Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa

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Distance Learning: Doing it Right!

[Article List]

No more expensive airline tickets. No more hotel bills. No more car rentals. Sounds too good be true? Welcome to the world of distance learning where your employees never have to leave the office again!

Should the hospitality industry begin to worry about distance learning? Absolutely not! Even though some research has shown that up to 60 percent of business travel can be replaced by videoconferencing, the world of distance learning can become your newest profit center.

The Spectrum of Distance Learning

Let's begin with the most basic question, "What exactly is distance learning?" Distance learning is "a training or educational process in which the instructor and students are separated by dimensions of time and/or space." Distance learning can vary along a continuum from the basic correspondence course on the Internet (the reliable Saturn) to live satellite television (the luxurious Mercedes Benz) with options in between such as computer based training, audioconferencing, and videoconferencing.

The primary advantages of using distance learning are time and cost effectiveness due to budget constraints, a changing workforce, less down time, and need to train more people more often with no time away from the worksite. An organization can bring the leading experts in the fields of business, education, medicine and government in-house via videoconferencing or satellite TV along with the opportunity for an unlimited number of viewers to interact, ask questions, and share ideas with the presenter for one price.

A review of 800 research studies which compared televised instruction to live, traditional face-to-face instruction found that learners learn from televised instruction at least as well as they do in face-to-face instruction.

Who uses distance learning- Corporate America, government, educational and healthcare institutions, and associations-your customers. Courses which are often interactive can be credit or non-credit in literally any topic area. On the more basic level an employee can sit at his or her desk in front of their computer and take a packaged training course at their own pace at any time of day. The employee can log-on whenever it's convenient, ask the instructor questions, have a discussion with other students also enrolled, turn in assignments, and take exams.

On the more sophisticated level, distance learning- via live satellite TV is the classroom of the future - no, make that the classroom of today - not only for corporations and government but also for the hospitality industry: hotels, conference centers, resorts, and cruise ships.

How do the pros use distance learning? Smart organizations recognize that in a changing world, the on-going education of its employees is the best preparation for being able to adapt. Educated employees will be the most productive. The organization that grows its employees through continual learning will continue to excel and outshine its competition.

Equipment is becoming more sophisticated and easier to use while becoming more affordable. A variety of companies are jumping on the distance learning bandwagon. For example, Kinko's has created a global network of videoconferencing sites. Hotels such as Hilton and Swissotel were among the pioneers to install distance learning systems in their facilities to accommodate today's meeting market. Any speaker can make a presentation from an uplink site to any size group at numerous locations throughout the world.


Who Uses Distance Learning?

There are thousands of companies any with household names such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, United States Postal Service, Ford Motor Company, Texas Instruments, John Deere, Eastman Kodak, Dupont, General Electric, Lockheed Martin-that have invested in equipping their facilities with the satellite technology to downlink or receive continuous education on topics that may vary from the highly technical to ones which can benefit all employees from the CEO on down in the area of professional development.

Government institutions such as the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Federal Aviation Administration, Social Security Administration, and the Internal Revenue Service also use live satellite TV. Almost every college and university uses distance learning to reach students who may be cross-campus or across the state.

In the corporate world, think of distance learning as pay per view for education. An organization has invested in the installation and maintenance of a satellite dish and usually receives a monthly catalog of live educational offerings. The organization may subscribe to and downlink from numerous companies who are producing educational programming.

The granddaddy of distance learning via live satellite TV is National Technological University, a building located in Fort Collins, Colorado. NTU offers nearly 1,000 courses each year. Almost half of its course lead to a graduate degree, while the remainder are noncredit short courses aimed at teaching new or fine tuning the skills of its members' workforce.

Other organizations that produce and offer distance learning courses and events include a variety of associations (American Society of Mechanical Engineers, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and American Association of Community Colleges); educational institutions (University of Maryland, University of Southern California, and Boston University); and independent production companies (Westcott Communications, WingsNet, Rehab Training Network, and Public Broadcasting System).


Live Satellite Television

Live satellite TV is the hottest use of distance learning by organizations such as the Fortune 500s, government, and educational institutions. Unfortunately, few organizations know how to do it fight! Distance learning uses lots of bells and whistles-just like the ones on our computers that we rarely use-from the audience keypad to live audience call-in. Unfortunately most productions overlook the basics.

Buyer beware! The components of a distance learning event, from equipment to the actual production, can be extremely confusing. Few people are educated consumers when it comes to knowing what to look for before making a distance learning buying decision. A technical expert or consultant should be used to assist with decisions involving satellite technology. More than likely most organizations will outsource the component of distance learning, which involves arrangements involving a studio or uplink facility and the actual broadcast.

It is imperative to spend the time and energy attempting to prevent the most common problems related to distance learning productions from occurring. The most common problems are that most presentations are dull and flat and lack the dynamic element and stimulation to keep the audience interested and lose money due to mediocre or poor marketing.


OVERCOMING THE COMMON PROBLEMS


Boredom

With today's technology and computer graphics, why does the audience become bored so easily? Most distance learning presentations use a subject matter expert who lacks powerful presentation skills - a talking head who lulls the audience to sleep while presenting valuable information. Simply put, no one trained the presenter how to do distance learning. A speaker, trainer, or presenter who is skilled at working a grand ballroom or training room can easily bomb on TV.

To hold an audience's attention, the presenter must make continuous eye contact with the audience. This requires looking directly into the camera constantly. When we watch the evening news, we feel Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, or Dan Rather are talking directly to us.

Constant animation is another must. The TV news anchor is only on our television screen seconds at a time. With distance learning the presenter can be on camera for as short as an hour or for as long as five hours. The use of facial expressions and body movement keeps the audience engaged. It is also imperative to get the audience to actively participate. To accomplish this objective, one can ask the audience to call-in an answer to a question and to ask questions or share ideas of their own. Once someone calls in and is on the air, ask that person their name, their company, and from where they are calling. The presenter becomes their friend so that a dialog between presenter and caller can occur. Then, ask the initial caller to pass the telephone alone, to another person in the room. Engage that person in a dialogue. Before hanging up, be sure to thank the callers for participating using their names.

Another effective technique is to instruct the audience to do things while watching-write down something important, circle a particular word or phrase in their course notes, fold over or dog ear a page, or even shout out the answer to a question.


Loss of Money and Poor Marketing

The main reason so many distance learning presentations lose money can be attributed to fluff topics-ones that few people care about and have no real impact on one's job. For a distance learning presentation to be successful, ask yourself, "What does the audience want to hear?" The highlights of one's book, reminiscences of a political career, or a panel discussion may an interesting presentation in a hotel ballroom, but may not always be well received via video.

A distance learning presentation becomes more powerful when the information presented is practical and can be used immediately the next day on-the job. Many presentations are nice to sit back and listen but lack that "meat and potatoes" application required by today's workforce.

Many organizations that offer distance learning programming often bundle or put together a series of what it perceives as a natural mix of topics. Some of the topics may be well-received while others go underattended. For example, a Federal government agency put together a series mixing topics such as surviving rightsizing, sexual harassment, creativity, and diversity. Some did well while others didn't. Another organization combined management and professional development topics with topics on environmental safety and tax issues. The management courses were well attended while the more specialized courses which targeted a much smaller market segment drew a much smaller audience.

A second major loss of money can be attributed to poor marketing. Distance learning is often a major financial investment. The brochure and other printed materials have to hook the intended audience or vertical market and should also be targeted to the decision makers as well. The marketing brochure must include the need for your audience to attend, benefits to be obtained, learning objectives, and a course outline. In addition, the uniqueness of a live interactive event must be stressed with audience participation as a major draw. When listing benefits, include a minimum of a dozen-if not more-from the information to be learned to cost effective economic sensibility.

Like any other educational offering, early site registration and group site rate discounts are effective marketing incentives. The use of the World Wide Web and your organization's home page can be another effective marketing technique.

Consider the solicitation of corporate partnerships. Match your target audience with appropriate corporate sponsors. There are numerous marketing opportunities to offer corporations besides their name and logo on all of the printed materials: infomercials during the breaks, a backdrop with the corporate partner's name throughout the broadcast, and a corporate sponsor spokesperson serving as the host of the program.

Smart distance learning organizations offer a preview video upon request where the potential customer can actually see and hear the person from whom they will be taking the course. An ideal preview should be from three to five minutes in length, be fast-paced, dynamic, and highlight the major topics and information to be covered. Many a buying decision has been based on the presentation skills and the personality of the presenter. The decision maker is pondering the question, "Will my people want to listen to this person for three hours?"


Distance Learning and the Hospitality Industry

The first question that needs to be addressed is, should the hospitality industry get into the distance learning business? Absolutely! In today's hightech world, hotels are now equipping their sleeping rooms with two telephone lines, fax machines, and computer terminals. There are three primary profit centers that can be realized by the hospitality industry.

The most obvious use is for its own corporate training. Imagine your star corporate trainer training all staff nationwide in the same skill at the same time. The main benefit would be that training would be consistent for all employees with no travel expenses incurred.

A second use is for properties to turn its meeting rooms or ballrooms into downlink facilities not just for itself, but for its sister properties in the chain. For example, a company wants to roll out or showcase a new product or service throughout the country with its president or CEO as the keynote speaker. The company can schedule a coast-to coast presentation and demonstration. Each local office invites its existing and prospective customers to a local property within the chain. Remember that refreshments on the East coast may be a buffet luncheon while the west coast attendees would be partaking breakfast fare. The company enjoys the cost effectiveness by not having to send its employees and equipment on a dog and pony show from city to city.

Lastly, the association and meetings market is another prospective customer. The typical scenario has been that an association schedules its annual meeting years out in one particular city where thousands of its members flock. However, most members stay home. Imagine an association progressive enough to schedule a day of programming with its top speakers which can be attended via live satellite TV. This educational option would be most effective in cities where significant numbers of the association's members are concentrated.

The sell for the hospitality industry is to realize two things: it is difficult for people to get to educational programs, and that we are living and working in a high tech world that is only going to get more technical. A possible option and solution is distance learning-possibly the newest profit center for the industry to offer its local customers-turning your meeting rooms into classrooms.




Dr. Elliott B. Jaffa
(703) 931-0040
ejaffa@mindspring.com