There's no substitute for classroom instruction, especially if the teacher is good, but it's not the only path to improving professional skills. If time, travel or cost make classroom training impractical, there have long been alternatives based on self-paced printed study guides.
However digital technology has given rise to a much broader, and in many ways more effective, array of educational tools for all types of instruction and training. Often referred to under the broad category e-learning, these new tools take advantage of the multiple media and easy distribution offered by digital platforms such as DVDs, the Internet and PC-based software.
The National Private Truck Council (NPTC) founded the Fleet Management Institute in 1993 to help members obtain advanced professional training. Based on seminars complemented by home-study manuals, the institute's program leads to a Certified Transportation Professional (CTP) designation that requires completing a proscribed course of study and passing a rigorous certification exam.
Two years ago, the association decided it was time to extend that educational effort with a new e-learning resource it calls the Fleet Learning Center (www.fleetlearningcenter.org). Using the Internet as the delivery mechanism, the learning center offers basic training in a variety of fleet management areas such as finance, human resources, maintenance, operations and safety.
“It can't replace the face-to-face group setting of a classroom,” says NPTC president and CEO Gary Petty. “Sharing experiences and ideas, networking, getting immediate feedback from peers and instructors are an important part of the classroom experience. You can't get that in the black and white world of online text.”
However, the strengths of e-learning give the association a valuable supplement to their classroom efforts. While the CTP is intended for advanced fleet management training, the new e-learning courses are aimed at “entry to intermediate students in terms of complexity,” says Petty. “Many are people moving into new functions within their company, say drivers coming off the road to become dispatchers. Others use them as quick refresher course in areas like regulations or human resources that change quickly.”
Web-based instruction offers a number of benefits for that level of training. First, costs can be kept relatively low - NPTC's individual online courses are $150 for members and $250 for others — and it works with anyone's schedule. Compared to printed textbooks, the online digital format also makes it simpler and less costly to continuously update material so the content is always fresh and current.
But most importantly, training is individualized, with progress measured by students' actual performance as they work through the online material.
“The content is right in front of the student on screen,” according to Petty. “Students have the ability to tailor the learning experience to meet their needs. For example, they have the opportunity to drill down as far as they want when working in a particular section, downloading forms or visiting related sites.”
And at the end of each section, students are tested to see if they've mastered the material before being allowed to move on to the next lesson. “Scoring is immediate and incorrect answers are identified, complete with links back to the relevant sections,” Petty explains.
Launched at the end of 2003, a few thousand of the online courses have already been completed,” says Petty. “At a time when many are looking for more effective ways to enhance the skill set of their employees, web-based training provides access to high-quality education and training at the convenience of the learner.”
The cliche is a picture equals a thousand words, and when it comes to education seeing is often the most effective way to deliver the message. While the Internet is a good medium for quick distribution of instructional material that includes text and static graphics, there are technical limitations when it comes to delivering high-quality video training.
But the DVD format is perfectly suited to visually based e-learning. “It's the most universal of the digital delivery platforms,” says Geoff Clendenning, co-founder of Big Truck TV (www.bttv.com). “Almost everyone is familiar with it, it's relatively simple to use, and it can be used in a PC at the office or on an airline flight, or taken home to view. The DVD is just a convenient package for educational material.”
BTTV has just released the first DVD in its “Fleet Executive E-learning DVD Series.” Developed for upper level fleet managers and executives, the subscription-based series will deliver six DVDs a year that are intended to provide continuous learning for those executives and help them understand complex business decisions in a rapidly changing business environment. The discs will cover new technology, human resources, maintenance, profitability, safety and regulations, and environmental issues.
FLEET OWNER is partnering with BTTV on the project, providing overall editorial direction, as well as helping develop the content for the individual discs.
Each disc in the series will include four case studies exploring a different aspect of the overall theme. The first technology disc, for example, looks at wireless communications, including case studies that focus on service routes, asset utilization with trailer tracking, and integration with other fleet information systems.
“When we looked at the fleet market, we saw executives in key positions making critical decisions daily,” says Michael Carpentier, BTTV's other co-founder. “This is a generation of managers who are used to a continuous learning environment, but there wasn't much out there to support them.”
The case study approach was reached after surveying the audience. “When we asked them about how they liked to learn, they told us they weren't looking for theoretical information,” says Clendenning. “They're not looking for skills-based learning with step-by-step instructions. Their objective as executives is to understand how to execute solutions that work. The best way to do that is to see how others have handled a problem and adapt that to your own situation.”
Distributing the discs by annual subscription helps keep the information fresh and up to date. “We didn't want to sell the same disc for four years,” Clendenning says. “What happened a few years ago is no longer relevant in today's fleet environment.”
“Unlike a seminar, which is limited to just a few people and case studies over few days, the discs can be used multiple times within a fleet,” says Carpentier. They can be used as an educational tool for the fleet's entire management team.”
Given the flexibility of digital content, e-learning can also use multiple delivery mechanisms based on who needs to be trained and what they need to learn. Good examples of this hybrid approach are the driver-training tools developed by Instructional Technologies Inc.
The company's original training system is TREAD-1, which uses Apple Macintosh computers to provide 40 different interactive lessons for truck drivers. The computers with touch screens are sent to fleet terminals and other driver locations pre-programmed with all 40 self-contained courses covering topics such as defensive driving, fuel management, hours-of-service, accident procedures and other driver-safety skills.
A driver passing through a terminal with the TREAD-1 computers can sign in to take a course at any time. The courses are based on Professional Driver Training Institute standards. Each is divided into multiple sections that have to be passed with “100% mastery” before the driver can move on to the next. The driver can choose to complete the course in a single sitting, or save it and come back to it on any TREAD-1 computer at a later date.
Every night the computers automatically sign into ITI's main server to deliver all test-taking records to a central database where they can be accessed by fleet mangers.
“When we started TREAD-1 six years ago, not many drivers had Internet access and fewer still had high-speed access, so we decided to go with computer terminals,” says E. Bruce Weiss, ITI's executive vp. “Also we didn't want the lessons to be photos with a voice over talking at the driver. We wanted high-quality video with a movie-like feel.”
Today, ITI's research finds that 80% of drivers have high-speed Internet access, and those that do not can get it for free at local libraries. So when Ryder System approached ITI about providing an Internet-based version of its driver training e-learning series, the company developed Pro-TREAD.
“We've already remade 15 of our 40 original TREAD-1 lessons for the Internet version,” says Weiss. But while it might seem that ITI would want to convert all of its users to the Internet version, which is easier to manage and doesn't require expensive computer terminals, Weiss says that isn't the case.
The information covered is identical, but each of the platforms has its own strengths. For example, Weiss points out, the film-like quality of the terminal version can't be duplicated online, even with high-speed access. “But the online version is interactive, and it can let a driver branch out to more specific information,” he says.
The terminal training product, however, provides better control over who actually takes the lessons, an important feature for fleets that use TREAD-1 as a risk management tool, as well as an educational resource. “You can't prove who completed the course over an Internet connection with ProDRIVER,” says Weiss. “With the terminal, you can. So fleets can choose the one that best suits their needs.”
Taking full advantage of digital technology, ITI has also developed a third driver-training tool called E-TREAD. “It's our lessons on a disposable CD,” Weiss explains. “Driver training schools give it to students to complete at home to prepare them for their on-road training.”
E-learning is never going to completely replace the classroom, especially when it comes to skills that require hands-on experience. But it can provide effective training and education for many in trucking who have neither the time nor money to invest in more traditional schooling. While these three examples are among the best available in their individual areas of expertise, there are many others specifically developed for all types and levels of training needed to run a successful fleet operation. Whether it's in the shop, on the road, in the office or in the boardroom, everyone can benefit from the lessons offered by this newest educational resource.