The Direction of Web-Based Training: A Practitioner's View

by Tim Kilby

(Reprinted with permission from The Learning Organization, MCB University Press, Vol. 8 No. 5, 2001)



This paper looks at the fulfilled and unfulfilled promises of web-based training since its inception, current influences that establish benchmarks of quality, and forthcoming technologies that will shape online learning in the next decade. Distance learning now has a broader interpretation as online learning applications and the underlying technologies have matured. Instructional design now considers all enabling technologies and learning constructs. Processes that apply user-centered design, knowledge object structures, usability engineering, and formal evaluation ensure that the full needs of both learners and provider organizations are met. Industry standards for accessibility and reusability influence design and alter engineering. Emerging technologies like XML, true speech recognition, and wireless impact web-based training; however, knowledge management, peer-to-peer learning, and personal learning appliances will dramatically transform the way humans learn.



Seven years since the introduction of web-based training into the lexicon of learning, we can take a critical look at our achievements in fulfilling the promises, and we can predict the influences on WBT's future. The intervening years have seen simultaneous advances in technologies and our understanding of how to use them effectively for instructional purposes. This new instructional delivery method complements other more traditional methods and still offers unique learning opportunities, though many current breed offerings compare unfavorably. We will likely see higher quality online courseware in the near future that meets the ever-broadening needs of learners and organizations. Predicted new technologies will dramatically alter the adult learning experience in future decades.


A Seven-Year Head Start

When I established the Web-Based Training Information Center (WBTIC) in 1994, the first such site on the Internet, the World Wide Web was relatively unknown to technology-based trainers, certainly under-appreciated for its potential. Business took a dim view of employees spending business hours surfing. It took a leap of faith that the crude presentation of text and simple graphics of early web pages could be molded into anything comparable to other technology-based training at achieving desired outcomes.

"Distance learning" in the early 1990s was limited to expensive electronic classrooms. The goals of any time anywhere learning were yet unfulfilled. The WBTIC helped spark a dialog by presenting both advantages and disadvantages of the web as a medium for training delivery and seeking out the first well-designed examples. Whether through exposure to this dialog or independent synthesis, many training managers and developers concluded that online learning could achieve excellent results in both learning and cost savings. Web-based training, Internet-based instruction, online learning, e-learning—these are some of the terms that evolved, each with its own following and subtle meaning, but all defining the same core concept. The terms are used interchangeably here. Now, we must think of distance learning and electronic classrooms in vastly broader terms.

It was clear from the outset that instructional design for online courseware would need to be reconsidered in light of new enabling technologies and the unique learning environment. The Instructional Systems Design process, formally defined and adopted by public-sector organizations in the United States, mandated a learner analysis, needs analysis, and determination of instructional methodologies and testing strategies. Obviously, the technologies to be used affect many of the decisions made throughout this process. Internet technologies offered many more opportunities for self and group instruction, more than those available to CD-ROM delivered computer-based training. Forward thinking designers began to consider the opportunities presented by the technology and to work these judiciously and intelligently into online instruction. More important, designers began to consider the new dynamic that takes place in an online world, especially in a group-learning environment. Unfortunately, too many so-called WBT applications were—and still are—mere tutorials or online books.

Much of the criticism of online learning is directed at the underlying technologies. The year that WBTIC was founded was also the birth year of Netscape and its first-generation graphical browser. Only a few lucky users had high-speed connections, but then there was little training content to take advantage of the available speed. Online video was out of the question for average users. Advances on all fronts were inevitable—faster computers, better browsers, faster connections for the masses, high-speed backbones, dramatically faster multimedia codecs, and standardized programming languages. Tool vendors saw opportunity to create proprietary products for developing online learning applications, some in hopes of establishing de facto industry standards. Another inevitable result of improving technologies is the over use and in many cases entirely inappropriate use of technology. The initial criticism of Internet technology for learning applications was perhaps justified, though it is hard to make a case today that technology is the major fault for unachieved goals.

The WBTIC has included an informal research component from the outset. Visitor comments and communications provided a view port into WBT interest and activity. It was easy to conclude that businesses sought a less expensive and more effective way to train employees. Initial "experiments" in WBT were underway by mid decade. WBTIC conducted an online survey in 1996-1997 to poll site visitors on organizational training capabilities, current implementations, plans, and attitudes that pertain to WBT. Most survey participants were from organizations that had implemented intranets (78%) and planned to implement WBT initiatives (69%). Then, in 1999 WBTIC started the ongoing WBT Salary Survey. Since we all want to feel we are adequately compensated, up-to-the-minute survey results are computed and published on the site on demand. Preliminary results indicate salaries are comparable with those in parallel fields.


The Current State: Achievements and Disappointments

Online learning is now mainstream. The abundance of "off-the-shelf" title offerings and the rush by business, industry, and governmental agencies to roll out WBT has assured success for designers, developers and technology vendors. However, meeting the needs of both learners and the provider organization is a challenge that often is incomplete. Too many WBT offerings are of dubious quality. The laudable doctrine of user-centered design has been ignored in many cases. Is this through misunderstanding and under appreciation of the learner experience? Is this defect perhaps the result of an exclusive focus on business needs? Whatever the reason, if we evaluate the quality of the typical online offering—that's assuming there is one that is actually typical—we would likely find a course that does not fulfill all the needs of both parties. Users seek a satisfying learning experience and the perception that they have indeed gained knowledge or skills. Provider organizations want improved performance or attitudes from their employees and ultimately organizational growth. Though a commercial industry has formed in support of designers, developers, and implementers—and that industry's prospects are exceedingly bright—there is room for improvement in courseware quality.

E-business discovered that e-learning has tremendous growth potential, and that equates to profits. With companies like IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle undertaking major efforts in developing online learning enabling technologies and supporting standards setting bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Project, and the Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) initiative, advancements on all fronts will continue. Educational institutions, too, have joined efforts to transform learning. Academic offerings online have increased and full degree programs can now be completed without campus attendance.

The shift from proprietary hardware and software to open technologies and everyday computer systems surely is a major achievement. The browser and the languages that format and manipulate the data fed to it—HTML, JavaScript, Java, Active Server Pages, PHP, and others—share the glory. Advances in these technologies were brought about by the pressures to deliver dynamic pages with rich media, high levels of interactivity, and data-driven content. WBT developers have learned how to use the technologies effectively so that courseware once designed as an interactive CD-ROM can now be duplicated as a web application. The end user may only need a web address to instantly begin learning. More often than not, there is a technology available to closely match the chosen instructional strategy.

Technology has been particularly effective at enabling group learning; collaboration and web conferencing adds a completely new dimension. The slow, jerky, mono-functional videoconferencing of the early Internet has been superseded by synchronous, instructor-led training systems with video, audio, graphical presentations, and full learner participation. Talking into a videoconferencing camera is no more effective instructionally than presenting material by TV broadcast or prerecorded videotape. Effective use of the current breed of web conferencing software requires careful planning and a thorough understanding of each of the components. E-mail, discussion groups, and chat can be integrated into asynchronous self-paced courseware; however, too often it appears as an add-on feature rather than an integral part of the instruction.

Instructional design has certainly improved due to both utilization of and better understanding of enabling technologies. The aforementioned group instruction technologies are an example. In a leader-led course for volunteer emergence service professionals produced in 1997, e-mail and discussion groups were used effectively to establish a learning community. Other instructional design advances show designers using far more interactions in courseware than several years ago. Products like Macromedia's Dreamweaver Coursebuilder and Click2learn's Toolbook, among others, offer basic interactions that are instructionally sound and can be customized in myriad ways. The pros and cons of using browser plug-ins aside, there are many plug-ins available for highly sophisticated interactions such as simulations and 3-D virtual worlds. Learning how to use new technology in an instructional setting, when to use it, and why always lags the introduction of the technology itself.

Perhaps the most profound influence on instructional design is the concept of knowledge objects espoused by Merrill (1998). A knowledge object—some call it a learning object—is "a framework for identifying necessary knowledge components". It can be any type of fully described learning asset: a lesson, a topic, or a media element. The theory has been interpreted various ways or at least had influence on the "chunking" of information in otherwise linear designs. By separating content from instructional strategy, Merrill argues that knowledge objects can be chosen expressly to meet learner needs, then instructional strategies applied that best suit the instructional goals. Reusability is implicit. The application of the theory is certainly not widespread. Yet, knowledge objects are the foundation of evolving technical standards spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Defense and the ADL.

Usability engineering has been around for a long time but it is rarely applied in the WBT development process. Several excellent books on web usability design strategies have appeared recently, among them books by Jakob Nielsen (2000) and Steve Krug (2000). Each author makes a strong case for early-stage usability testing. This is equally important for training applications where navigational structures can be tested on average users and developers can gain valuable insight into perceptions of the interface "look and feel".

Finally, while most WBT applications provide some level of testing, few projects include a formal training evaluation process. Donald Kirkpatrick (1996), in his seminal work on evaluating training, describes four distinct levels. Level 1 evaluation, commonly implemented as a "smile sheet", asks questions regarding participant satisfaction. Applied to the world of online learning, the author has seen Level 1 evaluation implemented only once. General Motors University very skillfully integrates a short user satisfaction and comments form at the end of each course. Level 2 evaluation measures learning. Great opportunity abounds for Level 2 evaluation in WBT: pre-test, post-test, and inline evaluation, the later providing opportunity for individual course adaptation. Level 3 measures behavioral changes resulting from learning and Level 4 measures training results; for example, increased productivity, sales, and employee retention. Organizations can generate quantitative and perhaps even qualitative evidence by completing the evaluation process with these two last levels. Technology training provides unique opportunities to monitor training and generate useful statistical data. For example, compiling average or cumulative time used to complete an online course—a very easy task for a central computer—and comparing that against time away from work to complete an equivalent classroom course yields instant cost savings data. Other data that could be collected, completely transparent to the WBT user, include number of logins, average time per session, time of day and other user preferences, and even navigation patterns. Technology provides the vehicle, though few organizations seem to get onboard.

A frequent question from WBTIC visitors is, How do I design WBT? Initially I urged visitors to first use their own experiences at training in other media, then seek methods within the framework of web technologies to achieve the equivalent results. I have felt that looking at the best examples one can find, analyzing those examples in the context of your own project, and then using the best ideas as the starting point for new work was a good approach. Now we have magazines, professional journals, books, web sites, e-mail lists, and special interest groups within professional organizations—all valuable resources. William Horton (2000) has written a useful book that focuses on critical instructional design issues. However, every project is unique in training needs, cost constraints, and desired results. The best designs come only after a concerted study of multiple resources. Learn from others but define your own direction.

The WBTIC, while attempting to present a broad and unbiased introductory view of online training, does not and cannot illustrate the full scope of possibilities. This author's perspective is limited to his own communications with online learning professionals, observations of a developing industry, and experience implementing a variety of WBT projects. Nonetheless, some of the lessons learned on this journey seem to be universal. First, dull designs become even duller online. Few would dispute this though many still think it must be better if they just put the course on their web sites. Second, my initial prediction that programming skills would become less important has not come true. To the contrary, highly sophisticated training applications require in-depth knowledge of a basket of languages, network technologies, and industry standards. The software tools have greatly improved in their ability to automate production from design to finished product; still, we need a skilled programmer to take the courseware beyond the ordinary. In a similar vein, the people within an organization that control the network, the information systems department and webmasters, must become team players as technical decisions are made.


The Road Ahead

Expect dramatic changes in online learning design and development over the next seven years and beyond. We have come to expect constant change in technology and that is a certainty. Web services, wireless devices, XML—these and many other critical technologies will become commonplace in time. More specific to WBT, we will see widespread adoption of standards, courseware that adapts to individual learner needs, and the fulfillment of the true learning organization.

The trends in technology, at least for the next few years, are quite clear. Streaming media—some might say screaming media—will be widely available and used, though not always to instructionally sound purpose. Other evolving technologies like 3-D virtual worlds, speech recognition, tactile feedback, and digital scents will lure training developers, some to the same fate of unjustified use. A shakeout is inevitable as the infatuation with new technology wears off and serious uses appear.

For those of us that work on the development side of training, web services and XML will have the biggest impact. Microsoft's .NET initiative is a profound shift away from client/server applications and toward distributed component-based applications. Other major vendors have similar visions for web services. I fully expect to see e-learning services whereby an organization could integrate all the services and content needed to implement a learning portal. Yet, the learning management, knowledge management, payment control, content creation tools, and knowledge objects all reside on the vendors' systems. XML (extensible markup language) takes care of the cross-component communications. Open architectures will win out even while the big name companies strive for proprietary dominance in web service technologies.

SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model) is an industry standard proposed by the ADL that will impact learning technology and instructional design. SCORM is actually a coalescence and refinement of several other industry standards for learning management, record keeping, and content description. The promises are reusability and interoperability, just as with the web services initiative. Now in its first generation, this standard has not seen widespread implementation. However, tremendous interest in SCORM is building. Developers that work in this segment of the training market are preparing now to implement the technical standards specified and modify instructional design processes to adapt to the new paradigm.

WBT will be influenced by other standards and design strategies that will improve learning quality for a broader audience. For example, the Section 508 Federal Acquisition Regulation mandates that all online training, among other information technology, developed for many U.S. Federal Government agencies must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. The implications for instructional design and technology selection are profound. Instructional designers have struggled to implement adaptive learning strategies that tailor instruction on the fly to fit learners' needs. Now adaptive learning broadens in meaning. Technologists are seeking ways to avoid the pitfalls of multiple versions and enable the courseware to adapt automatically to user preferences and needs. Usability testing will need to widen in scope to include diverse populations and user agent environments. Lastly, we should expect a more global perspective in design and courseware offerings: multicultural and multilingual content and international collaborative learning communities.

Organizations have long recognized the value of specific employee knowledge and experience, but have heretofore not had an effective means to capture that knowledge, manage it, or transform it into learning to benefit all employees. Knowledge management—the term used here to describe a solution to all three problems—will become a booming field paralleling online learning. Knowledge management systems, both as conceptual models and as technical implementations, are available now, but capturing and managing data does not authenticate a knowledge organization. We need additional academic research into effective ways to turn these knowledge object archives into usable training applications. This could become one example of peer-to-peer learning; others are sure to follow as peer-to-peer technologies grow in popularity.

If I may project out even further in time, based on what we have seen so far and the speed of technological growth, I foresee dramatic changes in adult learning across all venues. Wireless technologies will spawn new Internet-connected devices that will incorporate embedded training. Your "smart" refrigerator will not only know its contents and create a shopping list, but it might also teach you how to make a perfect cheesecake. Your personal learning appliance (PLA)—portable, of course—connects you to the best courseware from around the world. Perhaps the most poignant changes will come in academic courseware delivery as we see the gradual dissolution of the traditional campus environment. I see a time when universities prescribe personalized learning plans and aggregate knowledge content, wherever it may originate, thus becoming knowledge brokers. Online learning, in all its forms, suffers from the anti-social, dehumanizing qualities of technology, and we must begin addressing this aggressively by building community where appropriate. Nevertheless, this and other unanswered problems will not halt the tremendous momentum gathering in the online learning world.



Horton, William (2000). Designing Web-Based Training. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Kirkpatrick, Donald L. (1996). Evaluating Training Programs: The Four Levels. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Krug, Steve (2000). Don't Make Me Think. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing.

Merrill, M. David (1998). "Knowledge objects", CBT Solutions, March/April, pp. 1-11

Nielsen, Jakob (2000). Designing Web Usability. Indianapolis: New Riders Publishing.

Web-Based Training Information Center (1997). WBTIC 1996 Training Survey. Available: (April 10, 2001).

Web-Based Training Information Center (2001). WBTIC Salary Survey. Available: (April 10, 2001).

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