Web-based training 'Class of 2000'

As agencies mold their information technology operations to capture the power of the Internet, they increasingly are looking to online training tools to provide inexpensive, flexible alternatives to traditional classroom training.

The government, with its geographically dispersed work force and its infinite policy and procedural training requirements, has enthusiastically embraced computer-based training. But until a recent market shift that saw computer-based training concerns beginning to offer online programs, that training mostly has been through CD-ROMs.

Computer-based training often is used to teach agency employees how to use IT systems or products. By putting training services online, agencies can save money they once spent to transport personnel to classrooms, and they can offer training at whatever time of day best suits users.

In addition, online offerings can make the training process much more interactive than CD-ROMs, and online training enables management to monitor students' progress.

"If you've got a browser, you can get to training," said Rob Perry, vice president of federal sales at Pathlore Software Corp. "This is exciting to agencies because they don't buy a PC today that doesn't have a browser."

Pathlore's Phoenix solution can run via the World Wide Web or through an agency's internal network. It is built on commercial off-the-shelf software products on a database architecture and is designed to enable agencies to acquire content or online courses that match the training needs of a particular group of people.

Pathlore sees its products as supplementing, not replacing, traditional classroom training. For example, one civilian agency, which the company declined to name, uses Phoenix on the Web to provide students nationwide with the prerequisite material for a regular training class.

"[The agency has] a dispersed work force, [and it is] having to train through various platforms, various machines, various network connections," Perry said. "This provides a single training portal."

The product also provides testing and assessment features to track student progress. The Navy is using Phoenix for shore-based and sea-based training related to sailor missions. "At any point in time, a captain on a ship can understand what skill set his crew has and understand where his depth of knowledge exists," Perry said.

In addition to enabling agency managers to track employee progress, online training drastically reduces the travel costs associated with classroom training and eliminates barriers for people who work odd hours, said Dan Jones, manager of educational technology at the Learning University at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"The most obvious savings is travel," Jones said. "It costs us an enormous amount of money to do [classroom] training."

In addition, shift workers at VA hospitals who would not be able to receive traditional classroom training can use computer-based training at any time of day, Jones said.

Unlike computer-based training solutions that use CD-ROMs, online courses enable agency officials to track employee training and justify training expenses, said Tom Kahl, director of federal sales at CBT Systems Inc. CBT Systems offers computer-based training in IT subjects through a library of 1,100 courses.

"Once the CD-ROM product has left the shipping facility, you really don't have a clean way of knowing if [students] got it or if they are using it," Kahl said. "In an online world, you know who is taking what course, and you know student results. To make a large commitment, you need to have something to justify your expenses. The numbers speak for themselves quite well."

CBT Systems has signed enterprisewide licenses with the Air Force, the Army and the Defense Information Systems Agency. Its products are offered to the government via the General Services Administration's Seat Management contract and the Outsourcing Desktop Initiative for NASA.

DISA offers all courses from CBT Systems via the Web, except for courses that cannot be accessed through the Internet for security reasons, said Frederick Norman, DISA's training manager. In those cases, the courses are offered via a secure intranet.

At DISA, before employees go for training in a traditional classroom environment, they first must check whether that course material is available via CBT Systems' course offerings. If it is available, they must take the CBT course, Norman said.

At one DOD data center, online course training sometimes is required for employees to be considered for promotion. At another data center, help-desk employees who work at night can take online classes between calls, thus accommodating employees who work odd hours.

"What we want to do is make the training available to folks regardless of where they are," Norman said.

When DISA recently switched its e-mail system to Microsoft Corp.'s Outlook, all users were required to take an online course before being allowed to bring Outlook up on their workstations.

"That was able to circumvent a lot of problems," Norman said. "We didn't have to bring in an instructor to go over Microsoft. It was kind of an assurance that people had a certain skill level."

Lotus Development Corp., where officials have predicted that the training market has the potential to be as big for the company as its Lotus Notes business, is targeting the training market with a server software application called LearningSpace Anytime. The product combines various technologies in a single software platform to enable people to train in different ways, said Debbie Black, Lotus' director of product marketing for distributed learning.

"I as a user can individually go to my computer and interact with my material alone," Black said. "Or I go on the Web to a live session that's occurring that moment on the network. I'm joined with a whole series of other individuals at the same time."

The interaction with students provided by online training products such as LearningSpace help re-create some of the characteristics unique to traditional classroom learning, such as student input to a teacher's lecture, said Paula Boyle, senior analyst with consulting and training firm Kinetic Information.

"When it is network-based...the ability to create more dynamic classes as information changes is incredibly important," Boyle said. "When you collaborate electronically, you can expand the interaction with your students; you can monitor the content of the course."

A spokeswoman for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc., which offers a series of Web-based training courses via its GSA schedule contract, said the company's online courses provide "continuous tutor support," allowing students to e-mail questions to training personnel who are available 24 hours a day. New Horizons also offers a student chat room for online peer support.

New Horizons also can manipulate its online course work to ensure that it includes the most up-to-date information, the company's spokeswoman said. "It's made dynamically for the Web, so New Horizons can keep its Web-based training updated and current," she said. "It's more than just delivering a CD-ROM course online."

Sterling Resources has developed yet another type of solution with CoachWare, which is designed to help users with questions about new computer systems. CoachWare, available in Microsoft Windows and Web versions, runs on top of new systems and uses a central database to lead users through business and system procedures step by step, said Regina Steinbach, managing director of marketing at Sterling.

CoachWare is not designed to replace classroom training but is meant to supplement that training by reducing or eliminating help-desk calls from users who have questions about specific tasks on a new system, Steinbach said.

The Navy is using CoachWare to walk 7,000 active and reserve users through a new personnel and payroll system from PeopleSoft Inc. The Navy only had time to teach half of its users 10 of the 36 processes they will need to execute on the new system, said Cmdr. Mary Murray, system engineering manager for the Navy Standard Integrated Personnel System. To guide all users through the processes, the Navy will use CoachWare as an "over-the-shoulder" guide to the new system, she said.

With a diverse group of companies offering online training solutions, users should evaluate all the alternatives before settling on a course of action.

Stephen Fried, vice president of sales at Enterprise Training Solutions, said his company provides online training to thousands of users in the Navy and the Army and spends a lot of time up front with customers determining the best solution for each user's needs.

"There are many predicaments to grapple with, including PC connectivity speed, desktop downloads, user tracking and, most importantly, internal policies," Fried said. "The relevance of these issues compound depending on the size of the audience."

Users also should beware of potential technical pitfalls, said Lewis Ward, research associate at Collaborative Strategies. For example, an organization must ensure that users are equipped with the right browser to participate and that they are able to traverse internal and external firewalls, Ward said.

In addition, the landscape of the Internet itself may provide obstacles to online training. "The Internet is the Wild, Wild West - hit or miss," Ward said. "You're subject to those lapses of quality."

Despite the potential for technical glitches, vendors are planning for future online training solutions that can be offered as the Internet becomes more reliable. Multimedia functionality likely will be offered to future online learners, and knowledge management tools may be tied with online course offerings to further enhance a worker's productivity.

Harreld is a free-lance writer based in Cary, N.C.


Status: Companies that traditionally have offered computer-based training on CD-ROM are increasingly offering their course work online via the Internet or users' internal networks. Users have found that this new approach saves money on travel costs, offers training more conveniently and enables users to interact more with other students and online training personnel.

Issues: While most users have attested to the benefits of online training, vendors stress that customers should carefully evaluate alternatives before settling on a particular solution. All users should have the necessary browsers and be able to traverse firewalls to access the training. Transmission problems generally associated with the Internet also are an issue.

Outlook: Superb. Most vendors specializing in computer-based training will continue to refine their online training offerings, and more federal agencies are expected to adopt these solutions.

BY Heather Harreld
Aug. 30, 1999

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