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Web-Based Instruction: Training Gone Virtual

Federal agencies have an ongoing need to ensure that their workforces have the knowledge and skills necessary for mission accomplishment.  This begins with hiring talented individuals and matching them with the right jobs.  However, it also includes developing employees for success in their current positions.  Further, mission success requires cultivating employees’ capabilities to adapt to changing job demands and to prepare for future positions, all in the spirit of supporting individual, work unit, and agency performance.  An agency-wide commitment to continuous learning, training, and development can support these goals and does not necessarily require travel expenses.  Web-based instruction (WBI), an increasingly popular method for training and development is worth agency consideration.  The following information may assist agencies in determining if and when WBI is currently appropriate for their use and can supplement their suite of training and development activities.1

What is WBI?
WBI is a hypermedia-based instructional program that delivers training through a web browser over any network and allows instant updating, distribution, and information sharing.2  Basically, WBI provides a way to train individuals via the web.  

What are the advantages of WBI?
First, it is a way to provide uniform training content to large groups of geographically-dispersed employees.  Second, WBI training content can be accessed at any time and from almost any location which allows learners to receive training when it is most convenient for them.3  Such convenience also includes times when an individual’s workload is “light” and when the individual can feel comfortable focusing on the training.  Such times can be difficult to predict in advance.  Third, the “on-demand” availability of many WBI courses enables learners to access training content when it would be most useful for them (e.g., right before or during a project that requires proficiency in the training material).  Fourth, some WBI courses are designed to provide learners with control over various aspects of their training experience; such control can allow for customization of the training and individualized feedback to the learner on his progress.  Learner control features include:

  • Pace—the speed of progression through the training material;

  • Sequence—option to skip topics or complete them in a non-sequential manner;

  • Content—flexibility to choose topics or assessment; and

  • Advice—feedback that informs learners how well they understand the training material or suggests a course of action to increase understanding (e.g., complete additional practice items, review other examples).4

What are the disadvantages of WBI?
First, not all topics are suitable for training using WBI.  Some topics are inherently too technical or interactive for WBI and would be better presented using more in-person and hands-on training methods.  Second, and similarly, WBI may not afford the same “in-person interactive experience” for asking questions, receiving answers, or discussing material.  Third, a lack of a physical meeting place for the training may reduce learners’ opportunities to meet and network with other individuals.  Fourth, since most WBI occurs at learners’ workstations, it does not afford learners the opportunity to “get away from work.”  As such, regular workplace interruptions (e.g., telephone calls, priority emails, unscheduled co-worker visits) are not uncommon and may make it difficult for learners to focus exclusively on the training content.  These interruptions distract learners from the training content and prolong training completion time.  Fifth, removal of the requirement to schedule and physically attend a training course may make it easier for individuals to procrastinate or forget about completing such training.  Sixth, technical difficulties with accessing, navigating, or completing the training material can occur.  This can not only disrupt the flow of the training and acquisition of knowledge or skills, but can be immensely frustrating for learners.  When technical interruptions occur, research has shown that learning is reduced.5  Perhaps due to such interruptions or the other aforementioned potential disadvantages of WBI, attrition rates for technology-delivered training are higher than classroom training unless there is compelling reason for completing the course.6

How effective is WBI as a training method?
Research shows that WBI and instructor-led classroom training are equally effective for teaching declarative knowledge (e.g., facts, principles, and relationships among knowledge elements), as long as the same instructional methods are used.  For example, a video lecture in WBI would be equivalent to a lecture in the classroom.7  For long courses, when web-based learners practice the training content and receive feedback during training, they outperform classroom-based learners in acquiring declarative knowledge.8  Overall, WBI appears to be most useful for less complex materials and more research is needed to assess its effectiveness for teaching soft skills and psychomotor skills.9

What are the costs of WBI?
WBI has the potential to bring significant savings to agencies in training costs.  Given that WBI is web-based, it can be used to provide training in a manner that does not require the host to pay for a training space nor learners to incur travel-expenses.  However, any savings will depend on a number of factors.  Although travel costs are generally eliminated when using WBI, agencies must fund any modifications to their technical infrastructure and technical support staff in order to successfully implement and maintain WBI.  Additionally, there are costs associated with developing WBI courses that can vary widely.  If an agency is able to use or adapt WBI that has been developed by others (e.g., other Federal agencies, HR University), there may be no or minimal costs.  However, developing a course from scratch can require a substantial investment of time and money.  Factors such as the number and types of media (e.g., text, audio, visual), extent of interactive exercises, and the complexity of course content and programming will influence how much the training will cost and the time required to develop it.  Once an actual dollar amount is determined, agencies can consider their specific circumstances (e.g., number of learners to be trained, number of times the training is to be delivered) to determine if WBI is cost effective for them.

WBI is an attractive option for administering training.  However, the extent to which an agency can effectively use WBI will require careful consideration of the advantages, disadvantages, and costs of using WBI in a given situation.  We have discussed several of such considerations above, but emphasize the balancing of:

  • Who needs to be trained (e.g., individuals, teams, occupations, total workforce);

  • What needs to be trained (e.g., knowledge, skills, complexity of material, amount of desired learner interaction or participation);

  • Where trainees are located (e.g., centrally located, geographically dispersed); and the

  • Available resources (e.g., appropriateness of technical infrastructure; time, money, and expertise for designing WBI; appropriateness of existing WBI). 

These factors need to be balanced by agencies to help determine if WBI is the most effective and efficient training method for their situation.

1 As technology advances (e.g., increased use of complex simulations, avatars), the answers to these questions will need to be re-examined.

2 Sitzmann, T., Kraiger, K., Steward, D, & Wisher, R. (2006).  The comparative effectiveness of web-based and classroom instruction: A meta-analysis.  Personnel Psychology, 59. 623-664..  Business Dictionary accessed at: http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/web-based-instruction-WBI.html.

3 The most commonly used type of WBI is asynchronous which is “pre-recorded” and does not require that all learners be in front of their computers at the same time.  Welsh, E.T., Wanberg, C.R., Brown, K. G. & Simmering, M.J. (2003).  E-learning: Emerging uses, empirical results and future directions.  International Journal of Training and Development, 7(4), pp. 245-258.

4 Kraiger, K. & Jerden, E. (2007).  A meta-analytic investigation of learner control: Old findings and new directions.  In S.M. Fiore & E. Salas (Eds.).  Toward a science of distributed learning (pp. 65-90). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association Books.

5 Sitzmann, T., Kraiger, K., Steward, D, & Wisher, R. (2006).  The comparative effectiveness of web-based and classroom instruction: A meta-analysis.  Personnel Psychology, 59. 623-664. Sitzmann, T., & Ely, K. Bell, B.S., & Bauer, K.N. (2010).  The effects of technical difficulties on learning and attrition during online training.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 16(3), pp. 281-292.

6 Welsh, E.T., Wanberg, C.R., Brown, K. G. & Simmering, M.J. (2003).  E-learning: Emerging uses, empirical results and future directions.  International Journal of Training and Development, 7(4), pp. 245-258.

7 Sitzmann, T., Kraiger, K., Steward, D, & Wisher, R. (2006).  The comparative effectiveness of web-based and classroom instruction: A meta-analysis.  Personnel Psychology, 59, pp. 623-664.

8 Id.

9 Welsh, E.T., Wanberg, C.R., Brown, K. G. & Simmering, M.J. (2003).  E-learning: Emerging uses, empirical results and future directions.  International Journal of Training and Development, 7(4), pp. 245-258.