Three general categories of training are available for acquiring new computer skills: instructor-led training (ILT), online training (OLT), and computer-based training (CBT). Some offerings blend ILT and OLT, or even ILT, OLT, and CBT, but most training options fall into these three categories. ILT, based on the traditional classroom model used in schools, is the most flexible because it has a human factor that books and simulations simply can't duplicate. Teaching in the classroom gives instructors a chance to adapt what they want to say to the way their students learn best. Books and computer simulations can teach a topic only one particular way.

Because we don't have any other method for teaching skills that adapts the way ILT can, all other technical training is in some way inferior to ILT. Unfortunately, we can't use ILT to teach all students. The problem lies in four facts about ILT:

  • Good instructors are always in short supply.
  • Classrooms have a fixed capacity, significant overhead, and limited times for use.
  • ILT is always going to be the most expensive way to receive training because instructors are far more expensive than books and computers.
  • Students must come to class when the instructor is there, regardless whether it's a convenient time to learn.

In the cost/benefit analysis, if businesses can determine that OLT and CBT teach a significant percentage of the skills they need workers to learn, then as long as OLT or CBT costs less than ILT, businesses will want workers to use OLT and/or CBT. ILT becomes a reasonable alternative only when the student can't learn using OLT/CBT, the OLT/CBT training isn't as effective as ILT, or the cost of ILT becomes lower relative to OLT/CBT.

In the marketplace, OLT providers focus on cost alone. They use a higher student/instructor ratio to spread their biggest cost—the instructor—across a larger number of students. The absence of a fixed-size classroom eliminates both the limit on the number of students and the cost of the classroom itself. In addition, OLT providers don't have the lost-opportunity cost of a less-than-full classroom or the cost of maintaining a facility. All in all, the lower costs translate into lower fees for students; therefore, OLT has some inherent price advantages over ILT. Although ILT providers recognize that disadvantage and are trying to cut costs to compete, I think OLT will always win the "student-fee limbo" contest. ILT providers, therefore, must do a better job convincing businesses to look at ILT's advantages, namely a live human being accessible in real time. When times are great economically, it isn't hard to convince a company that ILT is worth the extra cost. When times are lean, it's a lost cause.

Given the dissatisfaction readers expressed in the Windows 2000 Magazine poll I mentioned in my column a couple of weeks ago, OLT obviously needs to improve. Lower cost will always be a selling point, but training that doesn't teach the skills you need is no bargain at any price. The key is that both students and their employers need to determine which kind of training yields the best results and not just how much a class costs, because the most important human factor in training is the students.