New technology reduces CBT learning curve

Although computer-based training has been around for decades, delivering courses via computers often has been overshadowed by sexier technology, such as the Internet and snazzy multimedia tools.

Or rather, it has been overshadowed until now. Such technology is increasingly being applied to the traditionally mundane realm of training and education, sparking renewed interest and more widespread adoption of CBT, according to industry observers.

"Technology is actually being used more as an extender than a replacement of the classroom instructional experience,'' said Elliott Masie, president of The Masie Center, a technology and learning think tank in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

In some ways, CBT courses can be superior to the traditional classroom environment, observers said. Organizations save the travel costs associated with sending workers to remote training locations, and CBT makes it possible for workers to take courses when it is convenient rather than spending chunks of time away from their jobs.

Federal agencies have long been CBT users, analysts and vendors said. The Defense Department, with the most geographically dispersed work force in the nation, is just one agency pushing the envelope of technology-based learning. But a series of recent improvements has CBT and its offshoots infiltrating even the most reticent agencies.

The Tools

Although CBT/distance learning spans the design, development, distribution, modification and validation of courseware, perhaps it is most often associated with the authoring tools used to create courses.

Following a number of consolidations, the two dominant vendors are Macromedia Inc., San Francisco, and Asymetrix Learning Systems Inc., Bellevue, Wash., according to industry analysts. Both companies offer multimedia tools that can be used for developing instructional programs, but they are not exclusive to that task.

Furthermore, these tools keep getting simpler, allowing subject matter experts (SMEs), rather than programmers, to design many applications or even to convert their existing courseware to the World Wide Web. Meanwhile, technical standards are solidifying to increase interoperability among vendors, giving users the ability to centrally manage myriad courseware.

Macromedia's flagship product, Authorware 4.0, is designed for developing and distributing interactive learning over the Web and via CD-ROM. With Authorware, users can incorporate content developed using Macromedia's wealth of multimedia tools, such as ShockWave file formats, or animation developed using Director or Flash programs, the company said.

"Training a year ago was what I would call page turners: You'd read a page, then you'd wait 45 seconds for the next page to appear; it was all very static,'' said Pat McKim, Macromedia's vice president of strategic business development. "Now, if you go to a Web site using Flash or dynamic HTML, you're seeing movement [and] better interaction, even at low bandwidth. That makes training more interesting and draws people to it.''

Technical advances are eating away at some of the more conceptual drawbacks long associated with CBT. For example, CBT's traditional self-paced training requires discipline that might be lacking in some students. Recently, computer-managed instruction (CMI) packages have become more prevalent. CMI solutions help enforce training by tracking student progression through a course and verifying completion and information retention.

"The whole point is, if you can do some skills assessment, then you can turn around and track, test and report specific success on a student-by-student basis,'' said Bob Gill, vice president and research director for Gartner Group, a Stamford, Conn., research firm. "For the first time, you can start to calculate a [return on investment].''

Last October, Macromedia acquired Solis Inc., maker of the Pathway CMI program, now known as Macromedia Pathware. The company is working to make the Pathware management system interact with other vendors' tools, chiefly by supporting a standard initiated by the Aviation Industry CBT Committee. The AICC standard, applicable across many industries, defines how to relay information between CBT content and CMI systems.

"If you can have interfaces between all these different modules that are accepted by a number of different vendors, [and] various vendors' reporting engines all work together, then you start to get some critical mass,'' Gill said.

Asymetrix also plans to make its CMI product, ToolBook II Librarian, AICC-compliant, the company said.

Asymetrix's authoring tools include its flagship ToolBook II and IconAuthor, a Unix-based authoring tool that the company acquired in the buyout of Aimtech Corp. last September. ToolBook II supports native HTML and Java, which makes it easier for course developers to generate Web-based interactive applications, the firm said.

"When you are finished completing a course, you can keep it in ToolBook code or pull down a drop-down menu that says Export to Web, [which] changes your interactions to Java, your graphics to [graphic file formats] and your text to HTML,'' Asymetrix president Kevin Oakes said.

Real-Life Applications

But it is not always so easy, users said. Viki Bowen, the distance-learning manager for the Air Force Battlestaff Training School in Hurlburt Field, Fla., used ToolBook to convert some CD-ROM training material to the Web. "Any scripting language we have behind our screens just sort of drops off the map when you do the conversion,'' Bowen said. "It's certainly not a panacea, but it does get us at least part way along the road.'' The two-hour lesson took about 400 hours to convert for the Web.

A new version of ToolBook released last month promises to fix that deficiency, Asymetrix said. Nonetheless, "any time you are dealing with conversions to the Web, nothing is a snap of the fingers,'' Oakes said. "You have to be a little careful about what elements you're using; Java is not quite as interactive as a local program would be.''

Battlestaff trains more than 600 people a year to work the 50 systems involved in a Joint Air Operation Center. Not everyone can attend training on site, and there are not enough seats if they did. Bowen is moving the training to the Web where feasible, noting that severe bandwidth limitations require a different approach than CDs.

"Rather than deliver what we can already deliver via CD-ROM, we've got Unix and PC systems, and by putting simplified and more text-based training on the Web, we will allow people on those Unix systems to access training," Bowen said.

"A lot of people want to jump on the Web bandwagon without looking at the appropriateness of the Web, the type of training they are trying to deliver and the training audience,'' she added. "The Web is an entirely different medium with some great strengths—- the ability to have multilevels of information, multipaths through information and associative aspects of information—- that are not taken advantage of by sticking a lecture out on the Web.''

Focus on the Web

Vendors such as Macromedia and Asymetrix are making Web development even easier by using templates that allow SMEs to drop content into a pre-defined program. Templates remove a lot of the difficulty of developing courseware, but they offer only limited flexibility, vendors said.

The trade-off is worth it, according to the creators of the Joint Capabilities Assessment Toolset, which is being developed at the Pentagon. JCAT is a central source of intelligence information based on Triton Services Inc.'s Gain Momentum authoring tool. The Dunkirk, Md.-based company took the high-end CBT package over from Sybase Inc. in 1996 and proceeded to fix long-standing bugs and open the software up to more database platforms.

While not a traditional CBT application, JCAT has learning as an inherent component; it ties together disparate databases that will deliver information and provide models and simulations to those with top-secret clearance.

"These guys have worked in the intelligence and Defense community and literally have zero programming experience coming in,'' said Maj. Craig Kaucher, the JCAT program manager. The product had an immediate impact, Kaucher said. "Sybase came in and showed them a couple of fundamentals, and in about a week, they were off building parts of the application.''

Although JCAT links to Web pages, the Web cannot offer the performance of the current Fast Ethernet backbone or the ease of Gain Momentum's traditional development environment. "We went through a lot of hard analysis with the Web technology to make sure that what we were doing was the right thing,'' Kaucher said. "What we found in the last year or so was I'd have to have a Java programmer sitting next to each of the SMEs to do the work.''

Videos can be incorporated easily with Gain Momentum, according to Triton. "Rather than have a teacher ask, 'Do you do A, B or C?' you can see the scenario play out in three different videos and go back many times until you pick the right answer,'' said Erick Slazinski, Triton's director of product development and support.

Alternative Solutions

While the major vendors target high-end and workstation users, a number of vendors offer CBT solutions for niche markets.

At the low end, Eloquent Inc., San Mateo, Calif., offers what executives describe as a painless and inexpensive way to deliver presentations over the Web, a LAN or on CD with Presenter 3.0. The Windows-based program handles "talking-head" videos and text, and it offers a window for slides, a demo or a whiteboard. Even customers working with just a 28.8 kilobits/sec modem can use the product, the company said.

"Your cost per finished hour of traditional CBT ranges from $30,000 to upwards of $100,000 per hour, depending on the production value,'' said Bill Glazier, Eloquent's vice president of marketing. "Our cost per learning hour for both software and services is somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 to $5.'' Standard pricing is $12,000 per server with support for 10 streams.

Meanwhile, Pathlore Software Corp., Columbus, Ohio, offers a CBT product called Phoenix for the mainframe as well as PCs and the Internet.

"If you talk to a large agency, they may say, 'The Web is our direction, but in the meantime our users could be on a 3270, a Windows 3.11 workstation or a browser,' '' said Bruce Duff, Pathlore's vice president of marketing. "So one of our tenets is to offer a course that can run in any of those environments without having to write a Windows, an Internet and a mainframe version.''

The Customs Service, Newington, Va., is using mainframe-based Phoenix to train 19,000 users worldwide. Many of those users did not have Windows-based PCs until the last few years, and some still do not. But everyone has access to the mainframe, where the primary course teaches staff how to use the Treasury Enforcement Communication System, which is used at U.S. borders by Customs, the FBI, local law enforcement and other agencies.

While Customs has not conducted formal studies on CBT savings, one of the biggest returns has been on certification tests. "We probably have about 10,000 users we have to certify every two years, and I can't imagine doing it in any kind of nonautomated environment,'' said Mary Eichelberger, chief of the training branch.

-- Morrissey is a free-lance writer based in Denver. She can be reached at jemorrissey@msn.com.

Video as a training tool

Given its bandwidth limitations, the Internet often is not the delivery mechanism for serious video applications, vendors said.

To get 30-frames-per-second videocassette quality requires 1.5 megabits/sec. Even at top dial-in rates, the Internet may only deliver five to 10 frames per second, according to vendors.

"For getting charts, slides and presentations with 'talking heads' across, like an instructor-driven video to complement a [World Wide] Web page, there's a reasonable amount of usefulness to it,'' said Marc Trimuschat, the product line manager for Silicon Graphics Inc.'s WebForce line of scalable streaming products. A 20-stream server bundle lists for $22,995.

NASA opted for Starlight Networks Inc.'s StarWorks streaming media server for its Classroom of the Future (COTF) in Wheeling, W.Va., to stream media across the Internet to improve teaching and learning in mathematics, science and technology education.

"We can take a signal from a satellite downlink, bring it through the video network, digitize it and send it through the computer network using Starlight,'' said Nitin Naik, COTF's executive director. "For a long time, we could only do that within our facility. Now, with the advent of Web technology with plug-ins, you can stream video into the Web.''

But not at the 1.5 megabits/sec rate handled within the facility, Naik said. "When we go out to the Internet, we do it at a slightly lower baud rate and try to design the instructional modules slightly differently,'' he said. "You can get great audio, but images need to be slides and [Microsoft Corp.] PowerPoint presentations.''

Although set up by NASA, COTF is a resource for any federal agency that would like to leverage NASA's $11 million infrastructure.

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