A recent Windows 2000 Magazine Instant Poll asked the question "Have you ever taken an online training seminar?" The response was surprising in one way, but not surprising in another. Forty-seven percent of the 514 people who responded to the poll had taken a seminar online, but wouldn’t do it again. Forty-three percent answered that they had either taken a seminar online and planned to do so again, or that they would like to do so in the future. The magazine’s online polls aren’t true scientific polls, but if these findings come anywhere close to the truth, we have an impending problem in the online training business.

For employers, the benefits of online training are lower cost, convenience (i.e., students spend less time in class or training is not on company time), and targeted training. Employers faced with training more people on a more frequent basis see online training as the perfect way to improve workers’ skills, company productivity, and the bottom line all at the same time. Understandably, the training companies have responded to the demand for online training by building up the infrastructure to offer it.

Students are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Their employers ask the students to learn new skills quickly and often pressure the students to use online training because of the benefits to the employer. Unfortunately, if the poll is correct, almost half of the people who try online training will end up dissatisfied with the result. The reasons for this dissatisfaction will vary, but the end result will be that the future of skills training will not live up to its promise for a very large number of people.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that both employers and training providers are steadily moving toward providing most of their training online, even though students have reservations about online training. I’ve seen one study that predicts nearly half of all training will take place online by 2004. The same study also predicted that the overall training market will expand during the same time period, so not only will more people get their training online, but the total number of people seeking training will be growing as well. Even if those predictions are partially wrong, the trend still seems to be toward shifting training from traditional models to Web-based ones.

In the interest of objectivity, I should mention that the Instant Poll’s findings might be a result of the semantics in the question itself. Typically, the word "seminar" means a kind of class where someone talks and the student listens. For many topics, this model is an appropriate way to distribute information, especially if the expert can’t travel to each site and present the information in person. Whether a seminar qualifies as training, however, depends on your goals for and your definition of training. If you’re trying to understand Microsoft’s new .NET initiative, perhaps an online seminar is a good substitute for TechEd. However, if you’re trying to learn how to configure a Cisco router, I doubt that watching someone else do it would be as effective as doing it yourself. So, perhaps the poll’s findings were skewed by a misinterpretation of the question, and people read "seminar" but based their answers on their experience with online training.

Please email me with your views on online training or feel free to post your own reader feedback for this article using the "Post a comment" feature in the Article Information box. I’ll do my own unscientific interpretation of the responses and report back in the next Training Perspectives column in 2 weeks. Let me hear what you like and don’t like about online training. Perhaps one of you will have the solution that makes online training the panacea it’s supposed to be.