in particular: loss of inter-personal communication.

I am mesmerized when I watch children and young adults work their way through complex computer programs and surf the Net as though it were the most natural thing in the world-of course for them, it is. They are acquiring naturally a set of technical skills that their elders had to learn with much more difficulty, and this is the benefit. However, in all that time spent interacting solely with a computer, what is sacrificed is the development of the social skills that are so critical in the working world.

Great emphasis is placed today on teamwork, yet much of the training we expect people to carry out is solitary. Could the training methodology actually be working against other teambuilding efforts?

Obviously, e-learning is here to stay, and far be it from me to speak against progress. I do, however, believe the need for human interaction is built into our very being, and we ignore it at our peril.

The challenge lies in taking advantage of e-learning, while at the same time making up for the social element it takes away. Here are three steps to consider.

1. Have a team meeting before the course begins, including an introduction to the features of the course and discussion of how it will benefit the team. The team sets a specific time for all members to work on the course at once, even if lessons are restricted to an hour or two at a time. A brief discussion could be held by telephone conference after each lesson, offering an opportunity for airing of any problems or misunderstandings, and the type of group input that often occurs naturally in a classroom setting.

2. Where practical, people should use computers away from their own desks. Training room facilities are the best, but if these are not available, why not have people swap computer stations while they work on the course? This reduces interruptions, and also takes learners away from the setting where they are normally focused on their day-to-day work. Both of these factors are conducive to learning.

3. On completion of a particular course, team or departmental meetings can be held to discuss how the new learning can be put into action. When courses are mandatory, people too often feel they are simply working towards a certificate, and they need to have an opportunity to see the practical benefits of what they learn.

My own workshops often elicit such comments as “It was fun!” That is the result of the classroom dynamic and my own strong belief that adults learn most effectively when they are enjoying the process. Yes, I work to make my workshops fun, because that means they will be more effective. Designers of e-learning programs could increase the value of their products by remembering that learners are not e-beings, but human beings.