Moving training to an online format is a priority or top priority for 51% of training executives polled by the Training Directors’ Forum (TDF)  Yet, only 25 percent or less of their training is offered online.

To Train or Not to Train

Today, about 30% of all higher education students take at least one class online, and demand for online courses exceeds demand for traditional courses across all institution types.  But the question of whether elearning, including online universities, is any good often holds employers and employees back from going forward.
One of the disadvantages of distance learning for employers and employees alike is the cost vs value question. Although you may be paying for an expensive university level education, are you really getting your money’s worth?  While most employers do acknowledge distance learning, certain employers do not. Degrees from some well advertised online universities, according to one reviewer, “carries the weight of a feather because this university has earned a reputation for ridiculously easy coursework, allowing them to pass out diplomas like napkins.”

Employee Development Drives Employment

According to the Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for workers in certain occupations is higher than the official 8.2% figure. — For the “transportation and material moving” sector, it’s 10.3% and for “construction and extraction,” 13%. However, for those in “management, business and financial operations” it’s only 3.8%.

This illustrates that the skills of many workers are increasingly out of sync with the demands of the job market, and the gap is likely to grow, due to lack of employee development training. According to a study published last month by the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2020, the world will have a surplus of up to 95 million low-skill workers and ashortage of up to 40 million college graduates.

Employee Development Drives Business Results

Only a minority of companies provide formal training to employees, with employers balking at the cost. However, two decades of private industry and academic research, summarized in 2010 by Tim Lohrentz of the National Network of Sector Partners, confirms that employee development can improve employer bottom-line profitability by increasing revenues and lowering expenses.

The measurements come from a variety of methods including surveys, questionnaires, interviews, focus groups, tests, observation and performance records. A review of the employee development literature reveals the links to profitability in the following five main ways:

1. Increased ability to take advantage of innovation – which can be measured by:

  • Better team performance.
  • Improved capacity to cope with change in the workplace.

2. Increased rate of employee retention – The Milken Institute Review reported in 2004 that firms that made large investments in employee development outperformed the control group in stock prices. As reported by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employee Research benefits In 2003, the benefits of employee development are highly correlated to profitability, including:

  • Savings in recruitment and hiring.
  • Increases in job satisfaction.
  • Increases in customer satisfaction (for direct service industries.)
3. Reduced rate of employee absenteeism – 98% of 500 CEOs surveyed by The Conference Board reported at least one business benefit from workplace training, with 33% reporting a reduction in absenteeism and another 40% saying workplace training led to increased employee retention.
4. Increased quality of work or service – A 2003 study from The Aspen Institute highlighted studies that correlated employee training with reduced production error rates. A more recent study found that 92% of firms participating in a Massachusetts training program in 2008 reported increases in quality and 91% reported increased productivity. Improvements can be measured by:
  • Decline in waste
  • Decline in product rejection or error rate
  • Increase in customer satisfaction or retention
  • Better health and safety records
5. Increased productivity – which can be measured by:
  • Less time spent per task or per unit
  • Increased output of products or services
  • Time savings for managers and supervisors
  • Improved capacity to use new technology

Studies from the United Kingdom show that training has a positive impact on productivity, with some companies gaining up to an 80% increase in productivity which can be attributed to training. Increasing the proportion of employees trained by 5% is linked to a 4% percent increase.

New eLearning Fix : Free Online Education

The New York Times’ online “Fixes” article category focuses on solutions to social problems and why they work. David Bornstein‘s article,  Open Education for a Global Economy,  highlights a significant new development in the delivery of education: free online learning.

The distribution channels of education have changed — and  the future of learning is free and open.

The Khan Academy offers 3,200 video lessons, with 168 million views, TED Talk offers 1,300 talks, with 800 million views, and videotaped academic lectures are available at Academic EarthOpen Courseware ConsortiumOpen Culture), and MOOC (Massive Open Online Course, offered by companies like Udacity and a growing list of universities, including M.I.T., Harvard and Stanford)

Alison: Free Work Skills Development

Unlike academic instruction, which is increasingly free online — since you can take hundreds of lessons in algebra or calculus at the Khan Academy — quality workplace skills training and certification is usually pricey. Sites like, which offer training in software tools, require a paid subscription. Udemy, a relatively new education company with some excellent free courses, charges fees for many courses that offer workplace skills. If you’re a would-be programmer from Egypt, there is a world of difference between a free course in Microsoft Access and one that costs $99.

But now, for people around the world whose job prospects are constrained by their skill levels and who may lack the resources to upgrade them through conventional training, an Ireland-based company called ALISON — Advanced Learning Interactive Systems Online — is providing free online interactive education to help people acquire workplace skills.

It has a million registered learners, mostly in the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Nigeria and the Middle East. It is adding 50,000 learners each month, and the services it offers are likely to proliferate in the coming years.

ALISON offers some 400 vocational courses at “certificate level” (1 to 2 hours of study) or “diploma level” (about 9 to 11 hours of study) and plans to add 600 more in the coming year. Its most popular course, ABC IT, is a 15- to 20-hour training suite that covers similar ground to the widely recognized International Computer Driving License curriculum. ALISON’s certification is free, while ICDL certification can cost over $500.

Other popular offerings are project management, accounting, customer service, human resources, Microsoft Excel, health studies, basic study skills, operations management and psychology.

Last year, 50,000 users earned certificates or diplomas, which indicate that they completed courses and scored 80% or above on ALISON’s online assessment. Employers can verify an applicant’s knowledge with an online “flash test” of randomized questions (reminiscent of typing tests for stenographers).

Testimonials of a Superior Learning Experience

ALISON doesn’t have the capacity to track its learners’ career progress, but it has thousands of testimonials on its Web site. A typical example is one from Mariyam Thiseena, from the Maldives who found ALISON through Google and is currently pursuing a diploma in environmental engineering:

I love ALISON because you give the feeling that even the poorest person deserves an education.

Another student, Zakiyu Iddris Tandunayir, from Accra, Ghana, completed a diploma in social media marketing, and  has since received contracts worth $700:

I’ve been interested in social media for a long time, but when I discovered ALISON, I committed myself to it. I studied day in and day out. I passed my exam, then I set up a page on Facebook to do social media for businesses. I put my number in there and people started calling me. For my eight years of Internet experience I have never felt the way I feel now.

Leveraging For-Profit Educational Expertise

Vision: The decision to make everything on ALISON free remains the key factor that distinguishes the site from others of its type, and makes it globally valuable. Company founder Mike Feerick, who received an award last year from Unesco for innovation in online workplace education and has been recognized by Ashoka as a social entrepreneur:

My vision is that all basic education and training is freely accessible online worldwide and accessible by everyone. Education underpins all social progress. If we can improve the general education level worldwide, global poverty can be dealt with profoundly and a general standard of living can be vastly improved.

Growth Model: Feerick says that the scope of the problem necessitates a business approach. ALISON works to leverage and redirect the large supply of for-profit courses, searching for high-quality vocational offerings and inviting publishers to make some of their courses available on ALISON free.

Publishers agree to work with ALISON because the company generates business leads for them and shares its revenues, mostly from advertising, sales of certificates and token fees from learners.  For example, a graduate can purchase a paper certificate for $30 or one on parchment for $120, and opt to pay for premium access that loads slightly more quickly and has no ads. This model means that the more ALISON grows, the more free courses it will be able to offer.

Commitment to Quality:  Just as there is great variability in teacher quality, online education is mixed. Feerick notes:

There’s an enormous amount of learning out there. There’s also an enormous amount of rubbish. It’s hard to make out the difference if you don’t know what’s coming. We turn down a huge number of courses that are low quality.

Feerick’s staff members ask the following. “Is it good content? Is it interactive? Does it ask you to do something? Sometimes the content really lends itself to video — like language learning where you need pronunciation help. Does it flow logically? Is the content from a reliable source? Is there a way to assess the learning?”

An Expanding Enterprise:  ALISON is now offered through government workplace centers in 18 states. When a job seeker goes to EmployFlorida or Virginia Workforce Connection, he or she can work with a counselor to survey the job market and assess skill gaps and may then be referred to traditional brick and mortar training or ALISON courses. ALISON also supplies digital literacy training to public schools in the United States.

With all the cuts in education, Alison provides an alternative for public education. Jaime Maniatis, the technology instructor at the Daylight/Twilight Alternative High School, in Trenton, N.J., which serves students who have previously dropped out, uses the Alison ABC IT course, which is accessible from any computer in the building, is interactive and has quizzes that help keep students focused. This year, she plans to spend $165 for a premium service that is ad-free and allows her to track students’ progress in three classrooms.

Empowering Workers

As the cost of formal education has skyrocketed and the job market continues to change at a rapid clip, the responsibility for keeping their skills up-to-date will likely fall more and more on individuals. Many employees and employers alike will turn to online learning for convenience and affordability, and free programs meet an important gap.

Online Learning Infographic