Making E-Learning Effective

Chet Zoltak has heard the arguments for implementing an e-learning system as a cost-saving measure and agrees there are monetary advantages to delivering training online. But the more important consideration is the learners themselves, he says.

"Our primary driver in implementing e-learning is to get out of the way of people learning. We wanted to avoid continually churning people through classroom training and make training more readily available," says Zoltak, chief learning officer at Towers Perrin Administrative Solutions, a Philadelphia-based division of New York-based management consultancy Towers Perrin.

It's the just-in-time benefits and the resulting business improvements, not cost savings, that represent the true return on investment in corporate e-learning deployments, says Brandon Hall, CEO of Brandon-hall.com, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based consultancy. What's more, he says, the cost of bringing e-learning systems online initially cancels out operational cost savings.

That's particularly true if the company deploys a learning management system (LMS), which goes beyond basic content delivery to offer course administration, registration, tracking, reporting and skills-gap analysis. LMSs also feature collaboration technology that allows for interactive electronic whiteboards and other interaction between students and instructors over the Web.

"The cost benefits are significant, with around a 50% cost reduction for delivering a course via e-learning vs. instructor-led classroom training," says Hall. "But that percentage doesn't account for the start-up costs, which include implementing an LMS, finding a vendor to deliver content and getting IT to bring everything together."

An LMS should connect to appropriate back-end databases and human resources systems so that training managers and human resources personnel can track course and career progress, says Hall. If the organization intends to extend electronic training to customers, partners and suppliers, the system needs to run through an e-commerce extension and provide for access through outside firewalls. And if the organization is a global enterprise, it will need to replicate databases across the countries in which it does business, he says.

Think Big, Start Small

In Towers Perrin's case, corporate imperatives to support a global enterprise and better validate employee skills demanded the purchase of an LMS, according to Dave Bill, the company's manager of learning technologies. The old system lacked integration between the company's online training interface and back-end database, so all test results had to be entered manually.

Deciding which LMS to purchase came down to standards compliance, to ensure that third-party content would interact with the LMS database. Towers Perrin sought compliance with the emerging specifications from the Aviation Industry Computer-Based Training Committee (AICC), whose work on e-learning standards for the aviation industry has been a benchmark for the broader e-learning industry. (See "Emerging Standards for E-Learning" at right.)

"Many [vendors] said they were AICC-compliant, but they essentially took your request to launch something online and sucked it into their proprietary code. So every time we created a new learning activity, there would have been lots of maintenance on IT's part," says Bill.

One vendor that could prove compliance was Bellevue, Wash.-based Click2Learn Inc., says Bill. Towers Perrin now uses the vendor's Ingenium LMS to automatically post employee test scores to a central data repository for tracking and planning.

Though the AICC and other standards bodies are emerging, the current lack of learning standards and the resulting incompatibilities between LMSs, third-party content and course-authoring tools mean companies should move slowly on e-learning efforts, Hall says.

"Corporations should start small, buying some off-the-shelf content," he says, adding that several providers aggregate content that can be accessed through hosted services. If successful, a company can then choose to purchase an LMS to manage both classroom and online training programs.

LMSs also show what's working for the organization, says Hall. "More than once, an LMS has clued training managers in to the fact that the 1,200-course library they bought is overkill for their needs, and this keeps vendors accountable," he explains.

Management vs. Content

For Gary VanderHeiden, manager of information systems data management at Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Metropolitan Health Corp., the "bare-bones LMS" he gets through his hosting contract with Rochester, N.Y.-based content provider Element K LLC is sufficient to manage the e-learning component of the hospital's IT training program.

"I can run reports and see who took what courses, but . . . our primary objective was to get their learning content," says VanderHeiden.

Eventually, he wants to manage all training content through the hospital's existing LMS, OnTrack, from Chicago-based DKSystems Inc.OnTrack is currently used primarily to manage clinical, classroom-based training.

Content-management issues have likewise been a concern for health care services provider Kennedy Health System in Voorhees, N.J. The provider has purchased an LMS from Billerica, Mass.-based Thinq Learning Solutions Inc. as part of an enterprise push toward self-service e-learning for its 3,200 employees, and it also uses some of the vendor's content. However, the nature of Kennedy's business means it relies heavily on third-party health care content, which Thinq doesn't offer.

"While Thinq has a huge library of courses, they don't provide the health care material we need. And the major health care content provider wants us to buy their LMS," says Charles Haughton, Kennedy's corporate director of training and organizational development. The health care provider has been reluctantly negotiating with Thinq to allow access to its content through the latter's LMS, he adds.

Because of such problems, many organizations choose to leave the e-learning deployment headaches to content aggregators and other e-learning technology providers. New York-based public relations giant Hill & Knowlton Inc., for example, has outsourced delivery of its core service e-learning modules to Atlanta-based Media1st primarily because of the complexities of delivering the rich media and live instructor-led models that it needs.

"By outsourcing to Media1st, all our employees need is a browser and a fast connection to take advantage of video streaming. They've got the skills and the hardware, so we don't have to deal with that," says Graham Stoddart-Stones, Hill & Knowlton's CIO.

Outsourced hosting makes sense in such scenarios, says Hall, adding that the model allows users to have immediate access to large amounts of content without installation headaches.

However, many of the training and IT executives Hall has surveyed say they're wary of allowing personnel data outside corporate firewalls, so they develop custom course content that doesn't lend itself to a hosting model.

Finally, Hall says, the argument that hosted systems eliminate IT problems is overstated. "Even if you host e-learning outside, IT still needs to be heavily involved, particularly on the user end," he says. "A hosted solution should not be chosen as a way to go around the IT department. They should be involved in these decisions from the get-go." Gilhooly is a freelance writer in Falmouth, Maine.

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