When it comes to employee education, there’s probably nothing better than in-person training, but then again, there’s probably nothing more expensive, either.

For small businesses with far-flung offices or with a lot of work-at-homers, in-person training is impractical, especially as airline fares keep climbing.

An increasingly popular alternative is eLearning, Web-based applications that walk employees through everything from IT certifications to compliance regulations. Such applications, which range from PowerPoint to podcasting, used to be available just to large businesses, but in the past few years, the Web has leveled the playing field.

“Nowadays, you can log on to a website,” said Julie Ogilvie, vice president of corporate marketing for SkillSoft, an eLearning firm in Nashua, N.H. “You don’t need an IT department to take advantage of it.”

Catching on with remote employees

Such inclusiveness has fueled growth. According to IDC, Framingham, Mass., the U.S. corporate eLearning marketing hit $9.7 billion in 2007. Claire Schooley, an analyst with Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., says remote employees are the main reason that eLearning is catching on. “It’s an increasingly attractive option,” she says.

Datatel, a higher education software firm in Fairfax, Va., with about 500 employees, contracted with SkillSoft last September. The company now has access to about 1,500 training programs from SkillSoft on subjects ranging from desktop software to information technology to business skills. Jenn Balcom, senior manager of learning and development for Datatel, says about one-third of the company’s employees are remote and “a lot of our consultants are on the road.” Tapping SkillSoft was a way of educating the workforce without spending a lot of money on logistics. “It’s a sound investment,” Balcom says. “It knocked down our cost [of training] per employee.” (Balcom declined to discuss the financial details of the transaction. Ogilvie says most companies tend to go by a three-year subscription model.)

Adding a testing element

Proponents of eLearning say the programs work best when there’s a testing element to them. All of SkillSoft’s programs for instance have assessments embedded in them and “everything is trackable,” Ogilvie says. That’s an important distinction since standards for training can vary widely. “If you send out a manual, you have no idea how many people read it,” Ogilvie says by way of example.

Savvy companies can also benefit by using a mix of eLearning and standard in-person classroom learning. Ogilvie says many companies use SkillSoft’s eLearning programs to bring employees to a certain level and then start in-person classes three or four hours into the subject matter. Schooley said such “blended learning” is often the norm.

Finally, another selling point for eLearning is that it can be arguably the best way to reach tech-savvy young employees who are just joining the workforce. Some fast-food restaurants have even adopted SkillSoft programs that seem more like gaming, all the better to capture the interest of teen employees. Programs aimed at such employees teaching them how to make a burger or a cup of coffee include a “dash of gaming,” Ogilvie says.