Technology and how people are taught are changing. It's ironic that two of those things could be conspiring to present a challenge and great change to project management.
The idea is simple: Online learning – via either streaming or on-demand video – is something generally done alone by the student. He or she presumably learns what is required to pass the subsequent certification test. The issue is, however, that parts of being a successful project manager are guiding teams in a manner not necessarily captured in a video. In traditional classroom settings, much of this real-world guidance is imparted during Q&As, chats during breaks and even in the pub or at dinner after the class. The issue, clearly, is whether this informal, hard to quantify but highly valuable dimension of project management is lost to people taking online classes alone in their dens or a coffee shop.
"I believe the degree and nature of the interaction between the learner and the instructor is the most critical difference," wrote Bob McGannon, the director of Intelligent Disobedience Leadership, in response to emailed questions from IT Business Edge. "Live classes provide the greatest opportunities for interaction between and amongst learners and the instructor. Pre-recorded sessions nullify most of that, however, questions can usually be forwarded to the instructor for a response."
There are actually three levels of interaction, according to Mike Goss, the principal of Goss Consulting: Live learning that has full interaction; pre-recorded or on-demand programming with no interaction; online and live webinars that have a level of interaction.
Of course, web-based training and education is growing, and for good reason. It empowers people in remote areas or who for some reason are unable to attend live training. It is also less expensive and can be revisited over time, observers say. Is the value proposition a little different in a hands-on vocation such as project management as opposed to an academic pursuit, however?
It has come a long way, according to Kelley O'Connell, PMP, the Agile Coach at Lincoln Financial Group. She said that there is no content difference between different styles of training and that the various certifying bodies -- including PMI, the Scrum Alliance and others -- include the same materials. “Now, online courses boast the ability to break the virtual classroom into teams and team work spaces to work with through the course” she wrote to IT Business Edge. “This format, web cams, and group-specific work spaces have enabled online training to feel more like an in-person,” she wrote.
It is clear that in a perfect world, where price and distance don’t matter, live classes are best.
“I haven't come across a method I believe replicates the physical learning scenario,” McGannon wrote. “The closest I have seen is a chat forum where the learners met online at a specified time and trade questions, concerns and stories. This replicates that informal learning to some degree - but rarely do the learners take the time to understand each other's background, which could lead to more insightful questions and responses.”
Live versus online adds another layer to what has always been a complex business. The two approaches -- live versus some type of online experience -- are far different. While the informal give and take that is more likely to occur in a live event is one consideration, there are perhaps less dramatic but significant advantages to decentralized learning. What is the best bet for a prospective project manager who has access to both?
The answers are not cut and dried. “I think most importantly, students need to be aware of their own learning style,” wrote O’Connell. “If someone is a focused and disciplined learner, online training is a great option. Some people prefer the interpersonal interaction and networking that comes from an in-person class.”
Whether online or live, experts offer a good deal of advice on how to choose project management training. Goss feels the first step is an introspective assessment of what the person wants from his or her project management career, what they are willing to invest in both time and money and, as O’Connell suggested, a decision on whether in-person or decentralized training is preferred from both the logistical and learning style perspectives.
Once those choices and preferences are made, the prospective project manager can dive down into assessing the many training choices vying for their attention (and money). Among Goss’s suggestions is that shoppers should consider who developed the course, whether it is aimed at specific issues in which the candidate is interested or is a mere recitation of the certification manual, how many people have used the courseware (and how many passed and how many did so on their first try) and, of course, the cost. It is important to contact at least one reference.
O’Connell suggests that shoppers should look for online courses that offer sufficient one-on-one time with instructors or other experts. “A nice hybrid approach is to take an online certification course and then look around locally for others in your area studying for the same exam,” she wrote. “It can really be helpful to meet this group a few times before an exam to share ideas and ask questions.”
The question of whether to focus on online or live project management training has several levels. One is pure practicality: In some cases, live training simply isn’t possible. For those folks, the growth of online training is a great development. Where both are available, candidates must consider their own learning styles.
Finally, candidates must understand that an online experience can never truly match personal attendance, just as the highest fidelity recording can never fully replicate a live concert. In the case of project management training, it is hearing the instructor’s war stories about how he or she solved a complex problem or otherwise worked at the edges to reach a desired outcome. It’s also about the give and take with others in the course. It is also fair to keep in mind that some online courses can work to introduce some of that informality into their courses. It won’t fully neutralize the time and distance differences, but it can reduce the gap without surrendering the advantages offered by online certification training.
Project management is and will always be a complex endeavor filled with technical and human issues.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.