Have mouse will travel
learning up close and personal and at a distance
Maria C.Kelly, Manager of Training, PM Solutions, Inc.
Taking personal responsibility for continued project management professional development is a must for the Project Manager (PM) in today's job markets. Now more than ever, the PM must learn the newest methods and technologies of project management, while vigilantly refreshing the fundamentals. Such training can easily translate into a competitive advantage for a host corporation's project and also on an individual basis for the PM.
In project management, time is money. More and more organizations today are realizing that their future competitive success is directly tied to their ability to increase rapidly the management and business skills of their workforce. Thus, in this day and age, the question arises as to whether technology-assisted, distant teaching can be as effective as traditional face-to-face instruction. While the arguments pro and con, run the gamut, the numbers seem to be on the side of technology driven instruction. In fact, with the myriad of Internet project management courses now deliverable by highly diverse and technologically advanced means there really are no valid reasons for anyone among the PM population to avoid the rigors of continuing education.
While no longer can the presence of technology be ignored, content providers must now be cognizant of the characteristics of effective distant students and instructors. Project managers have demanding personal and professional lives that must be accommodated by instructors and content providers in order to maximize their learning experience.
If distance education is to be successful, providers must begin to recognize that teaching online is not the same as teaching in the classroom. Both instructors and their students need to understand this and be better prepared to handle the differences. Online project management courses can help narrow the gap between face to face and distance learning by providing high-caliber programs at a time and cost convenient to the learner. Providers of web-based education and performance indeed can support “soft skills” such as management, leadership, or communication and business subjects such as sales, strategy, finance, e-business skills, and many others.
Many instructors and students assume that traditional, face-to-face interaction in a classroom setting is the best method of learning and teaching. By extension, then, online education would be considered a distant second. Likewise, a number of social scientists have long believed face-to-face communication to be the ideal, it being characterized by continuous feedback, multiple channels, spontaneity, and egalitarian norms. Moreover, at this time, face-to-face education is what most people know best: it is habit and tradition. No doubt, this primacy on face to face is important because it provides the context and rules for our knowledge about how to communicate in educational situations and influences how those patterns of communication will change as other forms are introduced.
However, it is important to remember that Internet training is simply another form of communication to which great numbers of the population have grown accustomed. In fact, nearly half of North America, about 92 million users, is estimated to communicate over the Internet. Accessing the Internet is also relatively easy now, too: 72 million users access the Internet from home, 46 million from work, 26 million from school, and 32 million from other locations, including a friend's home or workplace, library, hotel, or cybercafe (Commerce Net and Nielsen Media Research, 1999) Suddenly, anyone who can drive a mouse can see, reach out and touch, and learn from the Internet.
Thus, only some 500 years after the introduction of the printed text, instructors and students are separated by time and distance, or, in the vernacular, asynchronously and aspatially Many dedicated faculty are rethinking traditional pedagogy, learning new technical and communication skills, and exploring new ways to reach students through technology.
Why traditional pedagogy works. For centuries, the traditional classroom lecture structure arguably was the most logical means of disseminating information. Information was scarce. Books were expensive luxuries. Traditional education proceeded with large groups of students gathered in one place where a single “learned man” expounded on a topic drawn from resources that very few people could access (Kettner-Polley, 1998). In fact, education has been conducted in this manner since sometime before the advent of movable type (Perley, 1999). Eventually, as books became more available, the logical role of the instructor transformed from disseminator of information to explicator of complex concepts (Kettner-Polley, 1998). Many instructors still believe that the disseminator role is still the best method of training students. True, sitting in a classroom with an instructor asking questions is a powerful inducement for prior preparation and has, to date, been suited for every kind of course and degree level. Every student has had years of experience with the interaction of face-to-face instruction. But, too true, because the system has itself persisted for so long, the student has also become comfortable to lose himself in a large group, gambling that an instructor will fail to test in-class preparation. This comfort level has arrived at the point where, should an instructor return to the ancient art of the Socratic method, challenging the class with questions that build on each other, students become resentful that they were not first given an explanation of the text. It would seem then, that traditional methods work precisely because minimal interaction with the instructor is required of the student.
Why distance learning works. E-learning is a critical component of corporate knowledge management systems today. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) of Framingham, Mass., the demand for e-learning solutions from corporations, academic institutions and government agencies is unprecedented. In 1998, the e-learning market was $550 million, which increased to $1.1 billion in 1991. By 2003, e-learning is estimated to surpass $11.1 billion (International Data Corporation, 1999).
Many PMs can benefit greatly from the astounding increase in online offerings. Essentially, a person chooses distance e-learning learning for either one course or an entire certificate or degree program because distance learning works for that person at that time. The underlying reasons for the choice are varied.
Lack of time is the reason cited repeatedly by PMs for not being able to follow through with their continuing professional development. Traveling to attend a face-to-face training course does take time. Time to get to the airport, time to wait there, time in the air, time around the luggage carousel and cab stand, time traveling to the hotel, time waiting to get a room, and finally, time recovering from jet lag. None of that wasted time is associated with the virtual classroom. Click a mouse a few times, and your seat is reserved. Other project managers simply prefer a particular method of distance learning because of the interactivity involved, or because of its self-paced nature.
Other PMs must work around a barrier of physical challenges, perhaps. Many difficulties inherent in these challenges are more easily overcome in a distance learning environment than having to navigate wheelchairs through an unfriendly environment. For the blind and deaf, the course material can arrive for easier consumption in the form of audio materials for easy playback, or written materials, which lessen the obstacles of interpreting lectures. Moreover, interaction with the instructor and other students is actually enhanced by means of web chat and e-mail.
Project managers whose jobs demand almost nonstop traveling, or travel on such short notice experience at least two concerns. First, is that confidence in the scheduling of even a two-day course is remote. Second, some travelers do not even know where their next location will be, or for how long. Learning in a traditional environment cannot not work at all for these types of student. However, with the technology of today, these project managers can still take courses while on the road, interact with other students, most of them also working executives, and obtain their instructional materials from a plane at 33,000 feet or almost anywhere they find themselves on the planet.
Budgetary constraints are another reason why distant learning works for the individual. A single parent, for example, may be able to better afford distance learning at night when the children are in bed than pay for childcare costs. The savings are even more apparent if that parent is not attending the class on the company's dollar.
Distance learning works well from the company standpoint, too. Many organizations have a vast audience of students and potential students. Some even have individual faculty or administrators who encourage distance learning because learning new technology is an enjoyable pursuit for them, or they recognize that it can further their careers, or that it may be politically popular, or that distance learning may in fact develop their own teaching skills.
Like individuals, companies worry about pocketbook issues, too. A company may be unwilling to pay for the transportation, lodging, and tuition of in-class training. Importantly for company watchdogs, with distance learning, the company need not absorb the costs associated with trips to New York City, Los Angeles, and Scottsdale or to such exotic locales as Cancun or Paris.
Neither may a company may be able to accommodate time off for a group of employees to attend in-class training as a group. Again, distance learning would allow a group to study together, but not have to all miss work at the same time.
Profiles of Students and Instructors
Instructing and learning at a distance is demanding. One of the controversial issues facing the educational community with the move to technology is the issue of whether the traditional, realtime, face-to-face learning culture can be replaced with a virtual learning culture which may be asynchronous and aspacial. A factor that most certainly can make a difference when it comes to the type of training provided is the generational age of the players. Generation Xers and the Net Generation learn and yes, teach, in very different ways from Baby Boomers. The Xers and the Net Gens like to learn at their own pace, need interactivity, and want to keep updating their skill sets. As for Boomers, they were raised according to a different pedagogical paradigm. Yet, contrary to popular belief, the Boomers, too, can be comfortable with hard-wired stuff when the training is done right and the instructors can adapt to what trainees are saying about themselves and then train them accordingly (www.astd.rg/CMS/templates/index.htmltemplate_id=25262). Distance learners were also distinguished from the face-to-face adherents in that they were more “isolated,” experienced lower levels of self-confidence, and displayed a higher desire for structure in their materials. Thus, it is necessary to develop teaching and learning approaches that would help these students master their perceived difficulties, rather than accept the difficulties as a limiting factor in a distance learning setting (Kahl & Cropley, 1986). Whether a manager is a visual or auditory learner, there is a method to complement learning styles. Coursework is now delivered by satellite, microwave, Internet, video, TV, audio, and print.
The Traditional vs. Distant Student
The primary role of the student, of course, is to learn. In the traditional classroom, the student is normally a passive consumer of whatever material is being presented. Some stars are active participants, to be sure. Still others try to monopolize class time with their own perceived brilliance.
More is expected of distant students, on the other hand (Schlosser & Anderson, 1994). To be a successful distance learner, the student should exhibit several personal traits:
• Expectations of continuing post-secondary education goals with expectations of higher grades
• High levels of self-motivation and discipline to stay task-oriented
• A maturity of years.
Distance learners must take greater responsibility for their education. They cannot sit passively listening to the instructor at the front of the class. In fact, they are as much a part of initiating interaction and class participation as the instructor. Online students, perhaps owing to a degree of anonymity, engage in very spirited discussions in response to instructor queries, and everyone is required to participate. According to a marketing study produced by Dr. Andy DiPaolo, at Stanford University, distance learners are looking for the following qualities:
• Real-time and time-delayed options
• Well-designed, engaging, and intellectually challenging courses
• Reliable delivery technology
• Greater emphasis on learner-centered vs. teacher-centered approaches
• A high level of interaction including problem-based simulations
• Modularized formats instead of courses demanding large chunks of time
• Participation in a learning community through interaction with instructors and fellow students (www.lifelonglearning.com/Peterson's).
Under the best of circumstances, distance learning requires motivation, planning, and the ability to analyze and apply the information being taught. In the distant education setting, the process of student learning is said to be more complex for several reasons:
• Many distance learners are older, have jobs and families, and thus must coordinate these aspects of their lives with their studies.
• Distant students pursue coursework for all sorts of reasons ranging from just taking a single course to pursuing advanced degrees.
• In distant education, the learner is usually isolated in physical location. Thus, some analysts conclude that motivational arising from the contact or competition with other students is absent. These analysts also believe that the student lacks the immediate support of a teacher who is present and capable of motivating the student during periods of difficulty.
• Distant students also take longer in building a close rapport with their instructor, leading to uncomfortable feelings with their teacher and learning situation, thus, inhibiting communication (Schuemer, 1993).
Whether or not such complexities do exist is debatable. Some would argue, as Dr. Joe Boland, Director of the Center for Distance Learning from Atlanta's Georgia Institute of Technology, that “there is more interaction between online teachers and students than between campus teachers and students” (www.lifelonglearning.com). What does exist, however, is a plethora of research demonstrating that as between classroom and e-learning courses, there is no significant difference in learning outcomes (McAlpin, 1998; see also www.cuda.teleeducation.nb.ca/nosignicantdifference/index.cfm).
The Traditional vs. Distant Instructor
Classroom teachers rely on a number of visual and unobtrusive cues from their students to enhance the delivery of instruction. A brief glance around the room can tell an instructor who is taking notes, pondering a difficult concept, preparing to make a comment, or dazing off into space. The tired, frustrated, confused or bored student is also evident. The attentive traditional teacher, consciously and subconsciously, receives and analyzes these visual cues and adjusts the course delivery to meet the needs of the class.
In contrast, the distant teacher has few, if any, visual cues. It is also difficult to carry on a stimulating teacher-class discussion when spontaneity is affected by technical requirements and distance. Yet, many teachers feel the opportunities offered by distance education outweigh the obstacles. In fact, instructors often comment that the focused preparation required by distance teaching improves their overall teaching and empathy for their students (Willis, 1993). Instructors also may feel that the challenges posed by distance education are countered by opportunities to reach a wider audience, involve outside speakers who would not be available otherwise, and link students from different social, cultural, ethnic and experiential backgrounds.
At a minimum the successful instructor should advance certain strategies and presentation planning:
• Begin the course planning process by studying distance education research findings.
• Analyze and understand the strengths and weaknesses of the possible delivery systems available (e.g., audio, video, data, and print) not only in terms of how they are delivered (e.g., satellite, microwave, fiber optic cable, etc.), but also in terms of learner needs and course requirements before selecting a mix of instructional technology.
• Make sure each site is properly equipped with accessible equipment. Provide a toll-free hotline for rectifying problems.
• Make students aware of and comfortable with new patterns of communication to be used in the course (Holmberg, 1985).
• Diversify and pace course activities and avoid long lectures, interspersing content presentations with discussions and studentcentered exercises.
• Integrate a variety of delivery systems for interaction and feedback, including one-on-one and conference calls, fax, e-mail, video, and computer conferencing. Take notes on students not participating, and contact them individually after class.
• And, finally … relax (Willis, 1993; www.uidaho.edu/evo/dist2). Fortunately for distance learners, institutions are finding multiple options and ways to advance communication. As institutions make use of the technology, more and more distance students will be able to fully participate in challenging discussions, work closely on team projects, and build quality relationships with professors. Moreover, increased competition in the distant learning marketplace will no doubt also reduce the costs that nontraditional students face. For such students, there is clear evidence that distance education can be as successful as classroom-based instruction, if not more so (Trinkle, 1999).
How to Choose: Face-to-Face or Online Training?
As discussed, the first step is to understand where one fits in the student profile. Next, make a real assessment of one's life and environment. Finally, preview the courseware for fitness to the task. Pure e-learning may be fine for I/T and other highly technical or hard business applications. However, as distance educators wrestle with how best to facilitate online communication, they also tend to agree that a combination of face-to-face and virtual contact is the optimum, particularly for degree or certification programs. Even some “soft-skills” courses, particularly in project management, may at first blush lend themselves to in-class instruction over the e-learning options (Berry, 1999). Surely, by combining today's technology with classroom training, instruction can be more efficient, targeted, and strategic. In teaching topics such as team building, technology can be used to help trainees acquire knowledge and practice skills before coming to the classroom, time can be spent applying the strategies and skills learned to the situations trainees deal with on a daily basis (www.dbm.com/hr/what/ new39). Yet, there remains successful courseware that harnesses the power of pure technology to produce effective results with sessions on how to put together a successful web development team and how soft skills can be taught with web-based training (www.astd.org).
An interesting catalyst for the pure web-based trainers to succeed in the soft skills area is the current interest in the exploration of global markets. In the world marketplace, soft skills applications will come to the fore mainly through an e-commerce context, utilizing the full catalog of communications technologies (www.cnn.com/TECH/computing/9902/12/duke.idg/index). People just will not be jet setting around the world for face-to-face meetings when electronic substitutes become available. Thus, trainers are becoming aware that their virtual classrooms will foster crucial communication and remote management skills that would be difficult to learn otherwise. In this context, it would be important for trainers and trainees alike to have interactions with people outside the United States. This necessarily will involve the use of multilingual software and services for worldwide training among individual and business-to-business e-learning of how to manage large-scale projects with a globally distributed team, comprised of people from different cultures and different countries. Thus, there are people skills that have to be manifested while working to identify issues, resolve conflicts, and operate as a team while separated by time and space. And the courseware must be ready.
Distance and e-learning originated as a phenomenon specific to the United States, and its growth is astounding. The Internet explosion has led to a dramatic rise in the number of business professionals looking to increase their knowledge of advanced technologies and communications and management skills through distance learning and online education. Analysts are already predicting that international growth will be equally staggering. This expansion will stem from both the ability to organize classes by job-role, not geography, and the opportunity to engage in productive learning sessions with other than I/T professionals. This interactive approach to business skills of all variety is going to be the paradigm for education beginning now and into the future while eliminating costly travel and lost opportunity costs.
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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA