E-learning gets easier
- By Cheryl Gerber
- Jul 17, 2000
For agencies setting up Internet-based distance-learning systems, the market
is brimming with choices. However, buyers ought to beware of the a la carte
approach. A lack of standards between the courseware and student administration
tools can make assembling solutions tricky.
Although it seems simple enough to launch a World Wide Web-based e-learning
system — all it takes is a browser, a server, the courseware, and a student
administration or learning management system — many federal offices are
choosing to use application service providers (ASPs) that can build and
host Web-based e-learning programs.
Whether hosted or do-it-yourself, there are good reasons to embrace
Web-based e-learning. The cost of a distance-learning program can be as
much as 40 percent to 60 percent less than a traditional classroom due to
reductions in travel and streamlined teaching and administration, according
to Brandon Hall, lead researcher for BrandonHall.com, an e-learning research
firm in Sunnyvale, Calif.
Federal users find ASPs can be a quick and easy way to jump into e-learning.
For example, the Library of Congress purchased a blanket contract with technical
content provider DigitalThink Inc., Vienna, Va., for full access to its
courseware, billed on a usage basis.
"All I do is sign on to their Web site, and it takes two minutes to
register a student for the course," said Peter Yeager, training officer
for information technology services at the Library of Congress. "They just
send a password. There's about zero administrative overhead."
"All the user needs is a browser. We take care of all the heavy lifting,"
said Sally Turner, director of DigitalThink's government sector. DigitalThink's
offering is composed of 50 percent custom content development and 50 percent
off-the-shelf content, Turner said. The company has a partnership with Saba
Software Inc., Redwood Shores, Calif., which provides the learning management
system for keeping track of student registration and their coursework.
"When it comes to e-learning, the government is doing more off-the-shelf
buying [and] outsourcing, following the general trend to buy off-the-shelf
programs rather than build them," Turner said.
Federal users tend to concur. "One of our requirements was for off-the
shelf software. That way, if something went wrong, it would be easily fixable,"
said Erich Campbell, commandant of the Army's School of Cadet Command, Fort
Three weeks ago, the school began using IBM Corp.'s LearningSpace 4.0
learning management system to handle Web-based training for ROTC instructors
at 270 U.S. campuses. "It was extremely easy to set up," said Campbell.
"We thought things would be a lot harder."
However, not all distance-learning implementations are that easy. There
is still no standard for integrating content with learning management systems or for implementing those systems with the live, virtual classroom environment. Plus, some content providers require software plug-ins, which users must download in order to run the courseware.
When the Transportation Department built its virtual university, the agency actively avoided software players and plug-ins.
"Many agencies are becoming paranoid about downloading software to their
hard drives because of the security issue," said Larry Mercier, the cyberdean
for DOT's online university.
Of all the segments of the e-learning market, the learning management
systems piece is the most strategic, though some vendors, such as IBM, do
not consider it the most lucrative. "The real value in the market is in
custom content," said Laura Sanders, vice president for IBM Mindspan Solutions.
"The rest of the content is becoming commoditized."
For users with a variety of custom course content to integrate, Learnframe
Inc.'s Pinnacle Learning Manager has provided a means of pulling it together.
The Air National Guard Combat Operations at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma,
Wash., offers 100 computer-based training courses via an intranet behind
"Most of the content has been custom-developed," said Maj. Wayne Mann,
mission crew commander. "Pinnacle allows us to track 90 percent of the courses
we offer, and it would probably capture the rest if we were to put in the
As the e-learning market matures, the many point solutions will coalesce
into end-to-end providers, according to Clark Aldrich, research director
of e-learning at the Gartner Group Inc., Stamford, Conn. And those providers
will increasingly link their e-learning solutions to back-end databases
to enhance knowledge management systems. IBM is an example of such an end-to-end
provider, he said.
The Internet is just what the sagging media training market needed,
Aldrich said. Videoconferencing failed because it was optimized around high-bandwidth,
point-to-point and centralized systems, he said.
However attractive it may seem, distance learning will not replace the
classroom or computer-based training using CD-ROMs any time soon. "One of
our customers, who is one of the largest software companies in the world,
still uses our CD-ROM product for 20,000 of their 40,000 learners. The other
20,000 are Web-based," said Tom Brown, vice president of National Education
Training Group Inc. (NETg), Naperville, Ill.
In many cases, Web-based training simply complements existing CD-ROM
and instructor-led classroom training. "People are still comfortable with
instructor-led training in a classroom," said NETg's Brown. "We [also] still
have technical issues to overcome, including integration, firewalls and
—Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.