Project Management Institute

Virtual classrooms



Although flexible and cost-effective, Web-based training must fit the need. The best approaches blend live and self-paced content.


Look at your latest work breakdown structure, and you’ll see how hard it can be to make time for training. Online learning allows you to train conveniently at your computer, when your needs arise and schedule permits.

“The main reason for project managers to use e-learning is not the variety of locations but the variety of tasks and subjects they are dealing with,” says Patrick Chevalier, director of research and development for the European Institute for E-Learning (EIFEL) in Paris, France.“E-learning can personalize their training content and resources.”

Lessons Learned

  • Pros and cons of project e-learning
  • Best formats for various online courses
  • How to make the most of virtual training.

The best e-learning formats use collaborative tools and have mentors to guide the learners.


Ups and Downs

Web-based training eliminates travel and lodging costs and reduces time off the job. Through virtual classrooms, trainees can connect with a global network of colleagues and share experiences with a much wider cross-section of their professional peer group, making the learning experience more robust. “E-learning is a new concept but the good old principles of training are still relevant,” Chevalier says. “Effective e-learning is based on the learners’ needs and constraints and not just a stereotypical distribution of self-paced modules.”

But e-learning is not for everyone and not all Web-based training is valuable. Online training only works if the content is rich and interactive and the delivery method is appropriate for the topic, says Cliff Purington, learning director at Rockwell Collins, an aerospace company based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, USA.

For example, self-paced training usually consists of wholly contained online learning modules through which students read content, participate in interactive lessons, and complete quizzes and assessments. It’s a good format for teaching software skills or delivering strictly informational content, such as project management terminology, the basics of scheduling or how to scope a project, says Nancy Mingus, a project management trainer and consultant based in Williamsville, N.Y., USA. A large group of project managers quickly can become conversant on new product or process information without coaching or peer group interactions.

Because students can access—and leave—the courses at any time, self-paced learning is extremely flexible, but somewhat isolating. Courses that cover communication or interpersonal skills are difficult to learn in a self-paced learning environment, and project managers must practice their skills in a live environment to reinforce concepts. “Projects are constantly changing, and it’s hard to build that dynamic into a traditional self-paced learning environment,” Purington says. Some companies build Web-based project management simulations to accommodate the need for interactivity, but the technology is costly and the process is still under development, he adds.

What’s more, complex topics, such as leadership or team management, require a classroom atmosphere in which teachers and peers guide and support students. Novice project managers complain about lack of communication in status meetings and on schedules and scope. “Through the classroom they commiserate and set goals for themselves so they won’t make the same mistakes when they lead projects,” Mingus says. “The body of knowledge that is shared by a group of project managers together in a classroom is an important part of the learning experience.”

“The most successful project managers are leaders who have compassion and strong interpersonal skills,” says Theodore Rosen, an industrial psychologist and a professor of management science at George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA. “You can’t learn that in isolation.”

However, you can build soft skills online, if you incorporate the right blend of self-paced and group interactions, says Raghavendran Sethumadhavan, an e-learning project manager at Satyam Learning Center, Satyam Computer Services Ltd., Hyderabad, India. Any Web-based course should offer students access to an expert who can answer questions about the content and technology. “The best e-learning formats use collaborative tools and have mentors to guide the learners,” he says.

Blended Solutions

A variety of online formats can accomplish that collaboration and guidance. Often called blended solutions, these e-learning courses combine self-paced content with classroom components (asynchronous, live, face-to-face or virtual) to effectively build camaraderie and encourage peer bonding without forcing project managers to take time off the job, says Janna Jacobson, a project manager for the e-learning development team at IBM, Bellingham, Wash., USA. Whenever possible, she and her team create courses that offer a self-paced lesson to bring students up to speed on basic content, then they add a virtual classroom activity, during which students focus on role-playing and group activities or speak with company leaders. “The self-paced modules level the playing field of knowledge for the group, then the live piece is like a virtual check-in,” she says. “It gives project managers a schedule to stick to, and they know they have to be ready to participate.”


E-learning is a new concept but the good old principles of training are still relevant. Effective e-learning is based on the learners’ needs and constraints and not just a stereotypical distribution of self-paced modules.


To further support project managers online, IBM has a virtual community of practice, a monthly online forum in which managers chat about projects, share their experiences and ask questions. The meetings often include peer presentations on current efforts at IBM, and follow-up discussion is facilitated through e-mail lists. “It’s unique because there isn’t any other place in the company where project managers all can communicate,” Jacobson says.

At George Washington University, Rosen’s project management courses are asynchronous, meaning they are not live, and participants complete assignments on their own time, while communicating through written messages. However, these types of courses offer plenty of opportunities for collaboration and expert guidance. The format gives them the flexibility to train outside the classroom, while still allowing them to interact with instructors and classmates, Rosen says. He leads students through course materials using CD-ROM-based lectures, message boards, e-mail, one-on-one communications and an optional weekly online chat-room session.

Students also benefit from communicating with colleagues across industries and countries. “They get exposure to peers with whom they can compare notes, share experiences and ask questions,” Rosen says. “It’s like a project management support group. My students build networks in class that they take with them into their careers.”


E-learning can waste time and money if you don’t take the training seriously, says Raghavendran Sethumadhavan, an e-learning project manager at Satyam Learning Center. “The entire e-learning concept revolves around disciplined and self-motivated learners.”

No one will be there to ensure you complete your assignments, keep up with the required readings or offer feedback, says Theodore Rosen, a project management professor at George Washington University. For example, at the beginning of his courses, Rosen sends out 15 hours of class lectures on CDs that his students are expected to watch each week. “Some may procrastinate and watch all 15 hours in one sitting at the end of the session,” he says.

To maximize your e-learning experience:

Find out how many hours a course will take to complete and don’t overburden yourself. Rosen encourages project management students to take no more than two classes per session to avoid getting overwhelmed with work. With a first e-learning class or the first course in a while, start slowly to get used to the experience.

Choose courses that address multiple learning styles. Look for content that offers lots of visuals to support the text, hands-on or peer group activities, and frequent quizzes and exams with feedback, Sethumadhavan says. The more interactive the course, the more secure the transfer of knowledge will be.

Approach a course as you would approach a project. “Treat your classes as required work activities with deadlines to maintain an established pace,” Rosen says. Students should create a project plan for each semester that incorporates work plans. Using a course syllabus, note important due dates and block out hours each week that can be dedicated to school work.

Notify your instructor about work conflicts ahead of time and establish an alternative plan. “You can’t put this stuff off for a couple of weeks and expect to pick it back up,” Rosen says. Busy weeks quickly bleed into each other, and if you don’t prioritize your education, you’ll never finish it. “Once you fall behind, you are doomed.”

Take advantage of instructors and mentors. Ask questions, share experiences and seek out feedback, Sethumadhavan advises. Most mentors in asynchronous environments won’t reach out to students unless asked, so be proactive.

Make the most of the networking opportunities. Class time, even if it’s online, is a time to build relationships and to benefit from your colleagues’ experiences, Rosen says. A distance-learning course is a unique opportunity for project managers to communicate with their peers about their problems and concerns on the job.


If we had relied on a university-based project management program, it would have meant eight to 10 weeks of classroom instruction, and it would have cost up to $20,000 plus travel costs.


Budget Benefits

These cost-effective blended approaches don’t sacrifice quality, says Daniel R. Tobin, founder of Corporate Learning Strategies, a corporate learning consultancy in Boston, Mass., USA. He recently developed a full project management curriculum for 1,500 global information technology (IT) employees that delivered project management basics while helping 100 employees become Project Management Professional (PMP®)-certified in a reasonable amount of time.

The cost-effective solution required customization to introduce managers to the standard forms and methods that a European subsidiary developed, Tobin says. A blended distance-learning approach included self-paced e-learning, an instructor-led course and two eight-week distance-learning courses. The two distance-learning courses used a combination of textbooks, weekly assignments and online discussions and exams but required only 10 to 14 hours per week.

It was a complex yet flexible program, and it paid off, says Tobin. The full curriculum required little time off the job and cost less than $4,000 per person, he says. The certification courses alone cost less than $1,000 per person. “If we had relied on a university-based project management program, it would have meant eight to 10 weeks of classroom instruction, and it would have cost up to $20,000 plus travel costs.”

But the real proof, he says, is in the success of the training. “Dozens of people took the certification courses, and every one of them passed the PMP exam on the first try.” PM

Sarah Fister Gale is a Minneapolis, Minn., USA-based freelance journalist. She’s written regularly for Training, Online Learning, CRM and has a monthly column in Workforce.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.




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