Vendors See Virtual Classrooms as Real-Time Business

Vendors See Virtual Classrooms as Real-Time Business<@VM>Virtual Campuses<@VM>It Can Only Get Better

By Heather Hayes

John Chambers of Cisco Systems Inc. got people's attention at January's Comdex Trade Show in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he declared that education would be the next killer application over the Internet.

"Education over the Internet is going to be so big, it is going to make e-mail look like a rounding error," said Chambers, chief executive officer and president of the San Jose, Calif., networking equipment giant.

A new and fast-growing breed of vendor listened with keen interest and the conviction that Chambers was not exaggerating.

Indeed, companies such as Black-board.com, eCollege.com, Web Course Tools (WebCT) and DigitalThink are overwhelmed with demand for their Web-based tools and virtual classrooms that can enhance and extend university academics and work-force training to just about anyone with an Internet connection and a browser.

And it is no wonder. Brandon Hall, editor of Brandon-Hall.com, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based site that researches the corporate e-learning market, estimates at least 50 percent of private- and public-sector organizations will turn to Web-based instruction to meet their employee training needs within the next three years.

Michael Moe, director of global research at Merrill Lynch & Co., New York, expects the e-learning market to grow to $5.5 billion between now and 2002, a compound annual growth rate of nearly 95 percent. Approximately 85 percent of universities will have online components by the end of 2000, according to International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass.

"This is the big e-business initiative in education," said Ron Yanosky, senior analyst for education IT issues at Dataquest's Worldwide Services IT Group in San Jose, Calif., adding that the e-learning market is so new and fast-paced that his firm has not had time to complete a growth study.

The products in this red-hot market are referred to by a variety of nomenclatures that include online campuses, learning environments, curriculum management systems and enterprise instructional management solutions.

"Learning is no longer something you do through your senior year in college and then that's it," said Carol Vallone, CEO and president of WebCT, a Peabody, Mass., firm that sells online course tools and solutions. "It's a lifelong pursuit, and people are in need of a way to easily access that learning."

But e-learning is not just traditional distance learning repackaged and delivered via the Web. While distance learning via videoconferencing or CD-ROM technology generally involved one-way communication from teacher to learner and pandered to remote students, the bulk of demand for e-learning products currently centers on the augmentation of lecture-based classes.

Those classes provide students with a range of Web-based tools that allow them to interact and communicate with professors, collaborate with other students, download a syllabus and class notes, link to highlighted reading materials and resources, take practice tests, conduct drills via simulation technology, view grades and, in some cases, enroll in and drop out of courses.

And even when remote students do take virtual classes via Web servers ? a service in its infancy but growing quickly ? Web tools such as chat rooms, bulletin boards, e-mail, PowerPoint presentations and HTML links also enhance the experience.

"Universities today want to do everything they can to 'Webify' what they do," said Robert Helmick, CEO, president and founder of eCollege.com, based in Denver. "So they obviously still want to teach students at a distance, but they want to do it in a really interactive way."

The e-education market is being pushed and pulled by a number of factors, not the least of which is the availability of enabling technologies ? including high-speed digital networking bandwidth, corporate intranets and plug-and-play capability ? and a new generation of university students and technical employees who grew up online and want to learn in a high-end, interactive, three-dimensional environment.

The market also is being driven by the seemingly infinite need of corporations and government organizations to train more people on more topics, in rapid fashion with a more widely dispersed work force.

"It's as good as a classroom, the courses cost half as much, and the administrative overhead is extremely low," said Peter Yeager, a training officer for the IT services division at the Library of Congress. He noted more than 30 employees have taken 12 to 15 courses through DigitalThink, a Vienna, Va., company that provides online training for corporations and government agencies.

The benefits are compelling for all the players involved. Universities like the fact that they can leverage their investments in network infrastructure, draw in more students and reach students in faraway markets, thus increasing their revenue without substantial new outlays of capital.

Corporations and government organizations find they spend less money and time sending workers to off-site seminars and classes. Workers can take courses right at their computers during business hours, even while accessing expert knowledge.

University faculties realize an increase in productivity and a more effective way to teach students and track their progress. Students like the "anytime, anywhere" access to classroom resources and information and, though no studies support it to date, may even learn better.

"It enhances communication between student and faculty, and it basically offers time independence and temporal and spatial independence," said Brenda Knox, a digital resource specialist in the Digital Knowledge Center at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which is running 10 WebCT courses off of two campus servers. "Instead of the student having to sit in the class and wait for the syllabus, or if they miss a class, they can log in from their dorm room at 2 a.m. and get the same material."

And the computer services industry as a whole stands to benefit.

"If you've been selling to higher education and the schools for the past couple of decades, you've been doing so in a support capacity, stuff that is peripheral to the core of the institution," Yanosky said. "Suddenly, as of the past couple of years, IT vendors have a crack at the very large expenditures in education that go to instruction, and that is the largest cost center in any university.

"In some community colleges, instruction involves 60 percent or more of the dollars spent," he said. "You're becoming intimately tied to the core mission of the institution in a way IT vendors never were before."

The e-learning market cuts in several directions: by product and service category, target audience and hosting model.

"There's actually a lot of crossover as people jostle for position in this market," Yanosky said.

E-learning vendors generally come in two flavors, though plenty of them mix it up. Platform providers provide software applications, pipelines and even integration with back-office systems. Content providers develop full-blown courses or work with universities, academic publishers and other resources to develop adjunct material on which faculty members may draw.

Vendors also can be differentiated by their products. WebCT of Boston, and Blackboard.com focus on providing Web-based course development tools that supplement rather than substitute for classroom learning. By contrast, Convene International of San Francisco, DigitalThink and eCol-lege.com have provided lectures and instruction inside Web-based classrooms.

The higher education and work-force training markets are distinct, and vendors generally pursue one or the other. WebCT, for example, works primarily with higher education, while DigitalThink is a leading vendor in Web-based work-force training on IT topics, according to analysts.

Vendors are starting to pick at the K-12 market; Blackboard.com has contracts with 24 schools across the country, for example. But Yanosky sees this group lagging higher education by at least a year and possibly two, thanks to an immaturity on the part of school administrators in dealing with network infrastructure, network management issues and politics.

Finally, e-learning breaks down according to whether the application is hosted on campus and administered by a local technical staff or is managed by the vendor.

Given these variables, vendors are quick to point out their unique offerings. Blackboard.com, which claims to provide end-to-end learning solutions, has implemented its Enterprise CourseInfo system, which pulls together learning environments with administrative back-end systems, at eight universities. eCollege.com offers virtual lectures to students at 187 campuses.

WebCT, which partners with and supplies links to e-commerce suppliers such as Varsitybooks.com, Amazon.com and Staples.com, concentrates on the course development tool market, and as of February it counted more than 1,100 institutions and 5 million student accounts.

DigitalThink, which provides packaged and custom IT courses to employees, has more than 150 corporate and government customers and 100,000 students.

Sally Turner

Although initial versions of many vendor products were stand-alone and even packaged applications, the next vital step in the e-learning market will involve customization and integration with back-office systems, industry officials said.

"It decreases their cost of ownership, increases their return on investment and allows a scalability that just isn't possible with a stand-alone system. But there's no standard effort here. Each university is very unique in terms of their integration needs," said Lou Pugliese, CEO and president of Blackboard.com of Washington. His company has partnered with Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif., PeopleSoft Inc. of Pleasanton, Calif., and DataTel of Fairfax, Va., on enterprise integration efforts at schools such as Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Deborah Everhart, senior Internet development coordinator at Georgetown, which has implemented Blackboard.com's CourseInfo system, noted that while the vendor can provide technical consulting to a point, the university must be completely involved in re-engineering business processes.

"The hardest part is the people part, looking at how data is currently handled at your institution and making sure those processes are efficient enough," she said, pointing out as an example the delivery of official grades, which have to come from the registrar's office, not the instructor, and often have to be translated from a letter-grade to a pass-fail designation. "Some ways of doing things have to be completely altered."

Even when learning systems are not integrated, there are technological considerations. Greg Ashley, associate director for consulting and application support for university computing and networking services at the University of Georgia, WebCT's largest customer with 1,580 courses and more than 55,000 students, said institutions cannot expect to just load up an application on a server and go.

Among the issues: a robust Internet connection (Georgia has an OC3 pipe) and enough desktop computers for students who are suddenly required, rather than simply encouraged, to use the Internet for a class.

"Since faculty will be completely involved with this, you'd better implement a healthy training program," he said.

Such issues are one reason that the application service provider model is taking off.

Helmick said: "Every one of our university customers has come to us and said, quite emphatically: 'We don't want to be in the technology business. We don't want to buy new servers every six months. We don't want to worry about upgrading software. We want to be in the teaching business.' "

With a virtual classroom scenario, the vendor takes care of everything, providing all the required services, including back-office integration. Customization of content is always an option, but the key for customers is ease of use, said Sally Turner, director of government sector for DigitalThink. "All a student needs is a browser," she said. "We take care of everything else."

Carol Vallone

Despite its rocket rise, e-learning is very much in an infancy stage and will remain so until a new generation of technologies becomes available, according to Yanosky.

Most important is the increased availability of broadband networking, streaming video and audio and more robust browser capabilities.

"It still has a ways to go," he said. "If you look at these systems now, it's not real videoconferencing; they're basically sending Web pages back and forth. Now for some kinds of instruction, it works great. But for others, it falls flat."

Turner agreed, noting: "Today, we're limited by what we can stuff through a browser and what kind of bandwidth is available, which is not consistent across the board. The courses are very effective now, but they can be made much more interactive if we see some advances in those two areas."

Thus, within two generations, students learning over the Web will see something akin to a real classroom, with flicker-free, real-time video and audio that allows true interaction between student and teacher.

In the meantime, the art of teaching and learning has reached a new paradigm.

"We see education going from more of a facts and figures mentality to more of a collaborative mentoring type of learning experience," Vallone said. E-learning "just changes the whole environment of how people teach and learn."

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