Business still learning the benefits of online education

November 02, 2000

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The business world has embraced e-commerce as a valuable tool for selling, but it has been slow to develop e-learning as a tool for training, despite some obvious benefits, a University of Illinois professor says.

Many major companies are just starting to use online and technology-based education to train employees, and much of what is being used is relatively basic, said Tim Wentling, a professor of human resource education. "Everybody wants to do it, and I think ultimately everybody will, but it's staggered in terms of where people are in the process."

Wentling was the lead researcher on a recent study of e-learning in business, which included in-depth assessment of training efforts at seven Fortune 100 companies. Three of those companies provided the study's funding, and it was done in cooperation with the UI-based National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

What Wentling and his research team found was that these companies, in general, were devoting only a small portion of their training budgets to e-learning efforts. In addition, he said, their use of multimedia was very limited, as was their use of communication other than e-mail.

Whereas Wentling and other education researchers tout teacher-student and student-student communication as a key advantage of online education, almost everything he found in the private sector was "do-it-yourself kind of stuff," and that was a surprise, he said. "It's interaction with a machine, rather than with people, and we're finding interaction with people is very critical in most learning." That kind of interaction, or sharing of ideas and information, may also be critical for businesses as they tackle the needs of training, problem-solving and "knowledge management" in fast-changing and far-flung enterprises, Wentling said. Designing a system for doing that is the aim of his next project, already under way with $250,000 in NCSA funding.

"We're thinking of knowledge management as having both a digital repository component, but also a human component," Wentling said. In other words, it wouldn't just collect and file away valuable know-how, but would identify people who possess it and make it easy to network.

Wentling also wants the knowledge-management system to have an e-learning interface. If e-learning can be used to promote access to a well-designed knowledge-management system, he said, "then we're going to approach something that's called just-in-time training." Ideally, employees would get the training they needed, when and where they needed it.

Education and training is often low on a company's list of priorities, Wentling noted, but he thinks global competition and the tight U.S. labor market will force that to change. "The human resource is the most important resource they have ... it's a strategic resource that they've got to leverage."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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