E-Learning Makes the Grade

SAN MATEO (07/24/2000) - To compete in today's lightning-fast business world, your employees must be up to speed on the latest and greatest technologies, whether they're getting Cisco-certified training or Java programming skills. IT admins, managers, sales staff, and field technicians need to stay current to do their jobs accurately. And if training is a core value in your company, you can attract new employees and retain those already in your workforce.

Because traditional, instructor-led classroom training is expensive, often costing thousands of dollars plus the price of travel, companies are investing in electronic learning options in record numbers. They're opting to create the content themselves, contract an LSP (learning service provider) to create the content, or participate in the vast array of learning portals available either on the Web or that can be hosted internally. If Web-based training doesn't suit your employees, you can provide them with CBT (computer-based training) courses. E-learning is an extremely cost-effective, efficient method for providing training, giving employees the chance to learn at their own speed and take a class when it won't interfere with productivity.

When embarking on Web-based e-learning for your staff, you first must decide whether you want to sponsor courses hosted by an outside service, such as ThinQ.com or Click2learn.com Inc., or build content that you host internally, with a product such as Lotus LearningSpace or gForce Systems. Web-based training courses range from less than a hundred dollars to as much as US$4,000, depending on the length and depth of the course. Certainly, the cost of implementing and maintaining an e-learning solution will depend on whether you install it, plus the cost of developing and maintaining that course.

Installing a system is best suited for companies that offer a wealth of internal training, such as HR-provided courses. Hosting the e-learning solution internally gives companies complete control of the content, and most high-end solutions, such as Lotus LearningSpace, offer tools to track and manage employees' performance.

Training portals bring classes home

Considering the wealth of information on the Internet, you might find it easier and more cost-effective to encourage employees to enroll in Web-based courses offered by an outside vendor, such as DigitalThink. Regardless of your company's industry or your employees' specialties, they'll be able to find an appropriate online class. Depending on their learning styles and preferences, they can choose a class that's either self-paced or taken live.

The number of Web sites offering training is staggering -- I encountered at least 50 sites that link students to courses, host a learning portal for your organization, offer products for creating content, or create content for you.

Students access Web-based training from their Web browsers and can interact with instructors and other students. Many experts claim that true e-learning can take place entirely within a Web browser without requiring downloads or additional software. It is available anytime and anywhere, offering collaboration among students and between students and subject experts.

Self-paced courses can be taken independently at a student's convenience from any Web browser. Students can collaborate with the instructor and other students through e-mail and discussion groups, rather than live and in-person, so to speak. Instructors provide feedback to students in response to questions, quizzes, and tests. This type of Web-based course is perfect for those who prefer to get training as their schedules permit.

During my research, I found myriad classes at all price levels, ranging from courses on management skills to programming training to professional refresher classes; for instance, ThinQ.com offers one called Pulmonary Function Refresher that helps medical professionals stay current with industry schooling requirements. Also, I searched for a course on managing Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 and found several, ranging in price from a self-paced Web course for $149 per module to a 3-day virtual course for $1,275.

Learning portals range from public sites offering courses from well-known course providers, such as Skillsoft, to corporate portals that host classes specific to an individual company's needs. For instance, a corporate training portal may offer Web-based courses for learning desktop applications as well as corporate benefits and the company's manufactured products.

Some of these portals offer Web-based courses plus provide videos, audio tapes, books, and CBTs to further the education experience. In addition, sites such as click2learn.com have easy-to-use authoring tools that, say, your HR staff can use to create basic courses.

The second venue for Web-based training is scheduled virtual classrooms, in which students are in class at the same time and can view slides, streaming video, shared whiteboards, and shared applications from their Web browsers.

This type of training simulates being in a classroom, and students can ask questions and get instant feedback from teachers or other students; many universities now offer such classes.

If you choose this method, be prepared to supply users with additional equipment, including conferencing software such as Microsoft NetMeeting. And these online classrooms may introduce other drawbacks, including creating bandwidth bottlenecks with streaming video and online conferencing.

These types of courses are great for individuals who want to communicate with other students or who cannot attend a university; they can attain the education they need through distance learning alternatives from sites such as HungryMinds and Onlinelearning.net.

Taking the CD-ROM approach

CBT was one of the first methods of e-learning, and, although it may seem outdated, it can still be extremely effective, especially for individual training and courses that rarely change.

CD-ROM-based courses are best suited for self-motivated employees because the courses are self-paced and do not offer any instructor feedback. This may be a particularly suitable e-learning approach for members of your IT staff who want to beef up their programming skills, with courses such as those offered from IDG Books, including "Teach Yourself Linux," or "Java Programming" by Deitel and Associates; both cost $68 through Amazon.com. Another CBT I came across was "Managing Users, Groups and Security Policies," a 5-to 6-hour course by ComputerPrep for $299.

The course I viewed from Deitel and Associates included a 1,400-page book covering many topics concerning programming for the Internet. The accompanying CD-ROM is a duplicate of the book, with additional self-reviews, practice exams, and exercises for every chapter. The content provided a wealth of course material including sample code. To track my progress, this class kept a log of the modules I completed plus test results.

In general, CD-ROM courses make tracking your employees' performance difficult because, unlike systems you host internally, they are not associated with management systems. Therefore, they're not suited for continuous course changes or for those that require evaluation.

CD-ROM-based classes also can get quickly outdated, requiring individuals to download upgrades or purchase an additional course to stay current. This is not only a hassle for the student user but also a distribution nightmare. Every time a course is updated, new CDs must be burned and mailed out to participating students, the costs of which can really add up.

The e-learning industry makes great use of the Internet as a means for conducting and distributing courses to corporations and individuals. Regardless of the e-learning approach you deem best for your employees, training will help keep your employees and company competitive. Corporations with a high volume of internal training may opt to implement an e-learning solution in-house, which will also provide a management system for tracking the employees who meet (or don't meet) training requirements. But if you want to make it easy and affordable, support your employees enrolling in distance learning or self-paced courses over the Web -- they'll stay current as well as continue wanting to work for you.

Senior Analyst Lori Mitchell (lori_mitchell@infoworld.com) covers online training, Web conferencing, and project management and is ready for some online learning.


E-learning solutions

Business Case: If your employees' skills are frequently updated, your company has a better chance of staying competitive, and e-learning tools offer an efficient, convenient alternative to traditional classroom training at a lower cost. If you choose to host a solution internally, buy one with a management system, which gives employees' managers the tools they need to track performance.

Technology Case: Web-based e-learning tools can be updated and managed from a Web server or hosted portal, for a lower cost of distribution and support compared to CD-ROM-based solutions. But they may require some additional equipment for video conferencing, such as microphones and conferencing packages.


+ Gives employees current skills, gaining companies a competitive advantage+ Training programs attract and retain employees+ E-learning tools eliminate travel+ Students have access to others around the world taking the same courseCons:

- May create bandwidth issues

- Some courses, such as team building, not suited for online training- CD-ROM-based training is inflexible.

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