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Off-The-Shelf Interactive Training: 
Are We Settling For Mediocrity?

by Terrell L. Perry, Ed. D.

 
   
 
   

It becomes apparent as one searches for generic off-the-shelf interactive multimedia training products that they all appear to have one thing in common.  They all apply learning techniques that are similar to those used in the classroom.  Not that all classroom techniques are all bad (or all good for that matter), it’s just that we can do so much more applying what we know about human learning and thinking through the extended capabilities of the computer.

Training and Learning

The track record for implementing what is now known about human learning and thinking is disappointing at best.  In several areas, we are not very high tech in our conceptual designs.  Implying that past research is somehow outdated, a colleague once quipped, “Much of our behavioral research on education and learning comes from the ‘60’s and ’70’s.”  My response to that is: if it was sound research to begin with, then it is still applicable.  The problem lies in how we are applying that knowledge, not in its validity or accuracy.

Motivation and Problem-Solving

Training by its very nature should be concise, to the point, and timely.  By timely I mean delivered on time when the learner needs it, dispensed in the right amount, and quickly.  So a classroom approach whereby the lecturer moves step-by-step, point-by-point through the material at the lecturer’s pace is a poor adaptation for the computer if lecture is the primary mode of information dissemination.

Learners should not be the receivers of one-way broadcasts.  One-way communication is sometimes appropriate; however, it should be just one of many differing modes used to convey the message.  Learners should be intrinsically motivated to learn through solving and overcoming problems and obstacles to performance.  Engaging the student to work through gaps in their knowledge and understanding is preferred to one-way broadcast of information where the learner remains, for the most part, in a passive state.

Modeling, Repetition, and Access

Repetition is one of the primary ways we learn throughout life.  I have seen students from all walks of life, given the proper interactive support systems, learn extremely difficult material.  If allowed to go through at their own pace, their own time, and as often as they prefer, learners from a variety of skill levels can and will overcome their knowledge and skill deficiencies.

Trends of Our Times

Several disturbing trends are unfolding as interactive training becomes commercialized.  First, many companies seem to be purchasing products based on trends or to “keep up with the Joneses.”  Wise purchases should be based on solid evidence of the product’s value.  Some of this is the fault of the vendors because the data has not been collected.  But are the proper questions being asked about the products?  For instance: Are they easy to install?  Do they run on a network?  Do they use motion video?  Are they narrated?  These are important questions, but first and foremost we must answer more pressing ones.  Do the products train?  Do they immerse and engage the learner in the content to the point that all sense of time is lost?  Is there a performance gain and is the original problem for conducting the training being solved?

Second, there is a lack of scrutiny of the products that currently exist.  Most companies do their own internal evaluations of products for purchase, and attempt to learn what they can before they make a purchase.  Many such evaluations that I have seen are very thorough.  But are they going beyond face value concerns?  Are they taking into account primary design issues that separate the superior from the mediocre?  Do the products use sophisticated methods and techniques to enhance the learning process above and beyond traditional classroom approaches?  Do they use the best of what we know from instructor-led training and harness the capabilities of the computer?  Do they truly make learning easier and more interesting for the learner, allowing the learner to overcome deficiencies sufficiently and quickly?

Perhaps some of the organizations and publications dedicated to the field of training could publish professional evaluations of products and product lines.  Although professionals in the field often don’t evaluate identically, those who have studied the field and have been successful in developing courseware and multimedia could put together a list of criteria and publish a comprehensive set of evaluation guidelines.  These guidelines could provide the foundation from which prospective buyers could make their own evaluations, producers could scrutinize themselves and others in the field, and all readers would have rich perspectives to consider.

Third, many companies are deciding to go with courseware built around mediocre designs simply because there is a lot of product in a particular product line.  I am very aware of the cost and expertise required to develop high quality interactive courseware.  I am also aware of the time it takes to build broad-based product lines.  My biggest disappointment is that the corporate consumer is relegated to buying weaker designs in order to get the amount of training required.  My hope is that once the amount of product in the product line reaches a certain mass, more emphasis will be placed on improving the designs.  Then, it will be up to the consumer to demand courseware based on better designs, and which trains workers better and faster.

The Hope for the Future

Whether current trends are driven by what the market wants or simply by what’s available, purchasing mediocre courseware because there’s a lot of it seems self-defeating.  Purchasing a lot of product in a product line because it exists is selling the company and the student short. If you’re the training purchaser or administrator for your company, ask for – no, demand – well-designed, innovative, and truly effective courseware.  Don’t settle for large libraries of mediocrity.


     
   
     
   

The Author

 

Dr. Terrell Perry has taught CBT developer courses for industry and academia. He has developed more than 246 CBT/WBT courses, covering basic and master scuba diving and responsible hunting curricula, among others. He has also created several major projects for the United States Navy. 

Currently, Dr. Perry is a senior instructional systems designer with W R Systems, Ltd. in Norfolk, VA, and an adjunct professor at Boise State University, Department of Instructional & Performance Technology (graduate programs). He is a consultant for Coastal Training Technologies Corp. and numerous other organizations.

     
   
     
   
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Copyright 2000 by Terrell Perry. All rights reserved.

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