Learn something new

A primer on the federal government's e-learning portal

In this time-crunched world, customers conduct business, buy groceries, plan vacations and even earn college degrees from the comfort of their own computers. Not wanting to be left behind, the Office of Personnel Management has developed a one-stop shop for electronic training.

OPM's USALearning, formerly known as GoLearn, puts professional development in the hands of federal employees, allowing them to take classes at their convenience.

Born out of the governmentwide e-training initiative, USALearning wears two hats. First, the program offers free online courses and tools to registered users. Second, it manages three service providers from whom agencies can buy products and services tailored for their specific requirements.

"We're actually providing practical tools," said Larry Mercier, who retired as GoLearn's director in July.

Practicality pays off. As of late June, 31 agencies were using USALearning courses to train employees in a wide range of areas.

"Virtually every agency has created an online or distance learning portal that provides its employees with access to online training courses, libraries of training materials and, occasionally, interactive content," said Rich D'Adamo, president of Workforce Solutions.

USALearning aims to simplify the movement to e-training by creating a common solution for all agencies.

"Across the federal government there have always been silos of disparate learning," said Jeff Pon, OPM's acting program director for e-government. USALearning provides a "knowledge universe," in which every federal employee has access to training and mentoring regardless of their location, he said.

Anyone with a .gov or .mil e-mail address can sign up for USALearning by creating an account at www.usalearning.gov.

Registered users have access to more than 100 free online courses and books on topics such as IT security, customer service, human resources, leadership and project management.

Popular classes include "Microsoft Excel 2003 Fundamentals" and "Change Management: Managing Change." USALearning's home page provides a link to those high-interest courses as well as federally-mandated ones. In addition, users can search by class name or topic.

Not always a freebie

USALearning's federal course catalog also includes fee-based classes offered by three contracting vehicles — FasTrac, GoLearn and the National Technical Information Service, which is part of the Commerce Department and offers a wide range of secure services for e-learning. OPM recently changed the name of GoLearn to USALearning to avoid confusion with the GoLearn contracting vehicle.

That vehicle, which OPM manages, is the place to shop for additional courseware libraries and services, including implementation, customization and integration support for learning management systems. The program now supports 13 agencies' solutions.

For example, the Agriculture Department turned to OPM for help implementing and hosting its Agriculture Learning (AgLearn) Service, which provides training for the USDA's 130,000 employees at 28 agencies and offices.

"USDA has achieved significant cost savings by using the federalwide contracts with GoLearn for AgLearn, as well as for purchasing online courseware such as the SkillSoft or Netg course libraries," said Cynthia Bezz, the USDA's e-learning program manager.

In addition to cost savings, benefits cited include the ease of sitting down at a desktop computer, signing up for a course and taking it immediately.

Through GoLearn, Robert Kidwell said he plans to add courses to his agency's learning management system to help meet training requirements for contracting officer's technical representatives. Kidwell, director of workforce management IT systems at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, estimated that an instructor-led course for NOAA's 750 reps would cost five to 10 times more than the online solution.

Agencies without learning management systems can take advantage of GoLearn by obtaining licenses to use the courseware libraries and other tools.

Their employees can then access fee-based products through a designated section on USALearning. OPM offers indefinite- delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts at discounted rates, and the prices vary. For example, the SkillSoft business skills library is available for $30.75. On the higher end, Harvard Business School Publishing's ManageMentor Plus and Essential Leader package costs $492.

Happy customers

OPM conducted a return-on-investment analysis in June to rate customer satisfaction with USALearning. In the first month, the agency received 929 responses to an automated survey, which takes three to five minutes to complete. The feedback on the training's quality was positive, Mercier said.

USALearning "is an excellent example of a multipurpose e-learning portal," D'Adamo said. The site is still evolving, but the competency center and the communities of practice "demonstrate the potential to provide not only access to training courses, but also career development and knowledge-sharing capabilities."

For the IT workforce, in particular, e-learning tools "allow agencies to provide continuous skills refreshment, which is critical in an environment where we see a steady stream of software and hardware upgrades and enhancements," he said. This has worked well at NOAA's National Weather Service, Kidwell said, because its employees rely on changing technology to get their jobs done.

It has worked especially well in Vicksburg, Miss., where Bill Frederick, a meteorologist for NWS, runs a one-man shop and is not near a school that offers classes tailored to federal workers.

"The [USALearning] courses are excellent," Frederick said. He should know — he has completed 49 of them so far. "They're a necessity for someone out here in the field where travel is held to a minimum."

Frederick accesses USALearning's free classes through his agency's system. "It's a simple way to learn, and that's what I like about it," he said. "And I can learn at my own pace — if you've got 20 minutes here or 10 minutes there. That's how I completed all the courses."

Despite such success stories, D'Adamo said there are some disadvantages to e-learning. "Studies show that there is a lower completion rate among trainees taking online courses, and you lose the immediacy of responses to questions and the dynamics of the classroom setting," he said. "That should change as online courseware becomes more sophisticated and interactive."

In the meantime, USALearning could make some low-tech improvements, users say. At NOAA, Kidwell has found that employees are intimidated by the courseware libraries, which offer thousands of choices. He would like to see OPM develop groups of classes that meet government-specific objectives. The program "should be our advocate, anticipating these needs and ensuring course content is available across government," he said.

Kidwell said there could be more sharing. USALearning "should be providing a clearinghouse for courses." For example, NOAA is developing a class for its employees on handling comp time for travel. The rules are complicated, he said, adding that the same law applies to all agencies. Whenever OPM releases a new regulation, he said, it could simultaneously offer training on how to implement it.

For its part, the agency is working to make USALearning more user-friendly and searchable, Pon said. "What we're doing is not just collecting the information," he said. "We're categorizing it. The site becomes much more intelligent as we go on."

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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