E-learning needs analysis

Here's an idea. Instead of having everybody gathering in one place at regular intervals for training sessions, what if we were to offer training online or via distributed disks. That would save a lot of time, and time is money. Let's get the IT department working on that one right away.

More than a few e-learning initiatives have started with a sentiment much like the one stated above. The benefits of e-learning are often seen more narrowly as a cost saver than more broadly, and positively, as a business advancer.

It is important to establish right at the beginning that e-learning technology is not a total solution. Even its most ardent advocates will argue that e-learning technology is only part of the package. Regardless of the goals you set for this strategy, chances are that you will be looking at both technical and non-technical training assets. It is worth noting that, while IT departments have been leaders in the adoption of e-learning technologies, as much as 74 percent of computer skills/IT training is delivered via instructor-led classroom means, 18 percent is delivered via computer media (asynchronous technology) and only 4 percent by instructors connected to learners from remote locations (synchronous technology).

We'll assume you've already defined the business objectives for you e-learning project and how you want to measure results. Your next step is to assess the current training situation in your organization. Take the following steps:

1. Content Comes First: Even the best-organized and executed training program will fail if the content is insufficient. Assess the current content of your training programs.

2. Look To The "Customer:" Do a detailed analysis of your trainees. What are their needs? How are they equipped to handle electronic delivery of content?

3. How Do We Do It Now?: Do a cost assessment of current training programs. How are they conducted? What content do they use?

4. Assess Your Infrastructure: How is your technical infrastructure set up to handle e-learning? What needs to be added/improved to make e-learning happen?

By assessing your needs, as well as your current infrastructure, you will be able to identify technical gaps and opportunities. Filling these gaps and exploiting opportunities will guide the e-learning solutions you select.

Content, Content, Content

It has often been said about the World Wide Web that "content is king." This simply means that the Web can be an exciting medium to experience, but it is essentially a medium -- a way of communicating content. If the content is not useful, the website will ultimately not be used regardless of delivery razzle-dazzle.

The development tools and delivery systems you select must be based on a firm foundation of content. We will not explore training curriculum development. We must assume that there is some kind of training program in place or under development. The question here is how can e-learning technology enhance the creation and delivery of the content.

Creating e-learning content should not simply be about throwing your course books onto a website. Instead look at how the Web can enhance and improve the content of a course book.

Consider this scenario:

Example: To "Webify" or Enhance?

Situation: You have a detailed manual that explains the workings of a new software platform. The manual, a Microsoft Word document, is part of an in-house training program and is a solid and informative component of course content.

  • Possible Action 1: Using document-to-Web functionality in Microsoft Word, an HTML version of the manual is created and stored on a directory in the company intranet. Moving forward, learners are referred to the Web-based guide.
  • Possible Action 2: Using courseware development software, the content of the manual is combined with animated and annotated demonstrations of the software in action. As well, online quizzes are added for each section and students can launch the software from any point in the manual to test the feature being discussed.

Possible Action 1 does have advantages. By putting the manual on the intranet, it will be easier to maintain it and deliver updated versions to the learner. Action 2, however, is a much more robust solution as it uses the Web to enhance the content and the learning process. Action 2 is also more expensive as it will require both development time and the acquisition of course creation software.

Chances are that your training program uses a combination of internal and external sources of content. For example, a training program for certain server software may include a vendor-approved certification course augmented by additional in-house materials.

The best situation for e-learning development is an environment that combines high quality external content with the ability to customize and add your own additional content. The range of offerings from Internet-based learning content providers has grown exponentially in recent years.

A Note on E-learning Content Standards

If your e-learning efforts extend across the enterprise -- and if you are looking long term at integration with other enterprise initiatives such as customer relationship management -- it will help if your e-learning content is in a form that can be understood across applications. While there currently is no single e-learning standard, several industry organizations are currently working on the issue of e-learning standards. Here is a quick snapshot of what is going on. Aviation Industry Computer (AIC): Created by the AIC-based Training Committee. Original use was to standardize training materials for the industry, but it has spread to many other sectors.

  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) LTSC: Created by the Learning Technology Standards Committee of IEEE "for defining specifications for learning object metadata, lesson sequencing, computer-managed instruction and content packaging."
  • Instructional Management System (IMS) GLC: Developed for "specifications for content packaging, testing mechanisms and content identification" by the IMS Global Learning Consortium.
  • Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) SCORM: Developed as a government initiative for interoperability of training systems through content standards. Incorporates parts of AICC and IMS.

Action: Keep track of these standards as they are developed and how they are implemented in various solutions. Standards will make it easier to use content from a variety of sources in single e-learning strategies.

Current Delivery Systems

In order to move forward to new e-learning solutions, it is imperative that you do a thorough audit of your current training delivery systems. This includes both technical (computer based) and non-technical (classroom, printed materials) delivery systems.

Map the Process: Start by mapping the instruction process. Map the synchronous and asynchronous touch points between the learner and the instruction content.

1. Cost Analysis

List the costs for each component of the process. This might include: Development costs for materials (in terms of person hours of development and updating materials such as texts, multimedia, videos).

  • Costs of classroom instructors' time.

  • Cost to company of learner time spent in instruction and, if applicable, traveling to instruction.

  • Production costs of materials (printing, copying, binding, etc.)

  • Cost of purchasing prepackaged content such as videos and course text.

  • Incidental costs such as rental of equipment or space for training.

2. Gap Analysis
Now look at your various components and examine the costs of developing an e-learning component that could replace or augment the components of your current delivery methods.

Customer Analysis

Your trainees' needs should be carefully considered as well as quantitative data, such as how many individuals you expect to serve with this technology and what sort of access equipment they possess. Here are some of the things you need to know from your trainees: Has current training met their expectations?

  • What kind of access equipment do they have?
  • What is their level of technical literacy? Do they make regular use of the Web?
  • How many trainees are there going to be on an annual basis?
  • What suggestions do past trainees have for improving the program?

Example Scenario: A company has had moderate success in using e-learning as a tool for PC skills training for administrative staff. Your objective is to create e-learning media to assist in the training of new sales hires. Your customer analysis reveals the following: New hire teams are trained in batches of six, one batch per month.

Sales staff do not have computers on their desks and more than half of new hires do not have home PCs with Internet access. They do, however, have access to a four workstation PC lab.

In feedback surveys, new hires rated the team building exercises very high.

Analysis: While there may be some opportunity to offer supplemental Web-based course materials on the company intranet, the relatively small number of trainees (plus the importance of one-on-one instruction and team building) means that a large-scale project may not be warranted. However, there may be opportunity for more comprehensive e-learning as part of a future customer relations management technology initiative.

Assess Your Infrastructure

Your ability to mount an e-learning initiative will be impacted -- both positively and negatively -- by your current infrastructure and skill sets. Here are a few things you should look at:

  • Your Network: What kind of Web access do you currently offer within your organization? Do you currently have high bandwidth projects (such as Web conferencing capability) that can be leveraged for virtual classroom instruction?

  • Training Facilities: Do you currently have a training room or lab that can be used for e-learning initiatives? Though e-learning has the potential to be anywhere, anytime, there is also research suggesting that learners do better if they approach course materials away from their regular workstation.

  • Core Competencies: Are there areas of skill and capability within your organization that can be leveraged for the provision of e-learning solutions? For example, do you have a strong Web production unit already in place for building your website and Web-based e-business initiatives?

Getting a grip on your current capabilities and core competencies will inform your solution choices and help you identify gaps that need to be filled.

Example Scenario: Your company has a training program for a particular in-house application that is normally taught in a classroom. Your objective is to deliver the training program as a self-directed Web course.

Your IT infrastructure already includes a robust intranet which is accessed by employees both internally and from home via Virtual Private Network connections.

The intranet has been built using Macromedia Dreamweaver and related products and you have Dreamweaver developers on staff for this and other Web-related projects.

Possible Solution: Team up the person responsible for course development with your Dreamweaver developer. Use Dreamweaver e-Learning studio ($2,999) to create the online version of the training program. In addition to leveraging your core competencies, the Dreamweaver product also creates content that is compliant with ADL, AICC and IMS standards. This leaves the door open for future expansion of your e-learning initiatives.

Exercises

Content Analysis: List the constituent parts of your current training program. (Note: Do a separate list for each training program if there is more than one.) Include such things as classroom instruction time, training aids (such as PowerPoint demonstrations used in instruction), course books or other support materials.

List External Content Sources: If you use a pre-packaged curriculum, list the content and who provides it. For example, a certification course for a particular software platform. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

Customer Analysis: Answer the following questions. You may have to consult ancillary research (such as feedback surveys) for the answers.

  • Who do we train? (Include how many).
  • Who would we like to train? (Identify additional groups, such as customers, identified in business objectives.)
  • Where do they learn?
  • Where could they learn (given the appropriate technology)?
  • What do our learners consider the biggest strength of current programs?
  • What do they consider the biggest weakness?

IT Analysis: Armed with knowledge of current learning programs and customer expectation, turn now to your IT department and analyze its ability to meet these challenges.

  • Strengths: What strengths (competencies, infrastructure) does IT possess that will aid in an elearning initiative.

  • Weaknesses: Where does IT need to add capabilities, infrastructure, etc.

  • Opportunities: What opportunities exist for IT to develop e-learning solutions? (How can we leverage IT's strength? What opportunities are there to overcome IT's weaknesses, such as outsourcing, staffing or acquiring applications?)

  • Threats: What threats exist (technical, psychological, financial, political) to this project and how can IT minimize them?

Solutions Wish List: Review your business objectives and needs analysis and develop a "wish list" of e-learning solutions that will satisfy the issues raised by both.

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