HHS goes back to school

Kerry Joels has a tough crowd to please. Joels is among the Department of Health and Human Services managers charged with delivering training to 60,000-plus employees in 12 agencies. Keeping a workforce of that size up to speed is challenge enough, but each agency adds its own specific training issues to the mix.

The Administration for Children and Families (ACF), for example, must stick to a $50-per-person, per-year training budget. The Indian Health Service needs to train employees in remote locales, such as Tahlequah, Okla., and Bemidji, Minn. The National Cancer Institute wants to train managers, but minimize classroom time.

HHS officials have turned to e-learning to address those demanding requirements. In January 2001, the department launched the Distributed Learning Network (DL\net) as its flagship e-learning program. Fifteen months later, the department is close to giving all 60,000 employees access to online training. Also, HHS is planning a number of enhancements to DL\net (learning.hhs.gov).

"We're still in a growth mode," said Joels, a project manager in the Office of the Secretary's Office of Human Resources.

HHS is hardly alone in its e-learning leanings. By 2005, 80 percent of federal government agencies will use e-learning as "the primary mode for employee skills development programs," according to a Gartner Inc. report released in January.

In the Beginning

Just a few years ago, e-learning barely registered within HHS. A 1997 study found few signs of it, noting that training usually was confined to classrooms and auditoriums. Two years later, the department hired IBM Corp. to conduct a more detailed assessment, surveying 500 HHS employees. The key discoveries: a lack of communication among agencies and a need for a common learning space for employee training.

Agencies, Joels recalled, were "hunkered down behind firewalls. We couldn't communicate."

Then came Executive Order 13111, a January 1999 directive from then President Clinton stating that agencies should take "full advantage" of emerging technologies to bolster training programs. Donna Shalala, HHS secretary during the Clinton administration, provided additional encouragement for e-learning as a common strategy for training. "We had an opening to go ahead," Joels said.

As HHS embarked on e-learning, the department came across the FasTrac program, which the National Security Agency launched as a volume-buying vehicle for online courseware. In 2000, HHS tapped FasTrac to buy courseware subscriptions from SkillSoft Corp. and Thomson Corp.'s NETg. SkillSoft provides business and management training, while NETg offers technology training. Four HHS agencies initially were involved.

But HHS' vision for e-learning was broader than a couple of courseware subscriptions. While HHS officials got their feet wet with SkillSoft and NETg, the department started designing an overarching e-learning environment, DL\net.

Next came the addition of a learning management system (LMS), record-keeping software that lets managers plan, track and assess employee training. FasTrac began offering Thinq Learning Solutions Inc.'s LMS, and HHS went live with it in 2001. The department at that time tapped Thinq to host the LMS and e-learning courseware from SkillSoft and NETg.

At press time, HHS agencies had bought subscriptions to the hosted offerings for about 12,000 employees. DL\net doesn't end with the subscriptions, however. The system also includes software that enables like-minded HHS employees to create "communities of practice," Joels said. Such communities augment the online courseware, letting employees compare notes on what they've learned or consult experts on a given topic.

HHS uses a community-of-practice package from Burke Consortium Inc. (BCI) that was initially developed for the Navy. The system, modified for HHS, is hosted at the Federal Aviation Administration's Technology Center.

In addition to the community-of-practice effort, HHS also provides "common needs training" through DL\net, Joels said. For example, HHS provided an online training course on anthrax when federal buildings began testing positive last fall. "We became a first responder, in that sense, for our employees," Joels noted.

Costs and Benefits

Because of the hosted-application model, HHS pays for subscriptions to a service rather than technical infrastructure and software development. However, HHS agencies can opt to develop their own courseware for DL\net or hire a courseware provider to customize a product.

Annual subscriptions to online courseware are estimated at $19 to $63.37 per license depending on the scope of the subscription, according to a FasTrac update posted at the Advanced Learning Technology Resource Center's Web site (www.altrc.org/fastrack.asp).

The community of practice portion of DL\net, meanwhile, cost less than $25,000 to develop, since HHS asked BCI to modify an existing product. The department would otherwise have paid up to $250,000 for a community-of-practice package built from scratch.

HHS officials are taking a formal look at the return on investment for DL\net. They are tracking course utilization as a key measure, now that most employees can access online training. But HHS already has accumulated benefits of both the hard-dollar and intangible varieties.

Reduction in travel is one plus. HHS employees are a distributed group, with Food and Drug Administration inspectors and Indian Health Service employees scattered over wide geographic areas. "We're saving travel costs," Joels said.

Time is another important factor. A branch chief at the National Cancer Institute wanted to provide training for managers, but could not afford to have them confined to classrooms for long periods. With DL\net, however, the managers convene once a month in a traditional classroom setting and complete online courseware between meetings, said Bill King, SkillSoft's account manager for HHS.

Agencies also are avoiding the cost of hiring instructors and flying them in to teach courses. In reducing its reliance on instructor-led training, the ACF reported a 24 percent savings in training costs, according to Susan Janeczek, senior account executive at Thinq. That savings was generated six months after ACF started using DL\net, leading Janeczek to believe that the savings are much higher now that the agency is in its second year of e-learning.

DL\net subscriptions also help ACF stay within its budget, Joels added.

In addition, HHS is reducing training costs associated with information technology rollouts. The Office of the Secretary, for example, had budgeted $75,000 to train 4,500 employees on Microsoft Corp. Outlook 2000. The training was to take place via in-house class briefings, but HHS decided to use DL\net. "We just put it online and the people trained themselves," Joels said.

What's Next?

HHS continues to enhance DL\net. The department is currently installing NETg's Search and Select, a natural language search engine for learning objects. With Search and Select, users can focus on specific portions of an online course, rather than taking the entire course from beginning to end. Joels said the product enables "electronic performance support," essentially just-in-time training to help people in their daily tasks.

In another push, HHS during the next two years plans to build a public side to DL\net, which could be used to help industry learn about regulations.

Overall, HHS' goal is to make DL\net more than a courseware portal. "We're not just buying courses and putting them online and hoping people take them," Joels said. The combination of courseware, discussion groups and electronic performance support is intended to take HHS beyond the typical cyberschool. "All these things form a learning environment," he said. n

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HHS goes back to school

When it comes to building a government e-learning system, two main standards apply: Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) and the newer Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM).

Compatibility among system components would appear to be a snap, given widespread support for the standards among e-learning vendors. But industry executives say the integration task is harder than it looks.

Communication between content creators and learning management systems is a key sticking point, according to David Kripke, chief executive officer of DK Systems Inc., a learning management system (LMS) vendor. Both AICC and SCORM dictate how e-learning content should be structured and how a student's records should be passed to the LMS. But vendors, for the most part, focus on the content-structuring standards as opposed to the recordkeeping side, Kripke said. The upshot for organizations building e-learning systems: Compatibility comes with a higher price tag.

Special software "wrappers" may be required before an LMS can receive records and results from a given e-learning content vendor. Also, SCORM adherence compels those who are developing content to take extra time to evaluate how information is compiled and structured, said David DuFour, director of technology at e-learning consulting firm AED Inc. "What it really boils down to is money," he said.

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The lesson plan Build a better e-learning system and employees will beat a path to your portal. Don't count on it, experts say. Bells and whistles are fine, but organizations should carefully plan their online learning systems to ensure that people actually use them. Bill King, an account manager at SkillSoft Corp., recommends that customers develop a project plan before they roll out the technology.

The project plan, he said, includes success criteria, timelines and a marketing communications plan. SkillSoft, King adds, also produces a "competency map" that identifies the competencies needed in various jobs and then identifies the courseware best suited for developing those competencies. "It really answers the question for the user, 'What's in it for me?'" King said.

Moore is a freelance writer based in Chantilly, Va.

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