Effective, Inexpensive E-Learning Expands

Effective, Inexpensive E-Learning Expands<@VM>Military Trendsetters<@VM>Blended Solutions

Eric Strange

Classrooms without walls, students without teachers, courses without paper: Such is the potential of e-learning to change education's fundamental equation.

With a computer, Internet access, reasonable bandwidth and the right instruction package, distance and time become irrelevant. Courseware can be customized. Pedagogy moves at a pupil-directed pace.

And if you're a government agency, a company or a corporation, the inherent efficiencies are too attractive to ignore.

"E-learning is gaining traction in the marketplace," said Eric Stange, managing partner for Accenture Ltd.'s defense practice in Washington. "At the superficial level, the advantages are that people's time and travel are reduced. But there are also definite improvements in productivity. People don't disengage from their jobs in order to learn."

E-learning is particularly suited to the modern need for rapid dissemination of knowledge and information, especially when offices are separated by geography and multiple time zones.

Making new procedures and processes accessible via computer not only establishes common standards for a given enterprise, but also avoids the considerable expense of hiring platoons of onsite instructors. Moreover, e-learning can cut learning times for adult learners by up to one-third as courses are mastered at an individual pace.

An April report by market research agency Taylor Nelson Sofres Plc. of London cited three primary reasons for accelerating adoption of e-learning: improvement of work-force effectiveness, reduction in training costs and improved employee retention.

The larger the organization, the report noted, the more likely e-learning is already part and parcel of daily business. Nearly two-thirds of respondents reported that e-learning programs already have been implemented. Of those, 85 percent plan to increase usage. The report projects that business use of e-learning will grow by nearly 80 percent over the coming year.

Excluding the public sector, the U.S. corporate training market stands at approximately $60 billion and is growing up to 10 percent per year, estimated Daniel Neal, president and chief executive officer of e-learning provider VCampus Corp. in Reston, Va. Of that, e-learning accounts for $1 billion.

Neal said forecasts he has seen indicate e-learning market size could balloon to as much as $11 billion by 2003. Government's share of that number ? perhaps as much as 20 percent, Neal said ? likewise seems destined to increase.

"I think the government market is enormous. While the beginning stages are about training, e-learning goes way beyond that," he said. "It's about connecting to and engendering loyalty among your constituencies: customers, suppliers, citizens and vendors. You're reaching out and communicating with your stakeholders."

Paul Sparta

Of all the agencies within government, the military is the clear trendsetter when it comes to e-learning. That should come as no surprise, says Andrew Sadler, vice president of strategy and alliances for IBM Corp.'s Mindspan Solutions, with offices in 11 countries.

Rigorous training has long been the hallmark of the American military. The alternative is disaster. Bluntly put, ineptitude on the battlefield leads to death.

"Historically, the military has been in the forefront of most learning initiatives," Sadler said. "Because of what they do, the military has always relied on highly trained people. I don't see that changing anytime soon."

IBM of Armonk, N.Y., has helped the Army School of Cadet Command to deploy an e-learning system to train 1,100 newly assigned Reserve Officers' Training Corps cadre members every year. Once trained, officers and noncommissioned officers themselves train and commission over 3,500 cadets a year.

Under the old system, instructors had to travel to and from more than 269 different locations for classroom training. The travel was expensive, and there was no efficient means for quickly delivering updated information to former students.

IBM's computer-based program defines, configures and manages multiple training courses, while monitoring students' progress through an online tracking program that verifies course completion.

The program is being used by approximately 700 enrolled officers and noncommissioned officers from Bosnia to Korea. The command estimates it is saving nearly $500,000 in training costs associated with travel expenses and physical training facilities.

Because all materials are updated on a regular basis, cadets are able to revisit training materials, either as a refresher course or as a reference source.

"The half-life of knowledge is decreasing," Sadler said. "It's a matter of maybe three years in most professions and is down to months in the information technology field. The time pressures are only accelerating. While e-learning isn't the total solution, it certainly can help."

Plateau Systems Ltd. of Fairfax, Va., has developed what it calls the enterprise learning management system, or ELMS, for the Air Force. The program will initially manage and deliver Web-based military, technical and flight training for up to 10,000 Air Force personnel at bases in the United States and abroad.

The learning system may eventually be made available to personnel throughout the entire Air Force, including its National Guard, Reserves and Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

Plateau's software tracks the learning cycle of service members as they advance through their careers, allowing them to map out training thresholds required for certain positions, and notifying them automatically via e-mail when retraining is required.

Ultimately, the Air Force plans to use ELMS' e-learning capabilities to create an integrated learning architecture that it hopes will improve combat readiness and save millions of dollars in travel and staff time.

"The military is putting [e-learning] standards and methodologies in place that are advanced and sophisticated," said Paul Sparta, Plateau Systems chairman and chief executive officer.

Sparta said almost every organization now is looking at its training methods and considering e-learning as an option.

"Cost of execution is dropping. Means of delivery is improving. Bandwidth is getting better. As a result, the market is definitely growing," he said.

Warren Haley

Contributing to the growth of that market is the changing nature of the work force, particularly in the public sector.

Within the decade, analysts expect up to 50 percent of the federal work force to exit government employment as the result of buyouts, retirement or job offers in the private sector. E-learning may mitigate the worst of the brain-drain by capturing and transferring know-how to the latest hires.

Advocates hope that easy availability of on-demand courses might also persuade first timers to become long timers, particularly if obtaining degrees electronically becomes possible.

"The demographics of the workplace are changing. A lot of young people new to the job are arriving," said VCampus' Neal. "A key measure of e-learning's success is, first, how quickly these new employees are trained to become productive contributors and, second, whether the government can attract these individuals in the first place and then retain them by offering this kind of enhanced learning."

Under the terms of a recently announced contract, VCampus will be implementing, hosting and managing the next generation of the General Services Administration's Online University. The electronic university centralizes training and professional development programs for employees throughout GSA's far-flung business units, domestically and internationally.

Online University is slated to expand its offerings to include certification and academic degree programs, as well as providing access to help in the form of student advisers, course mentors and tutoring services.

Enhancing expertise electronically is also a priority for Newport News Shipbuilding of Newport News, Va., which builds Navy aircraft carriers. The company has introduced an e-learning-based integrated computer system used regularly by roughly 7,000 of the shipyard's 17,000 employees.

Initially, the first order of business was to introduce workers to new business practices, including computer-based procedures in finance, materials management, human resources, cost accounting, strategic and business planning and contract management. Then came instruction on the particulars of using the system to maximum advantage.

"The people who build the ships need to have instant, comprehensive access," said Warren Haley, an internal training consultant for Newport News Shipbuilding subsidiary Naptheon. "This software enhances our capabilities. If you're putting together a pump, for example, you need to know where to find the materials and parts to build it. That's why you go into the computer system: to find out what warehouse they're stored in and get them when you need them."

In the long run, experts said, e-learning will likely be a major part of a blended solution, wherein optimized learning combines the best of traditional, electronic, interactive and multimedia approaches.

As e-learning spreads beyond its origins as a teaching strategy, it will be asked to capture and communicate collective wisdom, the kind gathered by years of human experience.

The physical classroom ? four walls, desks, computing and other support equipment ? won't be entirely replaced anytime soon, Plateau Systems' Sparta said. What will change is the "cycle time" to acquire new knowledge, cut from months or weeks to days, hours and sometimes even minutes.

While it's impossible to predict exactly where e-learning is heading, Sparta believes its utility is apparent even now.

"E-learning is still pretty embryonic," he said. "What it will look like in the end, we don't yet know. What we can say is that information and knowledge on demand, immediately germane to the job at hand, is e-learning's real value."

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