In my July 19 commentary "Changes," I talked about the ways that training has changed during the past few years and how e-training (i.e., online training) is becoming an alternative to c-training (i.e., instructor-led classroom training). What hasn't changed in 10 or 20 years, however, is the way that adults learn. Moving students out of the classroom doesn't change how they learn, and just because a particular form of training is less expensive or more flexible doesn't mean that it's better or preferable. Training has value when it effectively teaches the desired skills or knowledge. For online training to be effective, instructors and training providers must adapt c-training techniques to e-training.

Because e-training is still relatively new, little definitive research exists about what makes a course or an instructor effective. To date, e-training has taken so many forms that you might think training providers have tried every conceivable form of disseminating information to students in hopes of eventually finding the right format. Evaluating e-training options is simple, though, if you consider the basic facts of adult learning.

First, research shows that adults can focus fully on something for only 15 to 25 minutes. You're no longer a carefree student; your adult life is complicated. If you become disengaged, you start to multitask. When you multitask, your assimilation of information decreases rapidly. Taking an online class only increases the potential for becoming distracted because you're in control of when you sit in on the class. The very flexibility that's supposed to be the hallmark of e-training can be the biggest contributor to its failure.

With that in mind, look for e-training classes with well-written courseware that focuses on a topic that you find interesting. The instructor, if there is one, should do more than simply answer questions through email. However, expect to share the responsibility for seeking out his or her help. In the classroom, the instructor can read your facial expressions and body language, ask questions, and facilitate group discussions. All those techniques are impossible to replicate online (unless you have a two-way video feed, which is rare). You should, therefore, look for an instructor who makes the effort to engage you in the learning process.

Second, adults need to relate what they learn to what they already know. The retention rate for learning something completely outside the realm of prior experience is far lower than the rate for learning something that builds on well-understood concepts or frequently used skills. The amount of information an adult can assimilate at one time is limited, as well; therefore, entry-level classes must be less complex than advanced classes, and advanced classes must be shorter in duration.

In other words, don't expect to become a Microsoft Exchange Server expert after one 20-hour class if you have no experience with email server administration. The topic is too complex to learn in a month, much less 20 hours. The most you should expect of your first time through a class is a basic understanding of how the software works and perhaps information about where to look for answers to questions. Look for classes that offer long-term access to lectures, chat transcripts, newsgroups, and hands-on lab materials so that you can review sections as your understanding improves.

Third, adults learn what they discover, not what they're told. Lab exercises that reinforce the lectures or readings offer the most value. If those exercises are simply "click here, click there" kinds of tasks, they have little value. Simulations are of limited value, too, because they support only a subset of the possible ways that you can accomplish a task, and most simulations have only one correct solution.

If you don't have the freedom to make mistakes, you'll have a limited opportunity for discovery. In my experience, my students always learn more after they make mistakes in a lab. As Ms. Frizzle on "The Magic School Bus" says, "Get messy, take chances, make mistakes." Look for a training provider that offers a lab environment that's as close to the real world as you can get and the means for the instructor to help you if you can't fix your mistake yourself. Trial and error is a great learning technique, and you should only take classes that encourage you to use that technique.

These three facts cover only a small portion of the art of teaching adults, but they encompass what I think are the most important considerations when evaluating e-training. If you think about the good classroom instructors you've had, you'll recognize that they understood these principles. The challenge of making e-training as effective as c-training is in finding ways to adapt tools such as chats, streaming video, and teleconferencing to replace their classroom equivalents of verbal and nonverbal communication.