Enough is enough

Many
organisations now have the infrastructure in place to exploit the technologies
behind online learning, but the reality still lags behind the hype. Will
embracing the concept of “learning objects” prove to be the turning point? By
Stephanie Sparrow

This
should be the year that online learning makes its mark. With the nightmare of
Y2K compliance receding, organisations are reaping the benefits of
well-maintained computer systems and celebrating their employees’ acceptance of
the Internet and intranet by creating new vehicles for training programmes.

Yet
the e-learning revolution hasn’t quite happened.

In
Europe e-learning represents just 4 per cent of the IT training market, the
most natural application for on-line learning.

And
although take-up is predicted to escalate to 14 per cent by 2003 this is small
beer compared to the 46 per cent of the US training market predicted by the
International Data Corporation for the same year.

The
e-learning benefits are well-documented – it is said to be a cost-efficient,
time-saving way of offering consistent training that is always on tap. So why
is take-up so sluggish?

“Some
organisations are still struggling with the concepts of on-line learning and
self-managed learning because e-learning is about putting learners in control
of their own learning,” says senior flexible learning consultant at
Xebec-McGraw Hill, Tim Drewitt.

“Other
employers are not yet sure that desktops are the right place to learn,” he
adds.

However,
he believes that many are in the planning stage. “This will be the year of
e-learning, partly because the new bandwidths are in place,” he says.

“People
are now planning what to do next and asking what else they can run on their
intranets.”

One
of the stumbling blocks to on-line learning seems to be the same perception
that has dogged technology-based training for the past decade – that it could
just be an example of technology looking for problems to solve.

“You
have to make the technology work for you,” says Nick Holley, director of
training and development for M&G, the investment management business of The
Prudential.

Holley
has installed “The I” on-line system for more than 3,000 employees
worldwide. 

Performance
support

“I
had to find a way of developing people without flying around the world to them.
And it’s not just training, it is about performance support – giving people
what they need precisely when they need it. It’s a matter of just-in-time
training, not just-in-case,” he says.

He
admits that the best starting point was to use what was readily available.

“We
had a global intranet in place. We didn’t have to invest in new technology
which would have brought major cost implications to deliver a training
solution.”

The
I is essentially a virtual corporate university with a more accessible name,
and is now well embedded in the company culture. It delivers training when
needed and is used to reinforce learning points.

“This
is very useful,” says Holley, “particularly as a US study showed that 87 per
cent of people forget what they have learned a few weeks after a course. We can
use e-mail to refresh learning points.”

Holley’s
model has been adopted in other parts of The Prudential and rebranded
accordingly – the banking arm has Egg Learn, for example – but he emphasises
that trainers should never become complacent.

Feedback

“It
is not a case of, ‘If you build it they will come’,” he says. “It is vital to
market it to people and ask for their feedback.”

Perhaps
some of the reluctance surrounding on-line learning is that it threatens the
training professional. Holley says that they should not feel worried.

“This
is not a replacement for face-to-face training,” he says. “But it can be used
to increase its effectiveness by preparing learners for a course, for example.”

Even
suppliers agree that e-learning has to be part of a well-designed package with
well thought out elements.

At
Skillsoft, managing director and vice-president Kevin Young points out that the
technology is there for ease of access and counts for nothing if coupled with
poor instructional design.

“The
power is in the reach of the solution, providing the quality is there,” he
says.

And
at Waters Training, a specialist financial services training company which runs
public and in-house courses, director Andy Cooper says on-line courses are a
useful complement to traditional activities.

“We
are seeing a shift to more self-paced distance learning approaches combined
with face-to-face teaching where appropriate,” he says.

His
company has joined with another company The Online Courseware Factory to
provide training for financial technology professionals over the Internet.

Tailored
solutions

Companies
can access the Waters Training web site create their own tailored training
solutions and deploy it over the Internet.

The
key to making these web-based e-learning solutions lively and accessible is the
use of learning objects.

The
definition of learning objects is still being debated across the industry, but
in this context they are pieces of content such as video, text, audio and so on
which are deliverable over the Internet and which can be used in limitless
permutations, fitting together like a jigsaw to meet specific learning needs.

Learning
objects is the area most causing excitement among suppliers in the on-line
market right now and represents a vast leap from the early days of
technology-based training when screens and disks were often merely another
vehicle for carrying a highly structured training programme.

But
is technology really giving us anything extra? Why not just find the right
chapter in a book rather than click on a switch or icon?

“A
student still has to look for the right information,” says CEO of KnowlegePool
Paul Butler. “They are likely to say, ‘I don’t want a book, what I want to do
is to download my material in bite-size chunks’.”

In
KnowlegePool’s products, a course can contain between 10 and 1,000 objects,
consisting of elements of interaction and show, teach and tell.

Many
pundits feel that as the concept of learning objects becomes more widely used,
training will assume a bigger place on the business agenda.

There
is much made among suppliers that the use of on-line learning combined with
learning objects will enable training to offer information and advice that is just
in time and just enough.

Immediate
return

“In
other words, it occurs at the precise time the user needs to know something and
offers the correct amount of information to allow the user to perform that task
which in turn gives the company an immediate return on its training
investment,” says Educational Multimedia sales and marketing director Paul
Colbert.

The
argument for e-learning is that fast-changing business environments mean that
companies cannot afford to offer “more than enough” training because they
haven’t the time or resources to do so.

On-line
activities will be conducive to a smooth flow of the right information.

“Today’s
learning environment tends to be one of discrete, unlinked and unmeasured training
activities,” says business development director of The Online Courseware
Factory Debbie Carlton.

“Tomorrow’s
will be one where continuous, globally distributed learning directly links
business goals with individual learning outcomes across the entire
organisation.”

Objects
of the future

The
emphasis on learning objects will lead to a new knowledge economy, says manager
of the Knowledge Media Institute Jerzy Grzeda.

Based
in the Open University, the institute acts as a research laboratory and “technology
radar”, says Grzeda.

“Learning
objects are the way forward because they offer the opportunity  to learn at a distance, learn at your own
pace and spread the learning programme over a manageable length of time,” he
says.

“Many
people are talking about a knowledge economy, which will assemble the learning
in a pick and mix way.”

Grzeda
explains that the ultimate goal is that chunks of learning could be chosen and
traded from a variety of sources. However there are fears that this could be a
good business opportunity rather than a learning one.

Trainers
and educational specialists will still be needed in order to check the validity
and objectives of the different sources just as different modules of the
current courses have to be related. “There comes a point where information has
to be standardised,” he says.

There
are also technical issues – the links between the learning chunks have to be
standard too just like children’s building bricks have to slot together.

“The
industry is looking for a common interface which would allow clients to build,
mix and match,” says senior flexible learning consultant at Xebec-McGraw Hill,
Tim Drewitt.

Discussions
are currently under way at industry training organisations within the US. The
final outcome could be that a learner would be able to pull out chunks of
information that marry together “a bit like Lego”, says Drewitt.

Case
study

Yorkshire
Water’s million-pound e-learning project

Technicians
working in rural environments high in the Yorkshire Dales will have the same
access to training as office-based workers in Bradford when a new e-learning
scheme from Yorkshire Water gets off the ground later this year.

The
company is implementing a new, technology-based, integrated customer and
operational management system, known as Icom, which will affect 1,800 of its
workers.

The
training is planned to start in November for staff at the Bradford head offices
and more than 400 field workers in depots and treatment works across Yorkshire.

“The
functionality of the new Icom system is leading edge,” says Icom training
project manager Tim Gatti. “For example, details of a call received at our
contact centre, perhaps requiring a visit to one of our customers, can be
immediately relayed through to our schedulers and then automatically fed
through to our front line operators.

“When
they have carried out the necessary work or investigation, details are fed back
to our contact centre in real time, so that vital information on progress is
immediately available. This will be critical to achieving one of our key
operational targets – to ‘close the loop’ with our customers by providing
accurate and up-to-date information on the progress of their calls and
queries.”

Because
the technology is new, Gatti believes that the best way for people to feel
comfortable with the different parts of the system is to try them out in a safe
environment first.

“Our
training needs to accurately reflect the situations and tasks our users will
typically be faced with on a daily basis, so we are building simulations to
replicate these ‘real-life’ experiences.

“Our
people need to have an understanding not only of the new ways of working that
will be required, but also of the ways in which the different parts of the new
system will link together to share information.”

With
over 90 distinct business groups and 24 separate training modules identified,
each with a number of built-in variations, it is a huge task and Yorkshire
Water is spending almost £1m on the training scheme which will draw on all
aspects of training technology.

“We
have a broad range of abilities and roles to train within a very short
time-frame,” says Gatti. “Our solution is to deliver the training via hard
disk, CD-Rom and intranet.”

The
workers who are scattered across depots and treatment works will be able to
access the training via Panasonic mobile devices with integrated modems.

“But
we are not going to leave people on their own. All training will be delivered
using classroom-based sessions and there will be a skilled facilitator and
business expert at each one to ensure that our teams fully understand their
roles within Icom and how they can use the new technology to best advantage.”

For
Gatti, training and business benefit will work hand-in-hand. “We need to
deliver reliable, repeatable and accurate system-based training without having
live access to the actual systems.

“The
measure of its success will be that staff will have the confidence to run the
systems in a real environment after go-live at the end of November.

“And
the beauty of it will be that our e-learning materials can be retained and
re-used as required on our intranet. This scheme will also have a life after
go-live.”

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