E-learning no quick study

For all the promise that e-learning holds for the future of the federal workforce, managing an electronic-based training program offers some age-old challenges, five top-level federal executives said recently.

Adequate funding, ensuring computer security, providing accessibility for employees with disabilities, overcoming the lack of up-to-date computer resources in remote offices and the difficulty of gauging results are some of the biggest challenges facing program managers, the executives said April 11 at an e-learning conference sponsored by Advanstar Communications Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Also, employees sometimes resist e-learning because it cuts into their work schedules. "People say to me, 'When will I have the time to sit behind a computer and learn all this stuff?'" said Leon McMullen, director of training for the U.S. Army Cadet Command, Junior ROTC.

Other panelists included Betty James Duke, administrator of the Department of Health and Human Services' Health Resources and Services Administration; Ben Aaronson, program manager of the Electronic Training Environment at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division; Keith Namock, acting director of corporate training for the Agriculture Department's Forest Service; and Roy Tucker, director of HHS' Organization and Employee Development division.

E-learning clearly includes advantages that traditional paper- and classroom-based training programs can't match, the executives agreed. Not only does the approach transcend time and place, but it also enables managers to update course materials quickly and efficiently, offer training programs in a variety of languages and formats, and employ state-of-the-art techniques.

Training via computer also appeals to technology-savvy employees, including many of the younger workers that the federal government needs to retain as its overall workforce ages.

Faced with losing almost 500 employees to retirement, the Health Resources and Services Administration initiated a developmental training program last year that included 250 midcareer employees and 250 "beginners," Duke said.

Although older employees often demonstrate a great affinity for technology, "with younger people, they're so technology-savvy that when they come in [to the workforce] it's sort of like a mouse being swallowed by a snake," she said. "Many of these folks have been learning [via computer] their whole lives."

In a number of cases, however, the managers said they had to build entire courses themselves because appropriate content wasn't available.

The Forest Service, for example, recently developed an e-learning course on burned-area emergency rehabilitation, Namock said. Some of the elements of the course, which dealt with ways to re-establish living conditions for wildlife after a forest fire, were a struggle to impart through e-learning.

"We realized that people needed hands-on experience to really understand some of the concepts," he said. The solution was to add a case study that students complete after they have finished the e-learning portion of the course.


Mistakes to avoid

Electronic-based training doesn’t work in all situations, according to five top federal managers speaking at recent e-learning conference.

Some common mistakes — and how to avoid them — include:

* Conducting e-learning events when employees are "in the field." The Agriculture Department's Forest Service tries to schedule e-learning events during the winter because during warm weather, "many of our field personnel don’t have access to a computer," said Keith Namock, acting director of corporate training for the Forest Service.

* Initiating e-learning at locations that lack the proper resources to support computers and Internet access. "In the Indian Health Service, some of the offices don’t even have electricity," said Roy Tucker, director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Organization and Employee Development division. The Forest Service just completed a map of the technological capabilities of its locations nationwide so that e-learning offerings can be tailored to the technology at different sites, Namock said.

* Overlooking the need for employees to get what Ben Aaronson, program manager of the Electronic Training Environment at the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division, called the "tactical feel" of their mission. "You can lose that sense of teamwork if everybody’s separated at different computers," he said. "Sometimes you just have to have them sit next to each other."


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