Go to the Head of the Class

Cisco pushes to help partners get the most out of e-learning.

When a company integrates more than 30 new acquisitions into its product line in just two years, it can be quite a challenge to keep 40,000 channel partners current on the latest product mixes, systems-engineering skills and never-ending software revisions.

Ciscos Kevin MacRitchie lives for the challenge. "Its all about making sure customers are satisfied," says MacRitchie, who is VP of worldwide channels technical operations.

Like most vendors, Cisco used to rely on paper and electronic mailings to distribute basic new product and training information. Partners depended on expensive, time-consuming classroom training for the most advanced subjects. Those media are still the predominant train- ing vehicles, but MacRitchie says electronic learning is rapidly gaining adherents and yielding big payoffs for partners and customers.

"Our major push this past year has been educational velocity, the speed at which our partners can attain basic competence and educational focus," he says. Ciscos Web-based Partner E-Learning Connection (PELC), launched barely a year ago, has become the major accelerator of Ciscos educational velocity.

Recognizing that different individuals learn best using different media, PELC provides access to materials in many different formats: text, video-on-demand, interactive Web-based courses, virtual labs, one-to-one mentoring and other resources.

The programs popularity has increased. "Momentum has really been building behind the E-Learning Connection during the past six months," says MacRitchie.

New subscribers averaged 500 per week last year but have jumped to more than 900 per week since January 2001, he says.

The PELC initiative translates into big cost savings for partners. "On travel expenses alone, we estimate we save over $1,500 each time we take an e-learning class. With over 100 engineers nationwide, this adds up quickly," says Mark Zerbe, president of Kent Datacomm, a Cisco partner with offices in 21 U.S. cities. "The Partner E-Learning Connection has been very useful to us as a way to allow our engineers to maintain our high level of customer service and support while they also sharpen their technical skills."

Ciscos PELC program also provides planning tools to help partners map their shortest paths to certification. "We provide pretests, which measure how much an individual already knows," explains MacRitchie, "then suggest what parts of a course he needs to learn."

While life-experience credits can shave hours of study off a certification program, the system "remembers" each student and customizes content presentation to his or her competency level.

Pure Web-based education is used mainly for basic "college level 101" training such as basic network theory and how to configure a simple router setup. At the "200 level," partners get into instructor-led training via online "virtual labs" and classroom-based "reality simulations."

These "perfect practice" environments range from simple setups of three routers and switches to gradually more complex simulations of situations that engineers are likely to encounter in the messy real world. "Our goal is to give them confidence at each stage of the learning process," says MacRitchie.

After completion of the basic levels, partners are guided in choosing a Cisco Specialization curriculum. Specialization courses are conducted mainly in classrooms with Cisco training specialists. With PELC, students can interact one-on-one with senior Cisco engineers who serve as mentors.