Many things have changed in the training business in the past couple of years. First, the focus has changed to customized, almost personalized training that covers just the tasks you need to perform in the next few weeks. The attempt in the past has been to substitute a book or online training for classroom training under the premise that the student could customize his or her schedule and curriculum; but so far, online training has largely failed because it doesn't offer the structure and human interaction of classroom training. The problem arises because it's impossible to write a course that adapts to an individual student's starting level of understanding and learning style. That kind of adaptation requires a human instructor.

The second change is that companies are loath to send employees off site for training. Because of layoffs, workers now spend more time at work performing their duties and the duties of their former colleagues. Two years ago, IT departments sent their employees to training a few at a time so that some staff remained on site to handle any problems that arose. Now, sending even one person to a week-long class can be a burden for an already strained staff. This situation has led to a rise in self-study and night-class attendance and a decrease in daytime class enrollment.

The third change is that companies are asking training providers to restructure training to focus on tasks instead of concepts. The premise is that instructors should teach employees how to complete specific tasks and employees can learn anything else on their own time. This task-based training is known as "bit learning" or "just-in-time (JIT) learning," and it's completely different from traditional instructor-led training.

The fourth change is a decline in the quality of instructor-led training. In most cases, the cost of a class is small relative to the costs of losing an employee for a week. Classroom training, therefore, must offer enough value to compensate the company for its total cost. In the past couple of years, many training centers haven't provided that value.

The only thing that hasn't changed in the past 2 years is that both companies and their employees understand the benefits of training. One solution is for online training to evolve from a variation on self-study to something that more closely resembles classroom training. Time has become the most significant factor in deciding when and how to train employees, and online training is the only option that provides the kind of flexibility students need. Online training is also the only option that can accommodate the ever-increasing number of people who need training.

But of course, online training has its problems. The technology that would provide more classroom-like instructor-student interaction is still not available to a large segment of the US population. Although we have various forms of chat clients and Voice over IP (VoIP) programs, few options let an instructor troubleshoot problems on a student's computer. For some classes, having an expert who can quickly solve problems that arise in the labs is a big part of the value of classroom training. Also, today's technology offers only limited opportunities for students to share their experiences with one another. The best classes I've taught succeeded because the students learned as much from one another as they did from me. My last group of MCSE students even got together for dinner before class once a week (it was a night class that ran for 6 months) and helped one another study for the exams. That kind of interaction just isn't possible with online training.

Technological progress isn't the only way to improve online training. The way online classes are taught needs to change as well. In my next column, I'll discuss some programs that teach people how to be better online trainers. From the simple certificate to the accredited Masters of Education in online training and curriculum design, these programs prove that the market believes online training is a viable option and that it wants credible trainers. In 2 weeks, we'll look at what some of these programs consider to be necessary skills for online teachers.