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Taking distributor education online

By Bridget McCrea

There was a
time when distributor education required travel, days away from work, and
classroom time. Individuals were sent out to different locations around the
country to attend classes, sit in on seminars, and participate in workshops.
This continuing education strategy took the staff members away from their jobs
for days at a time, and it was expensive. Between the hotel, the airfare, and
the rent-a-cars, education was a fairly costly endeavor.

Related story: NAED’s online education lineup 

Fast-forward
to 2013 and education is now literally at distributors’ fingertips. The growth
in virtual learning is on the rise across the board, and instruction in the
manufacturing and distribution space is no exception. Instead of heading into a
classroom for hours of lectures and testing, employees and managers can learn,
at their own paces, and from the comfort of their own keyboards.

Conducted
during work hours and sometimes in the off-hours, online learning has come of
age and is now looked upon as a viable alternative to sending those staff
members to offsite classroom sessions, workshops, and seminars.

“We launched
our learning management system (LMS), which delivers the online training to
users, about seven years ago,” says John Kiso, NAED’s education program
manager. Kiso estimates that about 5,000 unique users signed up for the
organization’s online education options last year, and in doing so took part in
roughly 55,000 different courses during the 12-month period. “Interest in
online learning has grown significantly and continues to increase among NAED
members,” he says.

 Virtually
Yours

Online
learning isn’t new. Colleges and universities have used it for years, usually
calling it “distance learning.” Put simply, instead of making the
daily trip to school to sit at a desk and listen to a professor lecture,
students – typically adults with families and day jobs – could access their
lessons through a number of different mediums including television,
videoconferencing, CD-ROM, and the Internet.

Companies
and individuals alike have caught on to the convenience and cost savings
associated with such learning formats, particularly in this challenging
economy, where every penny counts and time really is money. According to the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC),
an estimated 8 million Americans are currently enrolled in distance learning
programs and enjoying the format’s flexible study schedules, self-paced
courses, and technological advances. Enrollments in online courses and degree
programs increase by about 25 percent annually, according to the DETC’s most
recent numbers.

Online
learning has advantages over face-to-face instruction when it comes to teaching
and learning, according to the U.S. Department of
Education
(DOE). In a recent study, the DOE found that students who took
all or part of their instruction online performed better, on average, than
those taking the same course through face-to-face instruction. 

Distributor-Centric
Learning

Like many
industry organizations, the NAED has developed a complete catalog of online
learning options for its members (see sidebar ). Distributors should also
explore the university, community college, and manufacturer/supplier-provided
virtual learning options – all of which can help to round out their stable of
continuing education offerings.

The NAED
online course catalog includes more than 300 courses – most of which are
categorized according to specific job functions (salesperson, branch manager,
etc.) and organized as such. “We offer a little bit of everything,” says Kiso,
who adds that courses developed around warehouse, inside sales, and outside
sales job functions – encompassing both hard and soft job skills – are most
popular among members.

Some
distributors and manufacturers have taken virtual learning a step further by
effectively “private labeling” the NAED’s online education options and using
them to build their own in-house courses. That approach is particularly
valuable for companies that use their own proprietary software systems, for
example, and that must conduct specific training on the utilization of such
solutions. “We’ve seen a big upswing in that movement over the last couple of
years,” says Kiso, “as more companies look for online courses that hit on very
specific topics and subject areas.”

Expect to
see more companies exploring and leveraging their online learning options. The
DETC’s most recent distance education survey reveals a strong outlook for the
distance education market, which is expected to continue growing in the coming
years. The organization also sees higher education – including traditional,
on-site schools that have usually been relegated to classroom learning –
increasingly turning to distance education as a “mainstream delivery medium.” 

Kiso says
one of the easiest ways for distributors to get started with online learning is
to simply sign up a handful of employees for a single course. “Take it for a
test drive,” he says, “you’ll find out quickly just how effective and efficient
this educational delivery system is.”

McCrea is a Florida-based writer who covers business, industrial, and
educational topics for a variety of magazines and journals. You can reach her
at bridgetmc@earthlink.net or
visit her website at www.expertghostwriter.net.

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