E-Learning Scales Up

Huge federal training programs mix net-based systems, classroom study.

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."