E-Live and Well

Living, breathing instructors are back in e-learning picture.

Life was so much simpler for e-learning pioneers like Patricia McCormick before the non-IT people showed up.

It used to be that the Internal Revenue Service School of Information Technology Austin campus—where McCormick is project leader—delivered training only to the IRS Unix administrators and C programmers—a subset of the IRS 10,000-person IT department. That bunch was a snap to train. All you had to do was buy off-the-shelf textbooks, get the students to Telnet into the Unix system to do their exercises and write test programs, set them up with a mentor to nag them into doing the work, and bam, you had smarter IT people.

Then came 1995, and things started to change. The school picked up responsibility for training all IRS end users and users from smaller agencies, including the Treasury Department, to the tune of 150,000 workers.

Talk about the need to scale. But it wasnt the newcomers numbers that popped everybodys pocket protectors—it was their nature. These strange new beings wanted, yes, more than a Telnet connection or even Web access to e-learning content. In fact, rather than self-paced e-learning—also known as asynchronous e-learning—they wanted contact with an actual human being—a real, live instructor.

That meant major culture shock. "Were all IT people," said McCormick, at the school in Austin, Texas. "To us, the idea that everybody wasnt thrilled with the idea of getting a book and reading by themselves until they learned how to do it, that was a surprise."

As more and more organizations attempt to roll out e-learning beyond the small core of IT-savvy, motivated learners, they face this question: How do you get employees to show up for class when "class" is self-paced study—that is, just an Internet connection or a CD-ROM, with no instructors or classmates lending support? Many enterprises—including the IRS IT schools Austin campus, First Union-Wachovia, ConsoliDent Inc. and APL Ltd.—are finding the answer lies in synchronous, or live, e-learning. This form of e-learning entails live instructors who lead regularly scheduled classes and engage students in live chat or question-and- answer dialogues via VOIP (voice-over-IP) connections and standard Web browsers hooked into software from vendors such as Centra Software Inc., of Lexington, Mass.; Global Knowledge Inc., of Cary, N.C.; Gradepoint Inc., of Detroit; and KnowledgeNet.com Inc., of Scottsdale, Ariz., among others. Content for this approach to e-learning, training experts say, can be less expensive to develop than even self-paced e-learning. And, for many employees, it can be much more effective.

Thats been the experience so far at the IRS school, which is now piloting a program in which Centras eMeeting live e-learning classroom software is being used to teach Visual Basic classes online. Whereas students are still expected to learn the material on their own via the schools asynchronous venues—including electronic books from SmartForce plc., Teach.com and ActiveEducation—they also meet in virtual classes three times a week to discuss the material.

Will this type of live e-learning help make the new end-user population happy with e-learning when it gets rolled out? McCormick thinks it stands a good chance. "Given a choice, they do prefer social contact," she said.