Fed Agencies Master E-Learning

Fed Agencies Master E-Learning

Larry Mercier

Roy Tucker

The Administration for Children and Families lost 25 percent of its staff during the last five years, while it gained responsibility for an additional $5 billion in grants.

Many staff members had to take on new jobs to keep up with the work.

"That means retraining," said Roberta Katson, director of the federal agency's Office of Information Resource Management and Training. "Distance learning has been critical."

Distance learning, also called e-learning, is instruction delivered electronically via the Internet or an intranet, CD-ROMs, audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast or interactive television.

Since the Administration for Children and Families, which handles programs that aid needy children and families, launched its e-learning initiative about a year ago, 44 percent of staff members have taken at least one of 1,000 courses offered.

"It's an incredible bargain for us," Katson said, at less than $50 a course. Classroom-based courses would cost at least twice that, she said.

Katson's experience is not unique. Agency officials throughout the government are turning to e-learning as a way to save money while providing more educational opportunities to employees scattered all over the country and the world.

This means growing opportunities for companies that provide e-learning software and services.

"The need to attract, retain and build the skills of a high-quality work force is just as important to the public sector as it is to corporate America," said Cushing Anderson, an e-learning analyst with the research firm International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

Government e-learning is probably a few years behind the corporate sector, but that could be a good thing, Anderson said.

"Whereas some corporations did things before they were really ready, government can wait to see what works and only buy the right stuff," he said. IDC predicts the government market for all types of training will be between $4 billion and $8 billion by 2005, Anderson said.

Because training dollars are so dispersed throughout agencies, however, it's hard to know how much of that spending will be on e-learning, said analysts and government officials. IDC predicts corporate spending on e-learning will exceed $11 billion by 2003.

A recent study by the American Society for Training and Development, Alexandria, Va., predicted that by 2002, 71.4 percent of government agencies will be delivering training via the Internet, and 77.8 percent will be delivering training via intranets.

"We are seeing an uplift in the federal government," said Jerry Nine, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for SkillSoft Corp., a 3-year-old e-learning course provider. The Nashua, N.H., firm has 330 clients, 95 percent of which are corporations.

About 400,000 federal employees are taking SkillSoft courses at departments including Housing and Urban Development, Interior and Health and Human Services. Vince Penkala, manager of federal business development, said he expects the company's government business to grow at least 30 percent annually for the next three to five years.

Pathlore of Columbus, Ohio, and THINQ Learning Systems Inc. of Billerica, Mass., also hope to capitalize on the government market for e-learning. Both companies provide learning management systems, the software that automates training administration, including course registration and student assessments.

THINQ's government sales are growing faster than commercial sales, although so far only about 20 percent of its 250 customers are government agencies, said Brian Layton, vice president of marketing and communication. THINQ's clients include the departments of Commerce, Energy, Interior and Labor.

"A lot of agencies are creating online universities. They're more progressive than what I'm seeing in the commercial sector," said Susan Janeczek, THINQ senior account executive.

Pathlore, likewise, gets about 20 percent of its business from government. Its main public-sector target is the Defense Department, said Steve Thomas, president and chief executive officer.

The firm was selected last summer to provide the learning management system for the pilot phase of the Navy Learning Network. THINQ recently was awarded the Navy's follow-on learning management system work.

High-Profile Projects
The Army, Navy and the Internal Revenue Service are leading three well-known e-learning initiatives.

Army University Access Online will offer college courses and other instruction to about 80,000 soldiers. The five-year, $453 million contract was awarded to PricewaterhouseCoopers of New York last December.

The Navy Learning Network, launched in January, will ultimately serve 1.2 million active duty, reserve and civilian personnel and will cost $600 million to $800 million, according to International Data Corp. Users will be able to take Navy training and technical certification courses and link to the Navy College Program.

The IRS awarded consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. a five-year, $88 million e-learning contract last October. The Cambridge, Mass., firm will deliver college courses to the IRS' 100,000 employees nationwide via online, classroom and
interactive video instruction.

"We focus not just on functionality, but the potential to deliver to hundreds of people, and that's one of the keys of government," Thomas said.

Executive Order 13111, signed by President Clinton Jan. 12, 1999, was a catalyst for e-learning in the federal government. It directed federal agencies to take steps to enhance employees' training opportunities through technology.

Rather than signing up with any vendor just to comply with the intent of the executive order, agency officials have tried to pick good courses, good vendors and effectively manage the implementation of e-learning systems, SkillSoft's Penkala said.

"It's one thing to have an executive order. It's something else when you actually take the time to do it right," he said.

Larry Mercier, who runs the Transportation Department's e-learning initiative, said government agencies use the executive order to justify their pursuit of e-learning, but they would have undertaken it regardless.

"The executive order was simply a statement of the obvious," he said. "This is just good management, making effective use of taxpayer dollars."

Mercier, program manager of the Transportation Virtual University, said the service broke even in its first year, after more than $3 million was invested to create it. Now, the e-learning enterprise offers 1,800 courses, from information security to project management, to 30,000 employees at the departments of Commerce, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Veterans Affairs and the Internal Revenue Service.

The cost is pennies per course, according to Mercier, who said the service should have 100,000 users within the next year.

"Our goal is to provide a cutting-edge service at an optimum value," he said. "I really believe in this. There's more to know and less time to know it in, and that's why you need a tool like this."

Robert Veltkamp has felt the excitement of government employees accessing online training from far-flung locations such as Woods Hole, Mass., Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and Everglades National Park in Florida.

"Employees who haven't received training for years are e-mailing us and thanking us," said Veltkamp, director of online learning at the Interior Department.

The department's four training centers ? in Anchorage, Alaska, Albuquerque, N.M., Denver and Washington ? only reach about 5,000 of 66,000 employees each year. Now, all employees can get access 800 online courses, at a cost of dollars per course instead of hundreds.

While e-learning has been successful in many agencies, officials said classroom-based training isn't on its way out.

"Now, we have options," said John Fogarasi, director of the Commercial Service Institute, the professional development organization for the U.S. Commercial Service, whose 1,800 employees promote the export of U.S. goods and services.

Classroom training is still important, he said, because it allows employees working all over the world to share ideas in person. E-learning is a prerequisite for classroom training and enables employees to take optional classes.

"Our philosophy is that professional development is a very diverse endeavor," Fogarasi said. "Online training is a wonderful platform for a global organization, but we want to integrate it with all our other programs so we have a blended approach."

At the Department of Health and Human Services, where the Administration for Children and Families has been relying on e-learning to help employees learn new skills, officials are making plans to increase the number of e-learning opportunities.

Roy Tucker, director of the division of organization and employee development in the HHS Office of Human Resources, said that over time, up to 60 percent of HHS training would be delivered electronically.

Since January, 7,500 employees have begun using the department's pilot e-learning portal. Within two years, Tucker estimates 40,000 of the department's 65,000 employees will use it.

An important benefit of e-learning is that it allows access to information when and where employees need it, he said.

"Too often, we think of learning as an event. E-learning enables us to get away from that," Tucker said. "If somebody needs to know something, they can go to a course and find that information."

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