Speed Demons

By Lisa Vaas  |  Posted 2001-10-15 Print this article Print

Speed Demons

At First Union-Wachovia, live e-learning fits the training bill for a few reasons. First, it reduces the need to prepare lots of classroom instructors and fly them around to lead classes across the globe for the companys 88,145 employees. The company, with $322 billion in assets, now employs 300 instructors. While it hasnt yet analyzed results of its live e-learning deployments to determine how many fewer instructors they will enable the company to get by with, the number will absolutely be lower, according to Scott Sutker, the companys vice president of e-learning strategy and deployment, in Charlotte, N.C. "It allows us to use fewer trainers since they can teach at multiple locations at the same time and eliminates the travel costs of both the trainers and the instructors," Sutker said.

The combined travel cost savings from keeping instructors and students at home will pay for the Centra eMeeting training platform the company deployed about seven months ago, mainly for IT training. While Sutker declined to quote a cost for the deployment, he said one Centra-based training project is slated to save $200,000 compared with the cost of instructor-led classroom training.

But why not just use asynchronous courseware? Because of its need for long development times. "A lot of [our material relates to] proprietary systems, so we cant buy it off the shelf," Sutker said. Considering that everything has to be done from scratch, First Union-Wachovia often finds its less expensive to prepare instructors than to create asynchronous materials, Sutker said.

First Union-Wachovia isnt the only enterprise latching onto synchronous e-learning. ConsoliDent, a private, $30 million company that operates 27 dental practices across the country, began using Gradepoints Live platform about seven months ago merely as a groupware tool. This was done, said Chief Operating Officer Fred Baxter, to get users accustomed to the platform, which will be used to deliver live e-learning in patient relations, communications, scheduling and other procedures.

Eventually, said Baxter, in Miami, the companys 100 dentists will also be able to use the groupware to receive continuing education, which will be delivered via Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentations, collaboration spaces and chat. The setup requires a dedicated server, which ConsoliDent hosts on-site.

Why live instead of Memorex for this particular group? "Well, we had some self-paced [e-learning], for example, on OSHA training," Baxter said. "But basically, [the material we have to deliver is mostly] on-the-job training with individuals guiding one another as to how a process works."

The live human has to stay for another reason as well: Namely, many employees on the receiving end of e-learning dont have the computer skills to stick with asynchronous training. If they cant figure out what to do in self-paced study, theyll often just give up. But, Baxter said, these same users are giving "very positive feedback" on their initial exposure to the pilot version of live e-learning in which instructors can check in with students to see if they are indeed flummoxed by the technology and need a helping hand. Instructors can also use the application to get a report that shows which students didnt show up.

APL, a 152-year-old, $2.3 billion global container transportation company, is another enterprise that turned to synchronous e-learning because it enabled the company to move training out to workers fast. APL has been using Centras live e-learning products for about a year to train its 12,000-strong work force. APL subsidiary Neptune Orient Lines Ltd.s Global Campus was established in January to prepare and deliver logistics and human resources training to this vast, far-flung audience.

Sigrid Peterson, corporate dean of the NOL Global Campus, said the company has lofty ambitions that match its far-flung empire: to reach out to between 80 percent and 90 percent of APLs work force with e-learning, whether workers are in the large metropolises of Europe or the hinterlands of China, India, Bangladesh, the Middle East or South America.

Again, developing the courseware for self-directed e-learning would have taken too long—not a good thing when you need to stay competitive. "We knew we wanted to deliver learning to more people around the world, and we knew we had to deliver it faster," said Peterson, in Oakland, Calif.

While developing content for live e-learning is quicker and less expensive, its not simply a matter of repurposing classroom materials, experts caution. "You just cant take classroom slides, convert them to HTML and have a talking head deliver it," said James Lundy, an analyst at Gartner. Instead, material such as PowerPoint presentations should be interspersed with engaging, interactive activities, whether its conversation with an instructor or simulations of lab environments.

Although live e-learning represents significant advantages over self-paced e-learning, its not the answer for every learner, experts say. What really matters is the training objective. If, for example, theres good off-the-shelf content for subjects such as IT or professional skills, theres no need to reinvent the wheel by turning to live e-learning. However, in many cases, off-the-shelf content fills in the gaps only when it comes to rudimentary skills, but then enterprises need to bring all learners together to go over how those skills are applied in a particular business. That means, in many cases, theres a case for a blended solution that combines synchronous and asynchronous e-learning.

While IT and e-learning managers will continue to study and debate the relative merits of live and self-paced e-learning for some time to come, one things for sure: The migration of training toward the Web is accelerating.

"Training is moving online for the same reason that companies attempted outsourcing 10 years ago: not because it is better, but because it is cheaper and more measurable," said a recent Gartner report on e-learning.

Well, live e-learning retains the "cheap," and with a little bit of Homo sapiens on the other end of the VOIP connection, it looks like its pushing it toward "better" as well.

Lisa Vaas is News Editor/Operations for eWEEK.com and also serves as editor of the Database topic center. Since 1995, she has also been a Webcast news show anchorperson and a reporter covering the IT industry. She has focused on customer relationship management technology, IT salaries and careers, effects of the H1-B visa on the technology workforce, wireless technology, security, and, most recently, databases and the technologies that touch upon them. Her articles have appeared in eWEEK's print edition, on eWEEK.com, and in the startup IT magazine PC Connection. Prior to becoming a journalist, Vaas experienced an array of eye-opening careers, including driving a cab in Boston, photographing cranky babies in shopping malls, selling cameras, typography and computer training. She stopped a hair short of finishing an M.A. in English at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. She earned a B.S. in Communications from Emerson College. She runs two open-mic reading series in Boston and currently keeps bees in her home in Mashpee, Mass.

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