I received a press release from Com Tech Education Services slating online training as "ineffective". Hang on, I thought, isn't this the same company that launched a degree with Canberra-based Deakin University that included a large element of online learning? Wasn't Com Tech shooting itself and its partner in the foot? Deakin, after all, offers around 100 online courses to 80,000 students worldwide.
Adding fuel to the fire is techies.com, a US-based website community of IT workers, which last week reported glowing praise for online training in its Train & Certify feature.
The American Society for Training and Development says web-based training has many advantages, which explains its rapid growth.
"Training via the web," it reports, "allows users to learn a task by applying knowledge in real world activities, through exercises, scenarios and simulations using text, graphics, video animation, and other basic elements of web pages. And the training can be tailored to the individual rather than offered wholesale to a class. Hence, a person trains at his or her pace."
Deakin Australia director Lee Watts says website learning is not for everyone, but it allows just-in-time learning and people can access it when they want. This is vital for students, who increasingly work while training and must study in the evening.
Deakin and Com Tech's new Bachelor of Computing offers the Microsoft Certified System Engineer (MCSE) as one component. About half of the theory is online, representing a third of the course, but Watts stresses the degree course offers "multimedia delivery", including classroom-based and on-the-job work-experience training.
"That's the key to our learning solution. We are not taking print-based materials and dumping it onto the web as many institutions have done," she says.
Com Tech's "independent" survey of 57 training managers from blue chip firms employing 80,000 in Australasia says 60% of businesses use some form of online learning and 83% rate it as not very successful.
General manager Steve Ross says people want the human touch and firms should look at the outcomes. Online learning is not cheap if only 3% say it is effective, he says.
He says online learning is taking off because it is seen as cheap and convenient, but firms have to see what they gain from it.
"Online learning is better than no learning. But no matter how cheap it is, if it does not work it is not cheap," he says.
Wave Internet of Hamilton offers 420 different online courses, including MCSE, costing from $119 or $235 ex GST per user a year.
Manager Wayne Atwell agrees about the need for effectiveness.
People are "kidding themselves" if they think they can learn HTML solely from an online course, he says.
The courses fulfill a role at "the bottom end". Fine for Microsoft Office, but anything else needs classroom and other back-up.
"The courses are not intended to replace structured training. They are a supplement. We are happy with the results so far and customers are delighted. It is better than nothing and it's a cost-effective solution," he says.
Hewlett-Packard also raised the issue of cost at an education conference it ran in Auckland last month. It increasingly uses online for induction and other courses, saying it is quicker and cuts down on business travel. The Techies. com report also talks about the potential cost savings. Why buy books when it's all online?
But maybe you only get what you pay for. And what do employers think?
Candle Recruitment's contracting manager in Auckland, Christine Fitchew, says online courses are "not really recognised".
"We find with a majority of clients [employers] the courses don't hold a lot of weight. It's easy and accessible for the candidates, but there is no replacement for some recognised certification and experience," she says.
But it is better than nothing and fine when combined with on-the-job and classroom-based training.
"Online training is the way of the future, but the old piece of paper is a little hard to beat at this stage," she says. "It is different if the employer provides the online training. It is a cheap way of upskilling their staff. That's why it is an excellent solution for in house training, supported by people with experience. But at home, it doesn't do it, really".