The [Substitute] Teacher
By Randy Southerland

xecutives and employees are trading expensive air travel for the convenience of real-time, online education. The rewards can be great, but is this training medium right for your company?

In the so called knowledge-economy, it’s not surprising that education and training are prime determinates of business success. Researchers working with data compiled between 1997 and 2000 by the American Society for Taining and Development (ASTD) tracked training and education expenditures by companies and found those spending the most performed better and had higher share prices than the companies that spent the least.

Most corporate education still takes place the old-fashioned way — face-to-face. Hired experts, perhaps traveling from location to location, stand in front of a classroom and lecture. This method also carries the expense of travel and time away from the job. In the aftermath of September 11, business travel has slowed, and executives are seeing increased value in technology that still gives employees the training that they need, but keeps them o nthe job and out of the airport.

Increasingly, employee education is coming from desktop computers. Instead of traveling to far-off locations, the training is coming to them. It arrives in the form of wither real-time, Web-based conferencing that links students around the country with an instructor, or from packaged e-learning courses that teach through text on a computer screen given life by computer graphics and Web links.

This year, an estimated $10.3 billion will be spent on e-learning initiatives, according to a study by the Sunnyvale, California-based consulting firm Business and corporations will account for $4.6 billion of that total.

The figure may seem small compared to the $772 billion the National Center for Education Statistics estimates training and education generates, or even the $66 billion corporate share. Yet, e-education segment is expected to rise to $83.1 billion by 2004 and then more than double to $212.9 billion in 2011. By then, business and corporations will be spending nearly $43 billion on e-education for their employees.

Although the possibility of learning in a virtual environment first became evident in the early-90s, the promise has always seemed greater than the reality.

“It’s become a better value proposition for the customer that’s more easily available and more readily accepted,” says Jim Everidge, president and CEO of Rapid Learning Deployment, a corporate learning consulting firm in Alpharetta. “The availability of widespread Internet access has changed the equation somewhat. September 11 provided the catalyst to stop people from just traveling for training.”

Companies that market online learning say managers are becoming more accepting of their products as they see how they can improve their bottom line.

“They understand the idea because it’s been out there for a few years now, but they still want to see their return on investment,” says Jeff Wood, CEO of Atlanta-based Web Toolset.

With most Fortune 500 companies embarking on some kind of e-learning venture as part of their training regimen, the shift from live trainers to virtual classrooms will continue to accelerate at all levels. Many are already paying for their employees to take online courses offered by colleges, associations and other institutions. The bigger firms are also making the leap to building their own library of online content. Small and mid-sized companies that can’t afford their own learning management system can access — and even brand as their own — libraries of packaged courses hosted by outside development companies.

Atlanta-based ChoicePoint, a provider of identification and credential verification services, is building an employee training and education program that includes e-learning. With 5,000 employees throughout its 70 locations in 28 states, officials decided providing online education was essential to improving the company’s financial position.

“This is really the first time in history that technology has caught up with the need for training,” says Phil Stroud, director of performance development at ChoicePoint. “We now have access to learning technology that can document the training, measure it and have employees put together performance development plans so they know what’s needed for the skills of their specific job.”

Taking the plunge toward e-learning, however, can present difficulties. Companies that want to get into e-learning as a form of training must have a clear grasp pf what they want their employees to know. The programs must fit the material being taught and engage the interest of the students. Otherwise, a considerable investment may be lost on developing courses that don’t accomplish corporate training objectives.
Brian Fleming, president of Norcross-based HelpWrite, says judging the quality and efficacy of e-learning programs can be tough. There are a few widely accepted standards for quality even when a company is ready to reach deep into its corporate pockets. Perhaps the best way to determine if you’re getting your money’s worth is by the level of acceptance from employees themselves.

“If, when it is presented, it’s effective training and (employees) feel comfortable with it, they generally accept it and begin using it right away,” he syas. “If not, there is a big rejection and fight against change.”

Efforts to market online learning have not always been successful, but 3-education promoters hope those days are gone and the corporate world is now ready to go online.

ChoicePoint employees surveyed by the Gallup organization said they preferred taking employee training courses online vs. leaving their desks for a face-to-face session. These employees — 85 percent of whom have a PC at their desk — are becoming increaasingly comfortable with their computers and the options for learning that they offer, according to Stroud.

State governments, including Georgia, are also helping to accelerate the process by offering tax incentives to companies that can demonstrate they are improving their employees’ skills. ChoicePoint, for example, received a $100,00 tax credit during 2000 because its online learning programs enable the company to test and measure what their employees had learned.

“That’s quantifiable knowledge gain, and we were able to take that to the State of Georgia and demonstrate our employees are, in fact, more valuable because of this new knowledge they have gained,” says Stroud.

The path to developing an effective e-learning program begins with a clear vision of what you want to accomplish within your business. E-education, in other words, has to be tied to the bottom line.

“You have to have the right business case for it and the right student motivation to make it happen,” cautions Everidge.

In order to build a successful e-learning program, companies must consider not only their goals, but their budget as well. They must determine whether the material they want to teach can be successfully presented in an e-learning format or if it needs to be complemented by other forms of education and training such as face-to-face instructor.

Everidge adds the most successful e-learning its directed toward tackling a specific need. In the early stages, it becomes easier to gain acceptance and acquire funding when you can demonstrate the initiative is tied to a particular business driver, he says.

“In most cases, the best kind of training is balanced learning programs that have some (elements) of instructor-led, some e-learning and some conventional classroom,” advises Fleming. “Usually the more types (of learning) and the more methodologies used, the better the retention of the students.”

A new hire can be orientated to his job and his company at a much faster pace if he doesn’t have to attend classes and listen to information he may already know, says ChoicePoint’s Stroud.

“If you can create a culture where people become proficient at their jobs in one-fourth or one-fifth the time, that’s a dramatic impact,” observes Everidge.

Through e-learning, companies can also apply the principle of “just in time” to training, says Alok Srivastava, associate professor of management at Georgia State University.

He believes “online learning allows a person to choose the information they need the most at the most critical time.” Knowledge is at your desktop when you want it. Because the course or training program can be accessed through a computer — and at a convenient time — employees are not tied to a fixed schedule.

Harold Wyatt, a senior associate with the commercial real estate firm Carter & Associates, recently completed a 60-hour course for broker licensure using a computer-based program offered by the Georgia Institute of Real Esatate.

“My (real estate) clients are people who need things done when they need them done,” says Wyatt. “Therefore, I couldn’t be chained to a classroom. I had to do this on my own time. I chose when I could budget time to deal with clients in my business, and to budget time after hours or early in the morning to spend time on the material.”

Through computer-based learning, he was able to control his own schedule. In fact, without access to e-learning, fulfilling these educational requirements would’ve been nearly impossible.

“Online learning has advanced so much compared to where it was three years ago,” say Kris Turnbull, director of corporate and technology training at Kennesaw State University, which offers dozens of online and technology courses each year. “It’s a much better product. Before, (e-learning courses) were very much like a Power Point slide show. Now they’re becoming more interactive, forcing you to think through things and complete projects or homework assignments. It gives you feedback to where you’re doing well and where you’re not doing so well.”

While the look and content of courses can vary tremendously, they generally fall into two categories: synchronistic and asynchronistic. Synchronistic courses take place in real-time and allow students to directly interact with their teacher and classmates. These are truly virtual classrooms that require you to be at your computer during class.

Most courses, however, are asynchronistic. The interaction is with a computer program that may require you to read text, watch video images or perhaps perform exercises or answer questions. Contact with other humans — if there is any — comes through email, posting comments to a bulletin board or entering a chat room.

Companies can also choose between buying an “off-the-shelf” course on a particular subject, or retaining a company to develop content geared to its individual needs.

A large number of private firms, along with traditional colleges and universities, offer a vast catalog of pre-packaged courses on everything from customer service methods and sexual harassment to OSHA requirements. While it might seem the academic world would be a prime source for online training for business, that has generally not been the case.

“In an ideal world, colleges and universities should be helping their corporate clients,” says GSU’s Scrivastava. “The reality is universities and colleges are resource deficient. A more meaningful delivery of business education will require extensive partnerships between universities and businesses.”

Although a number of universities have launched Web-based MBA programs, he contends online higher education requires a very different mindset. The market is not ripe for this form of learning. Programs can be greatly enhanced with a combination of face-to-face meetings and online delivery of resources. Universities can easily deliver custom programs in a classroom setting and make the content available online to corporate clients for just-in-time training, says Srivastava.

Atlanta based EpicLearning not only develops computer-based courses for companies, it also hosts both proprietary and packaged material on its server for companies such as Randstad.

“We built (Randstad’s) learning management systems,” says Burr J. Warne, CEO of EpicLearning.

An internal staff member or temporary employee of Randstad, for example, can log onto a Website called “Randstad University” from any computer. There, they can chose from a catalog of more than two dozen courses within each employee’s own “personal learning center.”

“In it (the learning center) are the courses (the company) wants the employees to have,” says Warne. “That employee has ‘X’ amount of time to take the course, and the company can get reports on the employee’s progress in their training plan.”

Although courses may teach general skills, they are not specifically tailored to an individual organization’s workforce needs. To make these products more appealing, vendors are making it possible to customize courses by adding a certain amount of company-specific information. While it may not be a tailored made suit just for you, it fits better than an of the rack-model.

The other — and more costly — alternative is to develop your own, and there are many companies in the market eager to help you do so. The benefits of using custom programs are immense. HelpWrite, for example, developed a program to instruct users of a sophisticated firing range simulator developed by Suwanee-based Firearms Training Systems.

“Instead of shooting bullets, the simulator fires a laser beam at a projected image,” explains Fleming. The program was developed to teach operators, including U.S. Marine Corp. Firearm instructors, how to operate simulators.

A number of companies that create custom courses end up hiring a company such as Web Toolset to convert an existing training course into a computer-based program.

“We focus on a course (where companies) are already using stand-up trainers to present,” says Wood. “We can go in and convert that material in a pretty cost-effective way to go online learning. That way, we take out some of the cost instructional design and script writing.”

His company may videotape the instructor and then use the tape to produce a course with some mix of audio, video, text, graphics and Flash animations, depending on the material itself and any bandwidth requirements. Often, the company will also add questions and testing throughout a course.

The more sophisticated programs allow the company to track how each employee is learning through a learning management system that becomes part of the human resources computer system. Usage, amount of time spent on particular pages and progress can all become part of the database. While this technology offersthe promise of tailoring material to learner’s individual needs, it also raises the specter of the corporation as big brother.

Through control of courses for all employees, the company can manage for all employees, the company can manage how culture is shaped, leaving little room for deviation from established policy.

This approach can be particularly useful when a company is going through a merger and acquisition phase. E-learning then becomes a tool for creating one culture and one set of business processes at a much more rapid rate.

The economy or e-education also gives companies the ability to create courses for customers as well as employees. Commercial e-learning programs can educate buyers on how to use products, reducing the cost of follow-up customer service and avoiding customer dissatisfaction.
Creating e-learning, particularly the custom variety, is not cheap, and not every company can justify the costs of developing its own courses. A firm with 2,000 knowledge workers or a retailer with 30,000 sales associates selling the same products might be ideal candidates for a course geared to a single topic. On the other hand, a large manufacturing firm with employees divided into 30 different specialties might not be. Cost is also determined by how sophisticated the program needs to be. Factors associated with costs include: the amount of hosting and interaction that will be necessary; whether it will contain links to experts who can answer a student’s questions; and whether it will use Hollywood-style video production.

A good example of this advanced — and expensive — technology can be found in a course developed for doctors and nurses at Tenet Healthcare. The program included sophisticated, life-like, 3-D animation to demonstrate scar tissue on an arm. The software enabled the user to look completely around the limb and see it from different angles.

While the promises are great, the cost of creating e-courses can be prohibitive for small and mid-sized firms. Most e-learning companies break down prices according to student hours — how long it takes to complete the course. While prices can vary widely, a company can expect to spend as a much as $30,000 to $50,000 per hour for a course complete with streaming video, interactive simulations and built-in testing.

Fewer than 20 percent of e-learning content being produced fits into this custom model, according to Warne.

Getting an ASP such as EpicLearning to host e-learning material is also a cost-effective way of providing training. Off-the-shelf, pre-packaged courses can be purchased for as little as $5 to $10 per employee depending on the type of course purchased and the number of employees. The simple so-called “page-turning” courses — little more than pages of text on the screen — sometimes go for as little as $1 to $2 per employee when purchased in bulk.

The hosting companies also frequently allow companies to purchase courses as they go with no upfront fees. That can save the expense of creating an in-house learning management system.

While the opportunities are many, pitfalls still remain. Purchasing inexpensive productions that don’t engage the employee can be a total waste of money. “The quality of content is all over the map,” says Warne. “Price is usually what helps determine the quality of the course.”

Experts caution that attempting to merely transfer the classroom to the Web is also unlikely to produce good results.

“We have to understand this is a self-driven, learner-orientated environment, and not try to duplicate what we do in the classroom,” cautions Srivastava.

If e-learning can move beyond being merely a substitute for the classroom, it may very well become knowledge management that truly supports performance. In this brave new world, programs that facilitate learning are a part of workplace software and the job truly becomes the classroom.

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