The Web is shifting e-learning into hyper-adoption.
Thanks to an increased emphasis on ROI and employee re-training, plus reduced budgets and apprehension about employee travel since Sept. 11, e-learning is growing.
The term can refer to anything from conferencing to Web-based training to self-paced courses on CD-ROM. Generally, it includes all computer-based learning including Web, virtual classrooms and digital collaboration. Content can be delivered via Internet, intranet, or extranet (LAN/WAN), audio- and videotape, satellite broadcast, interactive TV, or CD-ROM.
Analyst firm Gartner Inc. reports, "Online learning has been in use for 20 years in one form or another, but the Web has shifted e-learning into hyper-adoption. By 2005, e-learning will be the most-used corporate application on the Web." By 2005, Gartner believes there could be as many as 100 online-only universities (such as The University of Phoenix Online and Capella University).
A recent Accenture/Wirthlin Worldwide survey revealed that few business managers understand how to effectively tie their day-to-day actions to a bigger picture corporate strategy. It also discovered that one-fifth of employees do not have the right skills to meet their organization's business objectives. (It also found that leadership and management skills are the most critical skills to enable employees to do their jobs better in the future.)
Trends to Watch
While instructor-led classroom training is the dominant form of training, blended learning—combining in-classroom training and e-learning reinforcement—is becoming more popular.
Customers Pick and Choose:
Mirus, the investment banking firm, notes in its study that content providers "are facing uncertain times as buyers move away from the content library model, deciding instead to cherry-pick content from a variety of vendors."
Yahoo offers a directory of free classes, as well as tools for creating and hosting your own courses. In April, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced its free OpenCourseWare Web resource will host the materials for more than 2,000 classes taught at MIT within 10 years.
DigitalThink's Monica Noordam notes, "Companies are looking for vendors with expertise in their own industry. Being an e-learning expert isn't enough anymore. You need to be an expert in e-learning and in retail or financial services, as examples." Furthermore, classroom content doesn't always translate well to e-learning technologies.
Continued Vendor Shakeout:
The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) notes the global e-learning marketplace is still rife with mergers, acquisitions, downsizing, and closures of e-learning firms. For many e-learning leaders, Q1 2002 revenue sank dramatically from the previous year (Click2Learn down 33 percent, Digital Think off 39 percent, and Saba Software fell 11 percent), according to Mirus. At press time, SmartForce plc, which bills itself as the world's largest e-learning company, announced it would merge with SkillSoft Corp., another online learning courseware provider. The combined company will offer over 3,000 course titles. Despite a 34 percent revenue drop at SmartForce and 70 percent drop at SkillSoft in the first quarter of this year, the combined company forecasts revenue of $99 million (assuming a Sept. 30, 2002 merger date) for the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2003, and $255 million for fiscal 2004. IDC notes that two-thirds of the acquisitions of IT education and training firms last year were the direct result of weak financial performance.
A recent e-learning study conducted by Mirus Inc., a Boston, Mass.-based investment banking firm, concludes: "e-learning does not appear to be the next casualty of the Internet bubble. Rather, it is an oversubscribed, yet emerging and increasingly mission-critical component of an enterprise's infrastructure that is going through the normal growing pains of early adolescence." [Emphasis theirs.]
However, some e-learning insiders say these predictions are overly optimistic. IDC recently reduced its intermediate worldwide corporate IT forecast for 2002 by 13 percent. A key IDC assumption is that a recovery from the recent economic contraction will occur by mid-2002; most Wall Street analysts believe an upturn is more likely late in the year or early next year.
Gartner analysts expect e-learning to become more pervasive, projecting that up to 80 percent of federal, 65 percent of state, and 50 percent of local agencies will use e-learning as the primary mode of employee-skills-development programs. While e-learning makes up only a small part of the global training market today, it will make up almost one-third of all training by 2005.
Critical Success Factors: Employee acceptance of and participation in work- related e-learning courses:
- E-learning is promoted well in advance and employees feel prepared
- Employees feel they have the necessary technical, subject matter, and managerial support
- Employees can clearly see the value of what they will learn
- Organization's commitment to learning
- Management support for training
- Ability to deploy product seamlessly
Source: Joe Dougherty, NETg
Components to E-Learning Success:
1. Promote blended learning within your organization.
2. Choose a vendor with strong brand recognition.
3. Take a modular approach to purchasing e-learning solutions, and buy only what you need.
4. Content is king. E-learning vendors are working with content providers to create packaged solutions.
5. Choose a vendor with strong consulting and services offerings so you can customize your solution and attend to training needs specific to your organization.
6. Be sure the e-learning system you purchase can be seamlessly integrated with existing systems.
7. Infuse collaboration into your e-learning system. Informal sharing of knowledge between learners can be just as powerful as formal courses.
8. Be sure that your e-learning system is incorporated into your Knowledge Management efforts.
Source: IBM Mindspan Solutions
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The LMS Mess
If predictions from analyst firm Gartner are right, there's a Learning Management System (LMS) in your company's future. The analyst firm predicts that 70 percent of large corporations will own an LMS by 2005.
An LMS automates the administration of training events: It's used to register users, track courses in a catalog, and record data from learners; it also provides management reports.
An LMS is typically designed to handle courses from multiple publishers and providers. The challenge for IT is how to integrate training courses into an LMS. If Gartner's predictions are to come true, LMS and courseware providers are going to have to make some big changes. As it stands now, interoperability is far from plug-and-play, and it's a top gripe by e-learning customers.
The Standards Dilemma
As with any technology, market or industry, establishing standards is a messy but necessary issue. Many bodies have been busy developing standards, working together to fine-tune specifications for interoperability between LMSes. These bodies include the AICC (Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee), the IMS Global Learning Consortium, IEEE's LTSC (Learning Technology Standards Committee) and the ADL (Advanced Distributed Learning) initiative led by the U.S. Department of Defense.
Though still fuzzy, two "standards" have emerged to which e-learning vendors claim compliance. The first is SCORM (Sharable Content Object Reference Model), "a collection of specifications … to provide a comprehensive suite of e-learning capabilities that enable interoperability, accessibility and reusability of Web-based learning content," according to and produced by the ADL (www.adlnet.org).
The second "standard" is the AICC's nine recommendations and guidelines (AGRs) (www.aicc.org). Its objectives include assisting in the development of guidelines that promote the economic and effective implementation of computer-based training, and developing guidelines to enable interoperability across multiple industries.
The LTSC is chartered by the IEEE Computer Society Standards Activity Board. Its goal is to "develop accredited technical standards, recommended practices and guides for learning technology" (http:// ltsc.ieee.org). The LTSC collaborates with IMS, another organization focused on building consensus around technology standards for e-learning, whose membership includes such major players as Microsoft, Sun, Oracle and IBM, e-learning leaders Saba and Click2Learn, as well as government agencies from the U.S., Canada, U.K. and others. In collaboration with the AICC, these organizations will share specifications with the ADL, which acts as a testing lab that decides whether or not their specs will be included in SCORM.
The problem: When e-learning vendors claim interoperability, they don't necessarily adhere to all guidelines and standards that have been established. Because there's no single, established governing body (like the W3C) to sign off on compliance, clients may find problems incorporating courseware into their LMS. Because vendors may claim standards compliance but only adhere to one or two of the nine recommendations established by the AICC, for example, you may find yourself stuck with the need for additional programming for everything to truly interoperate.
In addition, IMS' Web site lists products and organizations that claim compliance to IMS specs (which creates another separate set of standards, so to speak), but lists the disclaimer: "No attempt was made to evaluate, test or validate the information provided." IMS does claim that it's working on the development of a conformance testing and certification program, but doesn't list an estimated date as to when the program will be established.
If your company is considering a courseware integration project, there are some things you can do to increase your chance of success.
Strategy #1: Take note of the conclusion many of your peers have reached: Integration is less important than previously thought. A spokeswoman for San Francisco, Calif.-based online business-skills training provider Ninth House Inc. notes that while its products integrate with LMSes, 97 percent of its customers prefer to skip such integration and use the courses in a standalone solution in order to reduce costs and implement training faster. It's a strategy we heard repeated by most experts we talked to.
In fact, in a report on e-learning systems, Jennifer Vollmer of META Group reports that enterprises "are making small initial investments on standalone e-learning systems to address discrete business goals."
This strategy sounds more like a call to abandon ship, and in many ways it is. While LMSes have been promoted as the time-saving solution to maximize e-learning, the plain fact of the matter is that it's a technology full of promises and short on delivery.
Strategy #2: Recognize that certifications vary, so be sure to ask for specifics. Look at a vendor's investment and commitment to interoperability.
"Interoperability is a mess. I've heard the horror stories," says Joe Dougherty, president of NETg and Course Technology, the corporate training and IT education businesses of Thomson Learning. "That's one reason we designed an interoperability lab, so we could certify our products worked with the leading LMSes from IBM, Saba, Click2Learn, Oracle, Sun, Thinq, Plateau and others."
Strategy #3: Outsource your LMS. "SCORM and AICC are standards that have to take hold of the marketplace," Dougherty notes. While 20 percent of NETg's customers incorporate its courseware with an LMS, he says the fastest growing delivery method is for NETg to host the LMS. In conjunction with LMS hosting, consider outsourcing the project, holding back a substantial final payment until the integration is operating to your satisfaction.
Strategy #4: Check the company's financials, and get customer recommendations. While that's part of normal best-practices procedures, it's doubly important when you're dealing with LMSes. Include performance and interoperability compliance as part of the terms of your purchase contract; hold back a larger-than-normal final payment until the product (either courseware or the LMS) works to your satisfaction.
There's another reason to watch how you structure a contract: The future of some LMS providers may also be shaky. "There were maybe 250 LMS providers two years ago, where there are 35 to 40 now," says Joe Mattuch, president and COO of Interskill, a mainframe courseware provider. "With all the consolidation going on, expect fewer than 25 next year, with 4 to 5 major players tops."
—W.A.G. and J.E.P.
Blended Learning: Learning events that combine aspects of online and face-to-face instruction.
Instructor-Led Training (ILT): Usually refers to traditional classroom training, in which an instructor teaches a class to a room of students. Used synonymously with on-site training and classroom training.
LCMS (Learning Content Management System): A software application that allows trainers and training directors to manage both the administrative and content-related functions of training. An LCMS combines the course management capabilities of an LMS (learning management system) with the content creation and storage capabilities of a CMS (content management system).
LMS (Learning Management System): Software that automates the administration of training events. The LMS registers users, tracks courses in a catalog, and records data from learners; it also provides reports to management. An LMS is typically designed to handle courses by multiple publishers and providers. It usually doesn't include its own authoring capabilities; instead, it focuses on managing courses created by a variety of other sources.
Source: American Society for Training & Development (ASTD)