Justice embraces e-learning

With his office door wide open and the volume cranked high, assistant chief deputy U.S. Marshal Jesse Guzman attracted a few curious onlookers as he watched what looked like a short film on his computer. But Guzman wasn't wasting time — he was learning.

Guzman was participating in the Justice Department's two-year pilot project using an e-learning program from Ninth House Inc.'s Ninth House Network. The program saved the department millions of dollars and dozens of work years, according to a study released last month.

The program relies on online storytelling and role-playing to teach such skills as leadership and change management, and as a manager, Guzman was hoping to generate interest in the new program.

Although some of the storytelling sketches were a bit "hokey," he said, "at the end of the day, you still got what they were trying to teach you."

The Ninth House program offers 16 courses, such as Building Community, Managing Change and Situational Leadership. The skills taught correspond with the five executive core qualifications outlined by the Office of Personnel Management: leading change, leading people, being results-oriented, developing business acumen, and building coalitions/communications.

Each course ranges from 30 minutes to 6 hours and is laden with multimedia features. The Situational Leadership course, for example, includes a short video clip of the author, Ken Blanchard, followed by vignettes and interactive exercises.

"We knew one of the areas we wanted to focus more attention on was leadership skills," said Chuck Howell, human resources specialist in charge of training policy at Justice. "This just fit perfectly into it." He spoke last month at the Learning and Training Week conference.

San Francisco-based Ninth House's story lines focus on fictional scenarios, such as managing a gold mine or running a fishing pond. This escape from reality requires some interpretation, which is the point of the design, said Cathy Williams, federal market manager at Ninth House.

"It takes you, on purpose, out of the environment you're in," Williams said. "Next time you're in the situation, you make the correlation. If it's too specific, people narrow their views. It's more effective than if it was tailored just to government users."

One such sketch shows a man learning how to build a Web site to further his fishing business. The story is intended to demonstrate different leadership styles. "You have a picture of someone learning for the first time," said Jeff Snipes, Ninth House co-founder and chief executive officer. "You can identify these characteristics."

Katherine Jones, a research director at the Aberdeen Group Inc., said learners will be more likely to retain information that is organized well and has easily applied principles, regardless of the flashy media. "If it's really glitzy, I may not learn it," Jones said. "We tend to retain what we can mold and put into practice."

Advances in technology allowed for a multimedia trend in e-learning, Jones said, but that doesn't mean that approach is always the most effective. "The purpose of education isn't meant to be entertaining," she said. "Compelling and engaging, but not entertaining."

A Justice survey of participants in the Immigration and Naturalization Service, now part of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, showed that most users found the program effective. Ninety-two percent of those surveyed said they were able to learn and remember concepts as easily as they could in classroom instruction, and 89 percent said the material held their attention. In an evaluation of 10 of the 12 Justice components that participated, 64 percent said the courses helped improve their job performance.

With a dozen components participating, implementing a multimedia program presented a challenge. Howell described the technical capabilities departmentwide as a confederacy of states rather than a union, and one component lacked Internet access and couldn't participate. To get around that, Ninth House created a solution called NetCD, which uses Web-enabled CD-ROM for the videos, while other aspects remain online. This cuts down on the amount of bandwidth used for the program.

Karen McFadden, an analyst with Justice's management and planning staff, said at the conference that for such a program to be effective, it should be integrated into the overall skills development strategy. She suggested a "mixed delivery," getting users away from their desks and into groups to discuss department-specific applications.

The department could do this at several facilities, such as the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, Glynco, Ga. "If you have a training facility, you can bring people in and say, 'OK, does this make sense?' Having the facility available makes that easier," Howell said.

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Sizing up e-learning

The Justice Department's two-year e-learning pilot program started in October 2000 using Ninth House Inc.'s software. Twelve department components participated.

A Justice study of the project released last month compared the courses to similar ones offered at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. During the two-year pilot program, 101 employees took the Situational Leadership course at the training center, while 430 took the e-learning version.

A traditional course costs the department about $250 per employee plus the cost of travel and time missed from work. The Ninth House course package costs $66 per employee. The e-learning courses saved the department $2,489 per person per course. During the pilot, more than 4,000 courses were taught, potentially saving the department more than $10 million.

Traditional training takes 40 hours to complete while the Ninth House course takes 6 hours. Accounting for work time lost while employees were training, the entire e-learning program of more than 4,000 courses saved the department 69 work years, according to the Justice study.

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