E-learning lessons

Despite early growing pains, e-learning is emerging as a powerful and cost-effective tool to help address two key federal challenges: the recruitment of tech-savvy public servants and rising public expectations.

A few examples. Where off-the-shelf, primarily information technology-oriented courses were the norm, 60 percent of the courses developed by the visionary Transportation Virtual University (tru.dot.gov) last year were custom-built to meet unique operational needs.

The Federal Judicial Center, working with the U.S. courts, is now providing clear, clean and accessible online tutorials that teach members of the federal bar how to electronically file cases. The State Department's Foreign Service Institute has made e-learning a strategic initiative, offering Web-based IT and language training worldwide. The government's most robust e-learning program, eArmyU, awarded in late 2000, is revolutionizing the lives and futures of enlisted Army personnel by giving them convenient access to a college education while they serve in the military.

However, challenges remain. Last year, the CIO Council identified redundancy and waste in e-learning procurements across the government and undertook an effort to "discover and consolidate parallel e-learning projects, minimize duplication of funding and effort in the development of customized courses, and encourage collaboration and resource sharing across boundaries."

Just as agency and bureau Web pages were uncoordinated and duplicative, e-learning stovepipes today waste resources through overlapping offerings and inefficient licensing practices.

The industry is evolving as well. A wide variety of technical approaches are competing, and the few standards that exist owe much to early Defense Department leadership. A shakeout among vendors is only a matter of time, and federal buyers need to understand the players and their strategies.

Fortunately, a proactive community of federal e-learning managers is working to organize and coordinate agency activity. The Interior and Treasury departments are hosting internal meetings to inventory projects and share best practices and courses. The Office of Management and Budget's e-training initiative is trying to unify and simplify e-learning. Working through the Office of Personnel Management's Human Resources Development Council, leaders from across the federal government are creating an e-learning community of practice. A Web site is in the works and funding is being sought.

Much work is needed to set business and technical standards, provide funding, ensure the necessary infrastructure is available, and provide oversight to both reward innovation and curb excesses. Leadership must come from the agencies, with OPM and OMB ensuring ongoing discussion, direction and funding.

McConnell, former chief of information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget, is president of McConnell International LLC (www. mcconnellinternational.com). Margaret Anderson contributed to this column.

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