For Dina Urbansky, a development specialist at Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises, RealPage's OneSite property management system is crucial for her job. The system helps the company track occupancies, leases, and rent payments for the 35,000 apartments it owns or manages in 20 states, and Urbansky trains property managers to better understand the system. So when the Carollton, Texas-based technology firm asked select clients to beta-test a new, in-depth online training module on payment processes, Urbansky was first in line. Via her Web browser, Urbansky delved into the module's mini-lessons and narrated slide shows on check scanning, monitoring recurring payments, and accepting payments from a resident portal.

“I actually completed the whole course during two lunch breaks,” Urbansky says. “But even though we've been on the system a year, there were things I picked up on that I hadn't known about before.”

One valuable takeaway for Urbansky was learning how to quickly reconcile Forest City's bank statement with its electronic books, through a tutorial on batch I.D. numbers. Now, she says she can easily match individual payments collected at her properties to the actual numbers that show up in Forest City's account. And best of all? She never had to fly to Dallas. “I can't wait to use the tool at the end of the month,” she says.

Urbansky's book-keeping epiphany is part of a broader trend in multifamily. System providers and operators alike are increasingly using distance learning to train clients and internal staff. Using either on-demand, interactive Web tutorials such as the one Urbansky completed or live online call-in sessions led by a remote trainer, firms are using distance learning and remote technology tools to train employees and customers using complicated software systems. Doing so not only saves time away from the office for staff completing the training, but it also provides dramatic savings on the lodging and travel expenses that stack up when employees must travel to be trained.

From providers like RealPage, which offers more than 90 online courses that were accessed 85,000 times in 2007, to owners like Denver-based REIT UDR, where all 1,389 employees receive regular training via the Web, distance learning is becoming de rigueur. “We have a curriculum written for each job description within UDR, so anytime anyone is onboarded or promoted, we administer that training,” says William Schart, vice president of training and development at UDR. “Distance learning is a key part of that.”

FROM A DISTANCE Like many technologies, distance learning tools have become easier to use. Just as higher processing speeds and broadband Internet access have allowed video to become ubiquitous on the Web, distance training modules run more smoothly—and have fewer kinks—today. And because they're commonly launched from a Web browser, it is no longer required to have a high level of computer literacy.

Whether it's via on-demand content or a time-specific session led remotely by a live instructor, providing training is easier than ever—all you need is a Web-enabled computer. And while software providers often have their own distance training content available over the Web, many multifamily firms, including UDR and Archstone, also use Web-based learning management tools in-house, filled with their own content, to train staff.

“This stuff has been evolving for more than a decade, so it's not brand-new any-more,” says Sanjay Dholakia, senior vice president at Mountain View, Calif.-based SumTotal, one of the largest learning management providers in the country, whose tools allow companies to upload SumTotal's pre-developed content, such as company-specific, in-house training packages or off-the-shelf modules from third-party providers. “It's proven, mature, and advanced.”

That makes distance training a no-brainer for schooling geographically dispersed staffs in a consistent, documented, and trackable way. With travel costs rising, distance learning also helps companies save money, while keeping employees at their own desks more of the time. In fact, distance learning can be carried out for as little as 10 percent to 20 percent of the cost of sending staff to on-site training requiring travel, lodging, and meals, according to Vanessa Pagan, founder of Gainesville, Fla.-based Case Whitney, a distance training consultant. “The savings can be obscene,” she says.

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Yardi Systems says savings can be even more dramatic than that, while still offering a comparable training experience, for Web-savvy staffs. “On average, it costs $6,000 for our clients to send someone to one of our two-day, on-site classes,” says Patty Evans, training specialist at Yardi. “Taking that same class online costs $75.”