Lessons in Technical Training

When Jeff Merrell, director of learning technologies at Alpha Technologies Inc. (www.alpha88.com), saw how eagerly staffers were taking to a series of online technical training and time management courses Alpha had set up, Merrell wondered why the company hadn’t done this before.

"The demand for the courses was -- and is -- amazing," Merrell says. "As an information technology professional services firm, we’ve got to keep current. But the people we’ve hired and placed in those courses are learning monsters. They have a huge appetite for technical understanding and want to keep on top of things. So with our tech training classes, we’ve been able to foster an environment of continuous learning and feed their hunger."

It’s the same story at the Veterans Benefits Association (VBA). George Wolohojian, director of employee development, says his organization's classes on government document processing and technologies are helping VBA stay ahead of its mission to provide services and benefits to US veterans.

"I think we’re one of the first government agencies to use technology training but certainly more will follow," Wolohojian says. VBA uses an e-learning systems management package from Saba Software Inc. (www.saba.com) to handle his organization’s course load. "We’re dealing with very technical issues here, more than just processing veterans' claims. We have to teach our clerical workers the specifics of our business, and online training has been the best way to do that to date."

"E-learning is exploding," says Cushing Anderson, an industry analyst at IDC (www.idc.com ). Anderson follows more than 200 e-learning companies.

The corporate e-learning market will nearly double year after year, IDC predicts in a report by analysts Ellen H. Julian and Anderson, rising from $550 million in 1998 to $11.4 billion in 2003. Corporate training firms without an e-learning offering "will be left in the dust," they conclude.

Other studies confirm this growth spiral. A recent report by Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. (www.ml.com) estimates that more than $300 billion will be spent annually on learning by governments and extended enterprises globally. The reason is simple: To compete in the global marketplace, businesses must improve the knowledge and competencies of the extended enterprise.

Back to School

Why all the hoopla over e-learning programs? E-learning is a huge growth industry and more companies want in on it.

E-learning -- or technical training as it’s known to traditionalists -- has been around for years. But with the advent of the Internet, e-learning has skyrocketed because of Web-based applications like videos, CD-ROMs, teleconferencing, satellite broadcasts and Web-based educational materials. The change in technology lets companies deliver up-to-the-nanosecond training to workers all over the globe, live or by demand, via the Internet. While enough bandwidth for live video streaming remains a problem in many places, companies are dealing with this by combining technologies for the time being.

Companies desperate for technology-savvy employees can arrange for workers to get certification in information technology from their desks at work or at home. Sales personnel and technicians can learn the details about new products the same way. And those wanting to get up to speed in general business skills can find anything from basic new-manager training to all the course work for an MBA over the Internet.

Barriers to the growth of e-learning do exist. They include lack of bandwidth and lack of true student-instructor interactivity. Bulky applications such as audio, video, animation, and simulations eat up a lot of bandwidth. They may require plug-ins or Java applets on the desktop, which can run afoul of firewalls. Plus, older browsers often cannot handle much in the way of multimedia. Newcomers like Akamai Technologies' InterVu Inc. (www.intervu.com) and Burst.com Inc. (www.burst.com) are helping overcome the narrow-bandwidth barrier by minimizing the distance media content must stream or by breaking it into packets.

"You’ve got to take the problem off of the client’s shoulders to succeed as a vendor in the technical training field," says Chris Brenchley, director of strategic product development at Caliber Learning Network Inc. (www.caliberlearning.com), an e-learning vendor. "Try to keep the applications as close to the browser as possible, and you should be in the clear."

For others, the primary barrier is the limit of available technology. Most agree that advanced e-learning requires real-time, two-way communication via audio or videoconferencing tools that let students and instructors interact and provide feedback during a class. With most Web training, students view a live or recorded class, but participation is limited to posts on bulletin boards and e-mail discussions. Without a strong interactive element, e-learning's effectiveness is questionable, specialists say.

Leaning on its Web-based foundation, e-learning programs are easy to find on the Internet and offer training and certification resources for IT professionals of all stripes. Learnativity.com's (www.learnativity.com) Web links page is a good place to start if you're interested in surfing for general IT training information. The list points to some megalists that will lead you to many more Web sites.

The Information Technology Training Association Inc.'s site (ITTA, www.itta.org) contains information on IT training conferences, seminars, and events; IT training industry news; chat rooms and discussion groups to post and review messages related to IT training; IT training industry links; ITTA's surveys and research; and legislation that affects the IT training industry.

The Computer Education Management Association (CEdMA, www.cedma.org), which concerns itself with the future of IT education, training, and learning, provides a forum for managers and directors of computer education organizations to discuss computer training issues. The International Association of Information Technology Trainers Ltd. (www.itrain.org), an international association for IT professionals, is also a good bet for tech training enthusiasts.

Cash Benefits

The cost of Internet-based learning is about one-third to one-fifth of the traditional classroom because it cuts out travel time and cost and facility costs, says Chris L. Nguyen, Caliber's CEO. "You reach your entire audience, and it's a consistent message at a fraction of the cost ... It's cheaper, better, faster." Conventional classroom instruction costs are about $75 an hour, with full-week programs costing $3,000 to $5,000. Computer-based training, by comparison, costs about half that. What's more, training via the Web can instruct globally -- there is no seat restrictions in these classrooms-around-the-clock and no travel costs.

"For companies buying training for people, there’s a lot of cost," says Cliff Elam, president of SkillsPoint.com Inc. (www.skillspoint.com ), an e-learning procurement vendor. "You have to go through dozens of courses, and that could take days or weeks. Companies, however, can do it on our [Web] site in minutes. Looking at vendors’ Web sites for a project management or Java class is not fun."

SkillsPoint is an Internet-based procurer and provider of technology training classes and assessment tools that, according to Elam, provides the largest training provider network of any Internet tech-training procurer and provider. SkillsPoint guarantees a 30 percent savings for its clientele in their first year of training purchasing.

Saba, which has a track record of helping large, multinational companies manage training programs -- even if divisions, subsidiaries, partners, distributors, and sales offices are scattered throughout the globe. For a growing number of companies like Cisco, Agilent, Lucent, General Electric, Ford, and Proctor & Gamble, Saba’s Global 2000 technical training systems management package can link everyone in the enterprise chain -- customers, partners, employees, and suppliers -- to a wide range of learning solutions. Saba’s technical training programs are provided by 60 content providers that, in aggregate, offer more than 20,000 learning programs. The programs include distance learning via satellite, self-directed career advancement learning, or traditional instructor-led training.

"We’re trying to help companies like Cisco and iPlanet overcome what we call the islands of learning e-training mindset," says Kimberly Woodward, director of product marketing at Saba. "In order for an organization to be successful at e-learning, it has to include customers, suppliers, partners, and employees. We can go beyond the firewall to get that kind of link-up all over the world. At Ford, for example, we licensed 375,000 learners, giving the company great scalability."

Caliber Learning Network's WebCORE platform enables clients to use the Internet for both their traditional training and communications programs, increasing the reach of these programs while reducing training costs.

Using a satellite broadcast method to link course participants, Caliber engages in what company spokesperson Joe Sutton calls "a true interactive classroom setting."

"We’ve taken an interactive learning model where students can interact with teachers, as opposed to videotaped training or e-book programs. We believe those models result in a missed opportunity to engage and connect with instructors."

Sutton says his company’s largest problem is convincing clients that the satellite program can work on any network or on any operating system platform. "I would say the challenges are of the networking and infrastructure variety," he adds. "When we go into a large organization, they already have an existing IT infrastructure. Since we use streaming media, people want to know how video and audio impact their networks. That’s why we have a series of partners and we host the learning software here on an ASP [application service provider] basis. We also have partners like Lucent and Novell who help us analyze and implement our system into their infrastructure."

IBM, a longtime player in the business learning game, delivers educational programming over 10 satellite channels to business partners, employees, and, eventually, to higher-education facilities. Big Blue's efforts are handled by IBM Learning Services, part of IBM Global Services, and through a partnership with etNetworks Inc., an Internet education services broadcaster.

Company sources say the IBM Learning Services network aims to move from 80 percent classroom training to at least 50 percent technology-based programming. This will give course participants a quicker, customized learning method for about $1,000 per user. Customers can access up to 5,000 hours of training content broadcasts, which can be viewed repeatedly, and they can subscribe to training broadcasts on a flat-rate basis. Future satellite courses from IBM will be interactive via a Web site where students can engage in threaded discussions and have access to a database of frequently asked questions.

Time for a Change

With all the interest from the e-learning vendor community, and with the wealth of offerings on the table, classroom training is projected to drop dramatically in the next few years, slipping from its current 77 percent share of the market to 51 percent by 2003, according to analysts. Correspondingly, the growth of technology-delivered courses is projected to grow during this time frame, from 17 percent two years ago to 46 percent by 2003.

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