E-learning gets easier

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

Monroe, Va.

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

a firewall.

"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

links."

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

standards."

—Gerber is a freelance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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