Online Learning

Web-Based Training: Three Paradigms

Before the birth of the web, taking a class meant being at a certain place at a certain time with a group of other students while the teacher held forth on the topic of the day. Correspondence courses have a long and colorful history, but the most popular mode of delivery for teaching/training has been, up until recently, face-to-face. Educators use the term “synchronous” to describe education that has to happen at a certain time, and “asynchronous” to describe its opposite. Most of your classroom memories–at least the ones having to do with instruction–are memories of face-to-face, synchronous instruction.

Web-based training comes in synchronous, asynchronous, and combined forms. The three basic modes I’ve experienced are these:

  • The Webinar
    A synchronous, instructor-led session which attempts to capture the flavor and functionality of face-to-face instruction. The instructor presents through live demonstration, creating a screencast on the fly. Students generally interact with each other and the instructor through some sort of embedded chat application, though conducting Q & A via telephone or VoIP is also popular.
  • The Screencast
    Students are given access to a screencast, previously created (a.k.a. “canned”), which they work through at their own pace. Follow-up with the instructor/designer is generally made available via phone, email, IM, Twitter, etc.
  • The Thing That Should Not Be
    Students meet online at a specific time to view a canned screencast, with live followup after the show via chat, VoIP, or whatever.

The first two of these have their strengths and weaknesses. The third is simply an abomination.

The chief advantage of webinars is that, being instructor-led, they offer at least the possibility of immediate feedback. The chief drawbacks are logistical (you have to be in front of your computer, ready to go, at a certain time) and technical (your connection can always crap out on you).

The chief advantage of screencasts is the lack of logistical drawbacks. You’re booked solid this week? Fine, watch it next week. Work doesn’t allow you long blocks of time? No worries. Pause it and finish it when you can. Slow learner? Watch the tricky bits over and over until you understand them. The chief drawback is the lack of immediate feedback.

Webinars are quite a bit like traditional classrooms, where the instructor leads and you follow. Screencasts are much more like books: you work through at your own pace. Unlike books, though, you generally have the author’s contact information.

The last of these, The Thing That Should Not Be, combines the worst of both worlds. And I wasn’t even aware of its existence until recently. “The Thing” entails all of the logistical difficulties of webinars without the advantage of their immediate feedback and also without the level of control that screencasts provide. I can’t think of a compelling reason to conduct any training this way, and I hope it doesn’t become a trend.