IRS embraces e-learning

Fewer pencils. Fewer books. Fewer teachers' dirty looks—at least for Internal Revenue Service employees.

The IRS just graduated its first class of an e-learning program that enables agency employees to take courses at their workstations—online and any time. Workers earn college credits and, more importantly, gain the skills necessary to make the agency's modernization program work. And they don't have to give up their lunch hour to do it. "It is a way in which they can keep people on the job and help get their credentials enhanced rather than leave work and send them someplace for a class," said Alan Mabe, dean of graduate studies at Florida State University, one of the colleges providing online classes to the IRS' information technology employees.

With many IRS workers needing new skills if they are to help the 10-year business modernization program succeed, IRS officials realized they needed a quick and effective way to reshape the IRS workforce of 100,000.

"We did have an incredible re.organization that we're still going through," said Maria Schiavone, an IRS technical representative working on the project. "As a result, many of our occupations changed and evolved. We need to make sure people are equipped with the right skills to perform those jobs. It will involve a cultural shift."

The program is designed to make it cheaper for the government and easier for employees to take classes without leaving the office. Although classes are free for employees, e-learning is a good investment for the IRS, which has been spending 78 percent of its $100 million annual training budget on travel expenses.

To deliver the goods, the IRS awarded an $88 million contract last year to Arthur D. Little Inc. (ADL) to deliver e-learning services. Since then, the company has assembled a consortium of 16 universities and several distance- learning technology firms to deliver courses in 11 program areas, from customer service to IT. The first class of 500 IRS employees completed four accounting courses in August that were designed by FSU.

"What we're saying is not that you are going to save those dollars, but most of those travel dollars will change into course dollars," said Theophilos Mant.zanas, a program manager at ADL and principal architect of the IRS consortium. "And if your workforce isn't receiving all the training they need, you need to do something different."

In October, a second group of IRS students will be taking communications courses with a different approach—one week at FSU and three weeks online.

"The IRS is aggressively implementing modernization by re.organizing around customer-based business units," said ADL Vice President Stephen Nichols. "They recognize that new ways of thinking, doing business and employing technology demand changes in the competencies, performance and motivation of their workforce."

A separate program run by the IRS School of Information Technology in Austin, Texas, offers more than 1,000 IT courses online—from the basics of e-mail to becoming a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer. Most of the courses run four to eight hours, but a number of them are five-minute courses for workers who just need a refresher.

But some things don't change. At the end of the FSU courses, IRS students must take a final exam the old-fashioned way—with a pencil and paper and a proctor in the front of the room, according to Mabe.

And although the program is still being rolled out, the IRS' Schiavone said the goal is "to have our employees enrolled in programs to develop and enhance their skills, and that's what we're going to be looking at the consortium to deliver."

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