Torn Over Training?

Studies have shown training costs can be reduced from 25 percent to as much as 75 percent over classroom instruction.

MANY companies are feeling the pressure to employ technology-based training solutions instead of continuing their reliance on traditional classroom training. Some even have taken the plunge with pilot projects, producing both favorable and unfavorable results. But before you go wading into the pricey waters of technology-based training, take the time to look at why many professionals feel it will vastly improve and enhance your training efforts.

Instructional multimedia, the kind of training delivered over the computer, has some major differences from and some powerful benefits over classroom training. The two current front-runners, CD-ROM and Web-based training (WBT), have many similarities but some vastly different capabilities that may require trade-offs on your part.

Comparison of Multimedia to Classroom Training
When you begin to compare multimedia to classroom instruction, several differences emerge. I have broken these differences into three categories: Cost, Instruction, and Administration. Cost refers to the impact of training on the bottom line, or the cost of doing training. Instruction in this case refers to how the instruction is accomplished. Administration refers to tasks related to managing the instruction. The scheduling of training, making training accessible, tracking student progress and the posting of successes or deficiencies fall into this category. Table 1 is a comparison of multimedia and classroom training using these delineations.

One of the biggest reasons why companies adopt multimedia training is the cost savings it brings. Under the right conditions, multimedia can far surpass classroom instruction relative to the cost of doing training. Studies have shown training costs can be reduced from 25 percent to as much as 75 percent over classroom instruction (Multimedia Training Newsletter Study, 1996).

Two examples of cost savings attributed to the use of multimedia attest to this. The first is a report by the U.S. Coast Guard, where the HH60J helicopter CBT flight simulator training program saved more than $11 million in a three-year period (Janson, 1992). The other is a report by Federal Express, where the company estimated a savings of more than $100 million on employee training (Miller, 1990).

The types of savings typically found when multimedia is used include fewer dollars spent on instructors, renting facilities, and the travel and lodging of students. Fewer dollars are spent because training takes less time, productivity is not lost to travel time, and administrative activities (such as grading tests by hand) are not necessary. In addition, using CBT simulations instead of scarce or expensive equipment saves dollars by not taking the equipment out of service or risking damage. CBT scenarios also save money by replacing hazardous environments where the student can be injured while training.

Custom multimedia courseware, the kind developed for a specific company, is cost effective beginning at about 1,000 students. Off-the-shelf multimedia courseware (not customized) can have a much lower break-even point, depending on the initial outlay for the product(s) and computer systems on which the product(s) runs.

The application of instruction, or how the course content is dispensed to and manipulated by the student, varies widely between multimedia and classroom delivery. In typical classrooms, students spend many hours listening to one-way broadcast, perform some workbook or other exercises, ask some questions, and then take quizzes and a final test. Course content can vary drastically and is heavily dependent upon the skill of the instructor; the monitoring of student progress is relegated to the students' attendance and how they do on go/no go tests.

Self-paced multimedia instruction engages students at the same time they encounter new content. It allows students to learn at their own speed, skipping or skimming areas where they are strong and investing more time in areas of weakness. This new-found control enables them to take more responsibility for their own learning and become more efficient and effective learners.

The use of multiple sensory modes, combining visual presentation with audio and text explanations, delivers information in a format that is easily personalized and understood by those with differing learning styles. Immediate interaction and feedback provides constant, highly effective reinforcement of concepts and content. The course content and its delivery remain the same each time it is taught. Student progress is monitored and assessed with a multitude of statistics that can be used to do anything from correcting inappropriate student behavior to modifying faulty course content.

Two areas where classroom instruction is considered superior to multimedia delivery are in the teaching of higher order cognitive skills and the application of past learner experiences in the learning process. Instruction of cognitive skills with multimedia is highly dependent on the skill of the developer. Sharing of anecdotal student experiences is becoming less and less a problem in multimedia with the advent of electronic conversations via the Internet.

When it comes to administering training, flexibility is a key concern. In classroom instruction, the administrator must wait till there are enough students to form a class so that training is cost effective. With multimedia training, the more students that take it, from across the hall or across the nation, the more cost effective it becomes.

Deploying multimedia training on CD-ROM or over the Internet or Intranet makes training immediately available to workers. So there are no real "class" schedules to maintain. Multimedia training allows students to make use of courseware whenever it is needed, promoting the benefits of just-in-time learning.

The tracking and reporting features of multimedia training can help companies certify that employees have been trained on required safety, regulatory, and other job specific issues. Unlike the classroom, where much of this is done by a person, multimedia courseware has built-in tracking and reporting and automates the process.

The Benefits of Multimedia
There is a substantial body of research supporting the prowess of multimedia training as one of the more effective ways to deliver training. There are also some commonly accepted facts about the value of WBT and CD-ROM training.

In the past 15 years, a number of research studies have shown the effectiveness of multimedia to deliver training. Adams explored six studies conducted by the U.S. Army, IBM, Xerox, United Technologies, WICAT, and Federal Express that compared multimedia to classroom instruction (Adams, 1992). Miller analyzed some 30 evaluative studies that conducted the same comparison (Miller, 1990). And Wright examined approximately 25 studies comparing multimedia to classroom instruction on a number of variables (Wright, 1993). Their research findings can be broken down into the five categories shown below:

Less time needed to train. Training compression, the amount of time it takes students to complete an interactive course compared to classroom, was reported between 25 and 75 percent for interactive. The learning curve relative to the amount of time it takes learners to reach mastery of their course content was 60 percent faster for multimedia learners than for classroom learners.

Higher student achievement/job proficiency. Learning gains on final tests or comparisons between pre- and post-test were analyzed for multimedia and classroom subjects. Gains for multimedia students were found to be between 38 and 56 percent greater than for their classroom counterparts. Three other studies found a significant difference in gains for multimedia students. The interactive learners' understanding of the content was 50-60 percent more consistent than the classroom learners'.

Higher content retention. Students receiving multimedia instruction had a 25-50 percent higher retention rate compared to those receiving the same content through classroom instruction. Content retention refers to the learner's ability to recall content days, weeks, or months after the initial training is completed. It is a measure of how much content reached long-term memory.

More consistency in delivery of content. Multimedia learners had a delivery variance of 20-40 percent less than their instructor-led counterparts. The slight variance for the multimedia learners can be attributed to the different paths available to the students as they progressed through the interactive courseware.

More student/course satisfaction and motivation. Several studies reported high student satisfaction with multimedia training because they felt they could move at their own pace, were more involved in their own learning process, received individualized responses, and had privacy.

The following advantages favor WBT over CD-ROM training:

  • Lowers development and distribution costs.
  • Allows immediate updates and revisions to courseware.
  • Makes courseware available to a wider range of platforms (Windows, Mac, O/S 2, and Unix).
  • Makes assessment and certification easier.
  • Harnesses the use of electronic conversations to expand the learning environment.
  • Improves access to a wealth of knowledge on the Web (Linking to numerous sites).
  • Makes courseware more accessible as a resource and reference.

The following advantages favor CD-ROM training over WBT:

  • Allows for a wider range of sophisticated teaching designs.
  • Has fewer restrictions on media such as video and audio due to lack of bandwidth.
  • Allows for more types of interactivity--a greater number of test question and exercise types.

When is Multimedia Appropriate?
Taking the leap into multimedia is best accomplished in small increments. Conducting pilot projects, building momentum and support within the organization, and proving the technology is the best way to start. The use of off-the-shelf courseware is usually preferable to developing your own custom courseware in house. Developing your own multimedia requires more stringent criteria because of the greater cost involved. The criteria for when multimedia is right for you and what kind is best for your situation are outlined below. Multimedia training is the delivery of choice if:

Table 1. Multimedia Training Questionnaire

Multimedia: Desired or Exists


Classroom: Unimportant or N/A


You want to reduce your training time, increase achievement and job proficiency, increase retention, increase the consistency of your content and content delivery, and increase course satisfaction.


Your training population is large, widely scattered, and has diverse skills, varied proficiency levels, or wide-ranging learning styles.


Your content is stable or can be changed in predictable, manageable amounts.


Your content is dangerous to perform or requires equipment that is costly to take out of service, scarce, or sensitive.


You want to reduce the number of resources required by instructor-led training.


You have workers who find it hard to take time away from work for training.


You want to reduce the number of full-time trainers or your trainers are hard to schedule, recruit, and train, or expensive to employ.


You want to maintain more accurate and consistent student performance data.


You want to reduce the amount of time and money spent on employee certification.


Using the questionnaire in Table 2, determine whether CD-ROM training or WBT is the training of choice:

Table 2. CD-ROM vs. WBT Training Questionnaire


Very Important

Less Important

1. You want to keep your development and distribution costs as low as possible.


2. You want to update, revise, and implement courseware as quickly as possible.


3. You want to reach the widest range of platforms possible.


4. You want to use electronic conversations as an integral part of your training.


5. You want to reference and search the Web, using it as a knowledge base.


6. You want maximum accessibility to your courseware as a resource or reference.


7. You want a wide range of teaching designs.


8. You want the highest video and audio quality and responsiveness.


9. You want the highest level of interactive techniques (questions/exercises).


If you answered "Very Important" for items 1-6 and "Less Important" for items 6-9, then WBT would be your choice. On the other hand, if you answered "Less Important" for items 1-6 and "Very Important" for items 6-9, then CD-ROM is best for you. If your answers fall in between these two choices, then you probably need to weigh the importance of the various factors.

1. Adams, Gregory L., "Why Interactive?" Multimedia & Videodisc Monitor, March 1992, pp. 20-25.
2. Bunderson , C.V. and Olsen , J.B., "Instructional Effectiveness of an Intelligent Videodisc in Biology," Machine Mediated Learning, 1.2, 1984.
3. Janson , Jennifer L., "Computer-Based Training Helps Firms Trim Budgets," PC Week (PC Week Special), Jan. 27, 1992.
4. Janson , Jennifer L., "Interactive Video Expedites Training At Federal Express," PC Week (PC Week Special), Jan. 27, 1992.
5. Janson , Jennifer L., "Simulation Program Helps Coast Guard Sink Training Costs," PC Week (PC Week Special), Jan. 27, 1992.
6. Miller , Rockley L., "Learning Benefits of Interactive Technologies," The Videodisc Monitor, February 1990, pp. 15-17.
7. Wright , Elizabeth E., "Making the Multimedia Decision: Strategies for Success," Journal of Instructional Delivery Systems, Winter 1993, pp. 15-22.

This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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