E-learning: A progress report

Experts identify the peculiarities and pitfalls of online training

The federal government is in a financial jam, and it's banking on e-learning to reduce the costs of technology training.

Although e-learning is making a difference, the government won't maximize its investment until managers and employees take advantage of more e-learning programs.

The USALearning Web portal is a good example of an underused tool. The Bush administration expects the program to encourage governmentwide adoption of e-learning. Although nearly 1 million federal workers have taken e-learning training courses in the past five years, USALearning's enrollment accounts for only 15 percent of the federal workforce.

In Hendersonville, N.C., Jackie Burke, a union representative for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 3509, which represents Social Security Administration workers, said most federal employees don't know about the portal.

Critics also question how well agencies integrate e-learning into broader training programs.

Many employees who know about USALearning may not realize they can create a plan with their supervisors to take online courses during work hours to help them earn a promotion, Burke said.

Despite its shortcomings, e-learning could still meet federal agencies' expectations. Its success relies on understanding its pitfalls and evolution.

Reality check #1: The learning curve

Training experts say not all government employees achieve results through e-learning.

One challenge is self-motivation. In e-learning, students control the pace and select their materials, a concept still in its infancy. Many students need a teacher to motivate them. Also, they can quit at any time.

Many federal workers don't take courses because "they don't have enough time during the day because of their workload," Burke said.

E-learning also depends on learning style and experience. Many people are accustomed to a classroom environment, which online courses generally do not replicate.

All those factors can inhibit a successful learning experience.

"Based on my governmental experience, I'm a little bit skeptical," said Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at Federal Sources Inc. "It's always an awkward relationship to try to do anything online. It doesn't provide the kind of spontaneity that's needed for deep learning."

Age can be another factor, Bjorklund said.

Online training is most useful during the early stages of a government career, when "there are lots of specifics that you can apply in the context of your work," he said. "It's easy to interpret them. But as you grow in your career field, you're getting into management levels where you're expected to apply your expertise. When you have that wisdom, you can push the envelope of policy and adopt forward-thinking kinds of solutions to problems."

Some students, regardless of age, may find the online interaction with instructors stimulating, said Bill Rust, a research director at Gartner and an e-learning expert. "The interaction between teachers and students becomes more intense," he said. "Some students are just too shy to ask questions in a classroom. Online, people tend to ask more questions."

Most students are likely to take an e-learning course as they move into careers and "therefore should learn how to work with it," said Barbara Stein, a senior policy analyst at the National Education Association.

Reality check #2: Teaching the teachers

E-learning's effectiveness also depends on the subject matter and instruction required. For example, to adequately teach people to change a train's wheels to comply with federal regulations, you need to show them how to do it, said Rust, former technology director of Baltimore's school system. "You probably wouldn't show them on a computer how many torques of a wrench are needed," he said.

Rust said many e-learning customers work around immediate problems. The first challenge is to teach instructors to adapt to e-learning. The best teacher, of course, is experience.

In Broward County, Fla., for example, every online instructor must take at least one online course to become a trainer. In Ohio, the state's Department of Education tutors teachers before they become online trainers. At the Army University, a program designed to provide college credit offers online mentors and facilitators.

Instructors who do not understand how e-learning works sometimes pay more attention to the form than the content. That is a mistake, experts say.

"It is all about content," said Jack Kramer, vice president of sales at Pathlore Software. "If you don't serve that content up and make it really easy and make people want to come and learn, it is going to fail." Pathlore's clients include the Government Accountability Office, Library of Congress, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Navy, Federal Reserve, and Homeland Security Department.

Reality check #3: Productivity in peril?

Professional development is easy to support in principle but can be tricky in practice. Managers should set policies about how students will earn credits toward promotions, who pays for e-learning and when students can take courses.

The library for example, recently introduced an e-learning program that mixes e-learning and traditional classroom training. It offers hundreds of courses for its employees.

"If a course is assigned to [workers] by their supervisor as part of their professional development, the completion of the course is tracked, and they will get credit for it," said Terry Bickham, the library's chief learning officer.

If a course is mandatory, such as information technology security awareness, employees get credit, too. On the other hand, if a course only improves employees' skills and adds to their résumés, they must take it during off-hours, Bickham added. Because the library pays for all course licenses in its inventory, employees can take free courses for professional development.

The payoff

Although e-learning is not simple, the payoff is clear, said agency officials who have made it work, adding that the savings are remarkable.

The cost of purchasing software licenses, professional services and staff training from SkillSoft, another e-learning company, was less than the annual salary of an additional staff member, Bickham said.

The savings are substantial because several staff members would be needed to do the same amount of administrative work, he said. The cost for online course licenses and system maintenance fees is about $20 per employee per year.

The FBI, which offers more than 2,500 courses to its 30,000 employees, has seen tremendous benefits from e-learning.

The FBI's Virtual Academy is available to employees on their desktop computers, and it includes performance support tools and instant advice for managers who need information about dealing with different situations, said Jim Trinka, the bureau's assistant director of training and development.

Money was a big factor in starting the Virtual Academy program because Trinka didn't have the funding to expand training without e-learning.

"We have a lot of courses that deal with investigating potential terrorism, courses delivered via e-learning," Trinka said.

Last year, the FBI took its e-learning tools to a new level by developing a course on information security. The bureau's entire staff completed the course in only two weeks, he said.

But Trinka said e-learning can be difficult for some people. "E-learning is no panacea," he said. "You have to use it with a lot of thought. You must direct it to areas that are suited for e-learning."

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