E-learning takes stage as next killer app

E-learning took center stage at Comdex this week when Cisco Systems Inc. and Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s CEOs used their keynote speeches to call for the IT industry to embrace the concept as a key driver of corporate profits and global economics.

The speeches coincided with a number of e-learning-related announcements from industry players LearnKey Inc., Crisp Learning, and PlaceWare Inc., as they seek to expand the technical reach of this emerging industry. EDS also announced this week it had expanded its relationship with e-learning vendor DigitalThink Inc.

"E-learning is the next major killer application," Cisco CEO John Chambers proclaimed in his keynote here Monday. Cisco's vision is to enable the always-on, any-device, high-speed network, which Chambers said is the key to increased productivity and profits.

"Every electronic device will have connections," he said, pointing to the increasing levels of IT mobility that are driving fundamental change in the industry.

According to Chambers, the Internet and education are the great equalizers when it comes to broad issues such as raising a country's productivity levels.

Being able to utilize technology such as the 802.11 wireless standard will change "every aspect of our lives", he said. Such technologies would enable all levels of corporate and personal education to improve, Chambers added.

On the same theme, EDS Chairman and CEO Dick Brown took up the theme of education in his keynote Tuesday, saying it points the way to innovation that will affect generations to come.

"Technology does not provide the solutions on its own," Brown said, pointing to the current services-driven economy as the most obvious example. "Our investments must be in education," he said.

Brown cited EDS' sponsorship of the Jason Project as an indication of the company's commitment to fostering its own education-focused corporate culture. The Jason Project seeks to link students with scientists in the field to increase students' interest in the natural world.

According to Brown, a culture that always asks questions is one that fosters a spirit of innovation, which in turn leads to greater productivity. "Technology [on its own] is not a panacea," he said. "The human-centered [technology] revolution is upon us."

E-learning, or the concept of delivering workers "just in time" online knowledge and training at the desktop, is encountering renewed interest in the wake of the Sept. 11 tragedies and falling interest in business travel. The worldwide e-learning market will grow from US$2.2 billion in 2000 to $18.5 billion by 2005, according to Framingham, Mass-based International Data Corp. estimates.

As a result, this environment means that now is the time to invest in education initiatives designed to fuel worker productivity, according to Cushing Anderson, program manager for learning services research at IDC.

"In the economy we are in now, there will not be the same investment in technology, but we are demanding of employees greater productivity. In order to [achieve] that you need to give [employees] internal tools to make them work smarter," Anderson said. "If you invest in the worker's skill set overall, you should be able to see a change in productivity."

The anytime, anywhere characteristics of e-learning tools available from devices such as desktops and notebooks, according to Anderson, can accelerate the productivity gains by making education more accessible.

"By removing the element of inconvenience, having to fly somewhere and disrupt work, only increases the opportunity for productivity gains," Anderson said.

Although initial investments in e-learning infrastructure can be steep, all kinds of returns can be discovered when learning is integrated into a worker's daily life, according to Charles Luce, senior analyst at the Delphi Group Inc., in Boston.

"There are tremendous efficiencies you can realize by delivering e-learning online right at people's desks when they need it instead of sending them to a training [seminar]," Luce said.

With these issues in mind, e-learning technology providers LearnKey and Crisp Learning used Comdex to unveil a partnership aimed at growing the range of e-learning courseware offerings for customers.

Under the agreement, St. George, Utah-based LearnKey will deliver the business skills library of Visual Crisp Interactive courseware in LearnKey's online e-learning format, according to LearnKey officials. In addition, Crisp Learning will distribute IT courses from LearnKey to more than 100,000 Crisp Learning customers. Both LearnKey and Crisp Learning systems allow employees to log in to receive timely access to the specific learning item they need at the moment, LearnKey officials said.

Web conferencing vendor PlaceWare is also pushing into e-learning with a new Virtual Classroom offering and several partnerships with learning management system vendors. Virtual Classroom, to be released in January, provides a medium for live, collaborative training and content development over the Internet with features such as customized teaching forums and interactive chat, officials said.

The company is also busy on other fronts, this week announcing partnerships with KnowledgePlanet and WBT Systems to combine content and analysis with its Virtual Classroom services. PlaceWare plans to announce a similar content and services deal with Saba next week.

Driving the partnerships is a belief that the lines between Web conferencing and e-learning have been dissolving over last year. The majority of enterprise Web conferencing usage is being driven from e-learning departments or to kick start an e-learning initiative, explained Michael Weber, senior product marketing manager at Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare.

"We have always been in the e-learning space but we just haven't focused on it," he said. "A third of our customers are already using [PlaceWare] in an e-learning context. We make the core conferencing platform, and we are now enhancing it to serve the e-learning market."

Meanwhile, as proof of its convictions, Plano, Texas-based EDS last week expanded its year-old relationship with San Francisco-based e-learning technology provider DigitalThink to provide learning to approximately 140,000 EDS employees around the world.

DigitalThink's E-Learning Platform will provide English-language and localized versions of DigitalThink catalog courseware, EDS-developed custom courses, and soft skills courses for the EDS University, the company's internal e-learning group. The DigitalThink platform includes integrated reporting and analysis tools and an Enterprise Gateway, which allows the integration of the e-learning platform with enterprise applications such as CRM (customer relationship management) and ERP (enterprise resource planning).

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