Desktop issues

For
every benefit of e-learning, there seems to be an equally strong reservation.
How will these obstacles be overcome? The E-learning Conference and Exhibition
in London on 7-8 June will explore some of the issues. By Patrick McCurry

Trainers
are having to get to grips with a whole new range of challenges as e-learning
becomes an increasingly important part of business strategy. Many of these
themes will be explored at the E-learning Conference and Exhibition in London
next month.

The
conference comprises three streams – planning e-learning, implementing it and
the content of e-learning programmes.

Each
stream contains sessions suited to those researching the capabilities of
e-learning, those who are just beginning to explore issues and those who are
seasoned practitioners, says Tracy Pillay, conference producer for the event
organiser Venture Marketing Group.

One
of the keynote speakers at the conference, Unipart director of corporate
affairs Frank Nigriello, says one of the challenges facing trainers is
understanding the business benefits of e-learning.

Depth

Unipart’s
experience, he says, has shown that e-learning can produce a greater depth of
learning.

“Electronically
enhanced techniques means people can discover more and they can do so in a
‘safe’ environment,” he says.

“In
a classroom environment employees may feel inhibited but with a CD-Rom or
intranet they have the space to make mistakes and experiment.”

The
other key business benefits are speed and cost savings, he says.

For
example, Unipart took a training module for using micrometers – precision
measuring instruments used in engineering – and transferred it to an e-learning
format.

The
company found that a six-hour classroom-based course could be delivered in four
15-minute sessions on an intranet.

“It
also gives us more flexibility because it means someone who knows a bit about
the subject can join at session three or four or just tap into level four for a
refresher,” says Nigriello.

Putting
the training on-line has also meant cost savings by dispensing with the instructor.

Job
losses caused by e-learning are clearly a fear for many in the training field
and another issue that the conference will examine.

Conference
speaker Peter Goodyear, professor of educational research at Lancaster
University, plays down the risks, arguing that there is always scaremongering
whenever a new technology arrives, whether that be CCTV or computers.

“Traditional
skills will still be very much needed, but married to the new technology,” he
says.

Face-to-face

Nigriello
acknowledges that there will be some forms of training, such as the micrometer
course, that can be delivered more effectively on-line but that there will
still be a huge role for face-to-face instructors.

“Face-to-face
learning is still very relevant because you get the benefits of interaction,
game play as a learning tool and other advantages.”

He
adds that developing an e-learning strategy is not necessarily about replacing
traditional training but integrating the two to match the organisation’s
business needs.

David
Hill, managing director of Echelon Learning, one of the exhibitors at the
E-learning Conference and Exhibition, says the e-learning training market has
been relatively slow to develop, partly because of the reluctance of trainers
to embrace it.

“Research
by PricewaterhouseCoopers has shown trainers are the second worst category of
staff when it comes to accepting e-commerce, because they feel it threatens
them.”

He
says this fear can be valid, citing examples of companies which have reduced
the role of their trainers and moved to intranet-based learning in which line
managers act as coaches for individuals’ training needs and people from the
training department are seen as consultants.

Tim
Drewitt, senior flexible learning consultant at Xebec McGraw-Hill, argues for
integrating e-learning into a wider training strategy.

He
says, “The trainer will become more of a coach or mentor, rather than a
presenter of information. Using e-learning communication should bring them into
contact with more employees and managers and increase their own profile in the
organisation.”

Unipart’s
Nigriello agrees that integrating traditional and e-learning approaches will be
the key to effectively exploiting the new technology.

“Organisations
must first look at what factors are driving their capability to deliver value
to customers and then develop a learning strategy from that knowledge. Once a
learning strategy is in place the contribution of e-learning can be
considered.”

Expectations

Unfortunately,
says Lancaster’s Goodyear, too few companies are taking a planned approach to
e-learning and are instead putting too many expectations on the new technology.

“Many
organisations are forgetting the need for good design, in that they are
expecting technology to do away with all the problems in arranging and
designing learning activities,” he says.

Not
enough organisations are linking e-learning programmes to strategic aims.
“Organisations will get a corporate intranet set up and then it’s pretty easy
to add bits of e-learning to that intranet,” he says.

“But
often nobody has taken a step back and thought about what all this e-learning
stuff on the intranet is actually supposed to achieve and what strategic goals
it is addressing.”

The
needs of employees, too, can be neglected. Many employees will not feel
comfortable if they are expected to simply “get on with it” in an e-learning
environment.

“The
desire to make learning more flexible does not always favour the learners and
can put pressure on them in terms of becoming good managers of their time,”
says Goodyear.

Responsibility

Conference
speaker Diane Oswell, assistant vice-president for open and on-line learning at
investment bank CSFB, agrees that e-learning puts more responsibility on the
individual.

“There
will always be people who are more self-motivated than others but you can help
people generally by directing them to the learning they need, setting deadlines
and rewarding them for completion where appropriate.”

She
adds that another challenge for e-learning students is interruptions if they
are studying in an office environment. “Our staff have taken to e-learning
enthusiastically but one of the issues is people can be interrupted at their PC
and it can be a challenge to maintain concentration.”

The
limits of technology can also sometimes make the experience rather dry, she
says.

“The
Internet and intranet technologies are still developing and it can be a problem
getting good interactive materials because it is hard to deliver good quality
audio and video,” she says.

Nigriello
says many employees are intimidated the whole concept of learning, as they have
often had negative experiences at school, and that this fear can be made worse
if they are not used to computers.

“You
need to try and take the fear out of it by ensuring it is very easy to operate,
especially at the beginning, with simple buttons or clicks required to navigate
the course.  This means people can
become familiar and confident with the process early on.”

Case
study
DfEE employs desktop learning big time

Xebec
McGraw-Hill has helped organise a comprehensive on-line training network for
the Department for Education and Employment.

Following
a project with training resources providers Xebec, NETg and Maxim, the DfEE’s
4,500 staff can access a catalogue of business, management and communications
skills courses from any desktop PC.

The
DfEE has created a library of resources, including on-line courses, training
videos and traditional training programmes. Now it has set a “learning gateway”
called The 21st Century Learning Initiative on every PC to help staff locate
resources.

DfEE
head of research and development for staff training, Alan Fairbrother, says it
has become more difficult to deliver traditional training on demand. “With
on-line learning we can deliver training across multiple sites simultaneously,”
he says.

The
DfEE is using a mixture of courses from the three providers, including Xebec’s
soft skills on-line courses that feature a combination of video, audio and
graphics.

By
early summer the department expects to run full multimedia versions of the
courses on its intranet at specific times, so staff can tune in to view them.
Alternatively, staff can access the courses through CD-Rom packages at one of
the learning zones set up at DfEE sites in London, Sheffield, Runcorn and
Darlington.

Case
study
TUC addresses technophobia

One
of the key challenges in e-learning is 
to encourage employees who may be intimidated at the thought of
computer-based training to give it a go.

The
TUC believes that its e-learning product launched in March, learnOnline can
help those less confident to overcome their fears.

LearnOnline
is a web-based learning package, developed with On-line Education Publishing, and
is being used by the TUC’s National Education Centre to deliver a series of
distance learning courses in areas such as employment law, recruitment and
union recognition strategies and health and safety at work.

Individual
unions including Unison are rolling out their own series of training programmes
using their own version of learnOnline, in areas such as health and safety and
on-line tutoring.

Encouraging
workers to return to learn is something that unions have become very successful
at, says TUC general secretary John Monks.

“In
many cases, individuals are reluctant to take up training, perhaps because they
are afraid of a return to the classroom of their schooldays. But with their
union behind them, offering support 
every step of the way, many people have made the leap into learning.”

But
the TUC is calling for employers to increase the number of UK workers with
access to the Internet, citing research by the Epic Group for the Department
for Education and Employment last year, which found only 5 per cent of
companies were using on-line learning.

But
nearly a quarter of firms said they were intending to use on-line learning
within five years.

The
TUC claims that although on-line learning has been making much progress, there
is still a long way to go before it becomes accessible to the vast majority of
existing and potential students.

The
TUC would like to see the promotion of computer loan schemes and the provision
of computers for the low paid and unemployed, as well as active encouragement
to employers to promote e-learning.

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