Training: CDs set to become managers' greatest hits: Interactive LaserDisc has proved an effective teaching medium - now its little brother is promising an education revolution

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The Independent Online
COMPACT DISCS have moved on from Dire Straits to greater things: they are about to become important weapons in the armoury of the training manager.

Training has always been an area in which people are willing to try new ideas. Indeed, it can be claimed that the much- vaunted 'multimedia revolution' would not be happening had training managers not given it early encouragement.

After the Second World War, a great deal of research went into the best ways of training people. Much of it was funded by the military, although civilian organisations soon cottoned on to three principles that emerged. These were: that people learn best by participation; that they need near-immediate feedback; and that they should be able to work at their own pace.

Systems that attempted to meet these criteria were developed. In programme learning, for example, trainees worked their way through multiple- choice questions: if they gave a wrong answer, they were told what mistake they had made to bring them back on course. It worked well, but it was hard work for the trainers who had to keep score. What was needed was some sort of automated system that would keep the tally for them.

The US government decided that the answer lay in computers and, in the early 1970s, decided to fund pilot schemes to see how they could be used. One system linked mini-computers to television sets: the student would use the terminal to answer questions appearing on the screen.

These devices were expensive, and it was the late 1970s before a system with mass appeal appeared: Pioneer, a Japanese electronics company, launched its LaserDisc.

The laserdisc, which is essentially a large compact disc, was originally intended as a rival for the video cassette, because it could carry high-quality film and sound and could be routed through a television set.

In Japan, it is still seen as an alternative to a VCR system, but elsewhere it would have slipped into oblivion - had it not been for the training industry. Training specialists saw that it fulfilled one of the three criteria on its own: because a trainee could accurately jump from point to point, he could go at his own pace. And connected to a computer it could fulfil the other two criteria: trainees would participate by answering questions, and would be told immediately if they gave right answers.

Interactive video, the name given to the combined laserdisc and computer, allowed a film to be shown in a 'window' within a computer graphic. It was thus possible to combine text, graphics, video and sound in one machine - true multimedia.

Futuremedia, based in Arundel, West Sussex, is one of the leading producers of laserdisc-based training material. Its first big project was to produce a programme for Ford to teach workers Statistical Process Control, a quality control system.

The package has been translated into several languages and has trained hundreds of thousands of people in Ford and its supplying companies. Since then, Futuremedia has produced many specialist interactive video courses: Derek Moore, its managing director, said the company had sold more laserdiscs last year than ever before.

Laserdisc has disadvantages, too. Special machines have to be installed and they cost at least pounds 1,000 each. It would be better if training discs could be run on equipment that companies already have.

Enter the CD-Rom, the system that can store data, text and graphics in vast quantities on one disc - and play it back through a computer (or, in the case of the Philips CD-I variant, a television set).

It is interactive and cheaper than a laserdisc, and will soon be commonplace. Half the Apple computers shipped this year will have built-in CD-Rom drives. Personal computers are sure to follow.

Until very recently, its disadvantage was that it could not play video, which is a useful laserdisc training feature. That problem has now been cracked with the so-called MPEG board - a device that plugs into a computer or CD-I player and 'compresses' the data that make up a film so much that it can fit on to a CD.

There is a consensus that MPEG boards will spread, and Futuremedia is now producing a number of programmes on CD-I, and is looking at ways of transferring material from laserdisc to CD.

'At some point CDs will take over completely,' Dr Moore said. 'The timing depends on how fast the cost of the platforms falls and the availability of published material.'

Eventually, on-line delivery of material could revolutionise the way training courses are sold. 'At the moment we make products, put them in a box and hope the client comes back for more,' Dr Moore said. 'Just imagine if you could do a deal with a client where we could provide any combination of training courses down the telephone line, and be paid according to what we provided.'