IBM unveils e-learning system

IBM Corp. has rolled out a new Lotus e-learning system with closer links to the company's messaging and collaboration tools so organizations can more efficiently train geographically dispersed employees and business partners.

Because many users want to get up and running quickly with e-learning before making a major commitment to an enterprise solution, IBM is taking a modular approach with its next generation of Lotus LearningSpace software.

Many users said they don't need everything that comes with the complete LearningSpace package, said Susan Lawler, global offerings manager for IBM Mindspan Solutions.

Virtual Classroom, the first LearningSpace module that was launched Oct. 1, comes with its own Web-based infrastructure and enables real-time collaboration between instructors and students. With Virtual Classroom, instructors can continually reuse content to track users' attendance, certify completion of a course and provide real-time assessments, all online.

Although e-learning is an uncertain market, IBM officials are pinning a lot of hope on it. The company saved around $350 million in 2001 on its own internal training costs using e-learning, mainly through cuts in travel. IBM expects that message to resonate with cash-strapped customers.

"All of our customers tell us there is a need to contain and control costs," Lawler said. But they've also expressed a need for traditional e-learning to be delivered with the kinds of messaging and collaboration tools that IBM's Lotus software offers in its more typical enterprise solutions, she added.

Nancy Cassity Dunlap, associate director of the School of Education at Clemson University in South Carolina, has helped organize the South Carolina Troops-to-Teachers Coalition, which trains soon-to-be-retired military veterans to become public school teachers.

The program, which began at the end of September, uses a blend of online instruction and hands-on practical instruction with the veterans, who are scattered at posts around the world.

One of the advantages of using LearningSpace for this program is that Lotus e-mail is integrated with the package, Dunlap said, which eliminates the problems that can bog down programs that have to use separate e-mail systems.

But, given that the program has to coordinate among four different universities for such things as curriculum and content, management functions are critical, she said.

E-learning is certainly one of the applications driving collaboration tools, particularly in the area of real-time communication, said Simon Hayward, a vice president and research director at Gartner Inc. E-learning is still an experimental application, so its focus is more on potential demand than any current use.

"But a lot more potential has developed recently," he said. "It's now well recognized that the value you get out of employees comes from group activities, and that applies even more to the needs of such things as homeland security."

IBM also unveiled new releases of its Lotus Notes e-mail and Domino server package — Lotus Notes and Domino 6 — the first major update in nearly three years.

New functions include inbox management capabilities, message color-coding, automated e-mail sorting and a new scheduling feature that suggests the best times to set up meetings. Lotus Notes and Domino 6 is also more closely integrated with IBM's WebSphere and Tivoli e-business middleware.

At the same time, IBM added support in its Sametime instant messaging product for Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which will enable users to communicate with other SIP-supported products through the Sametime Instant Messaging Gateway.

SIP, an Internet Engineering Task Force standard, is modeled on other IPs such as HTTP and is used to establish, change and end sessions among users communicating via an IP-based network.

IBM's Lotus announcements show that collaboration technology is evolving, Hayward said. But the overarching theme is closer integration across the company's entire line of collaboration products. And that will be a continuing story going forward, as competitors such as Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. introduce their own upgraded collaboration solutions.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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