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.
Of course, e-learning has always had the lure of cost savings. But recent events have made any technology that helps avoid travel all the more attractive. Gartner Inc., of Stamford, Conn., projects the global market for e-learning will grow from $2.1 billion this year to $33.6 billion in 2005—about a 100 percent compound annual growth rate.
Asynchronous e-learning has long found its sweet spot with the knowledge-intensive industries where employees were familiar with technology to begin with, experts say. “They dont care if the course is set up to be not terribly engaging. They get the information they need to solve a particular computing problem and move on,” said Yegin Chen, an analyst at Eduventures.com Inc., a Boston research company that reports on the education industry.
Its only now, as enterprises are rolling out e-learning to nontechie types, that its shortcomings are being brought to light. “Its often perceived as cold, sometimes less than stimulating, and not very responsive to an individuals questions and learning needs,” Chen said.
Other drawbacks to asynchronous e-learning include long implementation times. Behind-the-firewall training solutions on complicated learning management systems, such as those from Docent Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., or Thinq Learning Solutions Inc., of Billerica, Mass., can take up to six months to customize, develop and install, experts say. Simply developing content for self-paced e-learning is the biggest part of the battle. Its creation entails scores of computer programmers, graphic designers and subject matter experts. In comparison, Chen said, skilled instructors can easily transition course material prepared for live classroom use—including slides, overheads, graphics and even notes jotted on blackboards—to live e-learning.
Besides being quicker to deploy, synchronous e-learning can make more efficient use of instructors than traditional classroom training. Gartner reports instructor-led e-learning seminars are appropriate for groups of up to 1,000 students.
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.