E-Learning Scales Up

By John S. McCright  |  Posted 2002-08-05

E-Learning Scales Up

Corporate training has come a long way from the one-room schoolhouse where a single teacher lectured to a handful of students. Federal agencies, in particular, face daunting challenges keeping vast numbers of employees spread across many time zones up-to-date on the latest skills.

Agencies in the State Department, the Agriculture Department and the U.S. Army are finding that a combination of newer Internet-based e-learning systems and old-fashioned classroom instruction are letting them field better-prepared employees.

The State Departments Foreign Service Institute last week announced that its School of Applied Information Technology, or SAIT, was deploying SmartForce plc.s namesake e-learning solution. The Redwood City, Calif., developers IT training programs will be available to some 30,000 department employees in nearly 250 countries. The training will be delivered as self-paced, Web-based tutorials on the Internet and on the departments OpenNet intranet, and on CDs where network access is not available. Courses will range from IT certification primers for the Microsoft (Corp.) Certified Systems Engineer test and Web design courses all the way to broadly applicable Microsoft Office tutorials. The goal is to raise the competency of the IT staff as the department continues a multiyear technology upgrade. To encourage participation, employees are being compensated after they achieve benchmark IT certifications.

Janette Corsbie, distance learning program director at SAIT, has found that a blend of Internet-based and classroom learning works best when dealing with the thousands of people enrolled in her program. "We strongly encourage all of our users that are coming for traditional classes to do distance classes first," said Corsbie, in Washington. "My personal opinion is that the blended environment is more effective than strictly [online courses] or [in- person instruction]."

Providing an e-learning component assures that every employee is well-prepared when they arrive for live instruction. "We have a very diverse work force— were in 247 countries; we have local nationals that work in each embassy," Corsbie said. "E-learning allows them to learn at their own pace, to study what they want and in the order that best prepares them to do their work best."

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SmartForces live-monitor capability, by which users of the online system can ask questions on the fly of SmartForce employees via e-mail or instant messages, is a big plus, Corsbie said. The mentoring program includes white papers and seminars that offer more information.

Corsbie has seen distance learning evolve firsthand. When she came to the State Department 22 years ago, there were foreign postings where training manuals were not available. As a result, IT workers had to be brought back to Washington in some cases to learn new skills, or they muddled through IT problems as best they could. "When I came into the foreign service, we had a very short period of training and a lot of on-the-job training," Corsbie said. "Its very expensive for us to bring a student back for training."

Getting staff better prepared for a class before they arrive in front of the teacher is a key goal of an e-learning initiative at the U.S. Armys Battle Command Training Program. The BCTP, which trains National Guard members in basic warfare skills such as battlefield operations, created CD-based prep courses that guardsmen studied before coming to the Fort Leavenworth, Kan., campus for direct instruction. But Major Floyd Lucas said that with 400 people enrolled in the training at any given time, keeping track of who had taken the CD-based courses and their results quickly became work-intensive. "With the CD package we also realized we couldnt keep the information current," Lucas said.

BCTP began deploying mGen Inc.s mGen Enterprise Web-based, e-learning software in March. It is too early to tell what impact the online course has had. But the school said it is hoping that its Observer Trainers, the officers who write the online course material and deliver the in- person classes, will be able to check up on incoming students and tailor the courses to their needs. "It gives soldiers a benchmark, and it gives OTs a way to get online and pull reports and analyze where units are collectively ... and determine if a unit has a weakness ... so they can adjust the training," Lucas said.

Next month, the BCTP will update its mGen deployment to give soldiers access to it through the Army Knowledge Online enterprise portal. In the future, Lucas would like to automatically push to the OTs reports on how prep courses are going.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agricultures Risk Management Agency has begun deploying mGen Enterprise to educate remote staff around the country on its crop insurance and other programs, as well as to educate farmers and farm interest groups.

"How do you reach the greatest number of people in the most economical way? The Internet seemed the most logical way," said Jody Firmani, distance learning coordinator, in Washington.

The distance learning system is meant to augment current courses, not replace them. For instance, the agency delivers online and in-person a course that teaches farmers how to take advantage of the dairy options market. Firmani said everyone who signed up for the in-person classes also browsed through the online version, probably to solidify the concepts covered in the classroom. "[Distance learning] wont totally replace [the classroom]," Firmani said.

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