Coming of Age

Multimedia gives employers a cheap and effective way to retool the nation's workforce -- and suppliers of related equipment and services are reaping long-anticipated rewards

or years, prognosticators of The Next Big Thing have latched on to multimedia. But beyond the market for video games and CD-porn, the technology has fallen short of optimistic growth projections. Still, there may be one exception -- the use of multimedia for training, which is growing in digital leaps and media bounds.

Consider ThunderWave Inc., a Rockville, Md.-based firm that specializes in developing networked applications. The company, which is less than two years old, will double its 20-employee staff in the next three months to meet surging demand, said ThunderWave president, Yechiam Halevy.

Growth at AT&T's Skynet Global Digital Service, which uses satellite transmissions to provide training, is on a shuttle-launch trajectory. Revenue has doubled every year for the last several years, said Kevin Lane, government markets manager with the company.

"There has been tremendous growth" in multimedia development since the 1980s, said Jim Gotlieb, operations manager with Applied Sciences Associates, of McLean, Va. At that time, about 50 percent of the company's training business used multimedia, he said. Now it is closer to 90 percent.

Indeed, worldwide, the market for technology-mediated training is worth several million dollars, said Chris Tyler, managing consultant for multimedia and distance education with EDS.

Desktop video systems may be the fastest growing segment of multimedia training, said AT&T's Lane. In 1991, the market for desktop video was $100,000; in 1998 the market could reach $1.8 million, Lane said.

A combination of maturing technology, inadequate public education and the possibilities of the technology itself seem to be the main growth drivers.

For starters, most computers sold today have CD-ROM, audio and video capabilities. Rare is the computer these days that doesn't come with a CD-ROM drive. So special training workstations are no longer necessary and the cost of the equipment is decreasing, said Gotlieb.

Additionally, video servers can take advantage of the ever-declining price of computer memory, allowing faster and cheaper compression, decompression and distribution of video over a network. That makes it easier for workers to access training programs at their convenience -- instead of at pre-set times in expensive classrooms. Organizations can dump courses in a networked training warehouse. Students can then download a course they need, at their convenience. When they are done they can digitally trash it, said Jamille Hermes, systems architectural director with AT&T Global Information Solutions. So material is always up-to-date, distribution is easier and students can get the material from anywhere, he said.

Saving money and time also play key roles. Traditional training usually required the employer to pay for employee travel as well as the cost of hiring an instructor, said Tyler. Class size most likely was limited and productivity temporarily decreased when employees were at the training sessions.

Another key attraction is the technology's ability to capture and sustain interest in otherwise mundane subjects -- the 'edutainment' factor.

Finally, computer-based training lets employees proceed at their own pace, when they have the time to work on the training modules. For example, ASA has designed a mock surgery program for the U.S. Naval Health Science Education Training Command. Before they can be certified, operating room technicians have to go to through a realistic - and expensive - "mock surgery" with actual sterile equipment, dressings and sutures, with instructors acting as surgeons.

ASA developed a program, using full-motion video, that students use as a practice run. Students must identify incorrect actions, which change each time the program runs. On one occasion when ASA representatives were at the facility, they heard two students who suddenly had some free time, make a spur of the moment date to "go play mock surgery," Gotlieb said.

But perhaps the greatest factor is the nation's educational system. The sins of public education have contributed to the success of multimedia -- a mixed blessing. Companies find they must provide the expertise public schools either can't or won't provide. Given the ever-quickening pace of technological development, it is doubtful the current educational system could retrain workers fast enough. So multimedia training may be the only alternative -- a sorry commentary, perhaps, on the state of the educational systems, but a decided boost for multimedia mavens.

Multimedia Passes the grade

Multimedia training can mean sitting at a computer terminal with a CD-ROM or laser disc-based program that lets you proceed at your own pace to an interactive learning environment made possible by satellite technology -- the virtual classroom.

The technology can be astoundingly effective. Take the example of ASA's mock surgery multimedia program (see main story). Prior to its use, only 52 percent of the technicians passed on their first attempt, and thus required remedial training as well as a second attempt at the costly mock surgery. After the software was developed, the passing rate soared to 98 percent.

This does not mean that every training program should be converted to multimedia. Preparing a class in a CD-ROM format can cost in excess of $250,000, said Chris Tyler, managing consultant for multimedia and distance education with EDS. If there are 50 to 100 students and the class is repeated often, multimedia would be more economical than a traditional setting. If it's a one-time class with a small number of students, hiring an instructor is probably more economical, he said.

Few would argue that multimedia can be a replacement for a gifted teacher -- easily the most interactive, real-time, multimedia program ever devised. But facts are facts. Organizations, particularly businesses and government agencies, can ill afford to hire legions of top-of-the-line instructors.

That may be why everyone from McDonald's to CompUSA to the Federal Aviation Administration is using multimedia in training. FAA, for example, has contracted with a number of vendors to provide programs on topics including maintenance, training air traffic controllers and the location and use of specific instruments in an airplane.

So when will multimedia move from corporate and government training to the K-12 classroom? "[There is an] "aggressive migration toward technology-mediated instruction," said Tyler. For example, ThunderWave has developed an application that uses Shakespeare to help train students how physics and math is integrated into design. One example is the Hamlet program that among other things trains students in design principles by having them build a catapult that would be found in Hamlet's castle, said ThunderWave president, Yechiam Halevy. Most of the design is done online, then students build and videotape the catapult, so the image can be integrated into the program where other students can learn from it, he said.

Such successes have spawned hopes that the education market will follow the same growth curves as the multimedia training market. After all, public schools are beset with many of the same budgetary and resource challenges as government and the private sector. AT&T's Vistium, for instance, allows video teleconferencing on a personal computer. The screen splits between a document and an image; if students have questions about a particular part of a document, they dial into the instructor, who can then view students' work on his screen while also being seen by the students. The instructor can then go into the document and make changes.

How and if that makes students better learners remains to be seen. But in the corporate and government world, at least, multimedia appears to have justified the early hype.

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