Simulations revitalize e-learning

E-learning simulation frameworks have become cheaper and easier to deploy

When one of the 250 customer service representatives in Time Warner Cable Inc.'s Western Ohio division is unsure how to enter a customer service work order into the company's subscriber management database, he clicks on an e-learning simulation of the application to get a step-by-step tutorial.

Like other modularized simulations available through Time Warner Cable's intranet, the work-order simulation (developed using SoftSim from OutStart Inc. in Boston) lasts only about five minutes. And because users are able to toggle between the simulation and the subscriber management database, they're able to get on-the-job training in addition to their initial 15 days of classroom training.

"Once we release [customer service representatives] to the field, we'd rather not take them out of production for follow-up training, if it's something we can deliver to the desktop," says John P. Sullivan, director of training and development at Time Warner Cable's Western Ohio division, in Kettering. And although the company hasn't tried to measure the productivity gains that on-the-job e-learning simulations are providing, he says, "our call center directors are telling us how valuable this is."

Time Warner Cable's experiences with e-learning simulations are consistent with those of other organizations, such as AT&T Corp. and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Recent improvements in compression technology and wider availability of high-speed network bandwidth have made it possible for companies to install simulations throughout corporate networks and intranets while adding high-fidelity multimedia such as streaming audio and video, says Steve Walsh, director of marketing at X.HLP Technologies ASA in Waltham, Mass.

"It's fairly easy now to put the same information on everybody's desktops and update content as needed" using a distributed Internet-based approach, says Rich Mesch, vice president of design and development at Strategic Management Group Inc., an e-learning systems provider in Philadelphia.

"That's a real boon for business simulation, where business [requirements] can change daily and companies struggle to get a common message out to everyone," says Mesch. Plus, intranet- and network-based simulations make it easier for companies to store and track user data, he adds.

Widely Dispersed Users

The USDA is one organization that's using simulations as a training resource. In April, the agency began rolling out Cary, N.C.-based Global Knowledge Inc.'s OnDemand simulation system to provide 60,000 geographically dispersed federal workers, including about 500 human resources managers, with step-by-step instructions on the use of PeopleSoft Inc.'s PeopleSoft 8.0 human resource management system (see "The USDA's E-Learning Simulation," next page).

With so many potential users strewn across the country, "it's very helpful that I don't have to install this on individual machines, that it's available via the Internet," says Hans Heidenreich, a USDA project director based in Beltsville, Md.

But the biggest drivers of customer adoption of e-learning simulations have been lower costs and the emergence of reusable frameworks that let instructors create and deploy text, audio and video content on the fly.

"A couple of years ago, you might have been talking $200,000 for an hour-long course," says James Lundy, a vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "Today, using still shots instead of custom video, you're talking $20,000." And although a high-end simulation complete with rich audio and video capabilities can run as high as $5 million, low-end, text-based simulations can cost as little as $10,000 to develop, he adds.

Overall, simulation systems don't cost as much as they used to, and Web-based technologies are getting easier to deploy and don't require an expensive, high-powered Unix workstation to run them, says Lundy. These days, companies can run Web-based e-learning simulations on a standard PC that's equipped with "a little extra horsepower," he says.

That may help explain why spending on e-learning training is projected to grow by 20% to 30% this year, even though spending by North American businesses on corporate training remains flat, according to Mike Brennan, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. Globally, annual spending on e-learning amounts to between $3 billion and $4 billion, according to Gartner estimates.

Building the Modules

The framework-based approach, where companies can use simulation templates and simply drop in content for a particular discipline (such as CRM or sales training), has been a shot in the arm for training managers. "What we've seen mature are tools that allow us to reduce the time it takes to build something out," says Garry Moore, director of e-learning at AT&T Business in Tampa, Fla.

Duncan Lennox, chief technology officer and co-founder of Waltham, Mass.-based e-learning software company WBT Systems North America LLC, says framework vendors "provide the plumbing, and the content is the water that flows through our pipes."

Over the past two years, AT&T has focused e-learning simulations in three core areas: software training (both off-the-shelf and proprietary applications), sales training and performance management. AT&T is using a template approach that gives it a simulation framework. "We pour the content into it," says Moore.

It helps that e-learning simulations themselves have gotten better. Simulations "used to be very video-game-like, and now they closely imitate the real world, some more than others," says IDC's Brennan.

Before it began developing its own e-learning simulations two years ago using a variety of framework products, AT&T relied on Macromedia Inc.'s Flash animation software. Now, says Moore, "there are a number of products on the market with [graphical user] interfaces that allow you to create simulations."

Most large, geographically dispersed organizations tend to favor a blended learning approach, where employees can receive training in a variety of formats, including classroom training, CD/ROM-based training they can do in their off-hours, and other high- and low-bandwidth approaches.

Even though providing bandwidth is part of AT&T's business, some of its employees still have low-bandwidth connections. For them, AT&T offers several e-learning options that include a TV-news-style "talking heads" motivational piece where low-bandwidth users can see still photos and text instead of video, says Moore.

Getting Smarter

Next-generation systems will include advanced simulation engines, analogous to decision trees, "that allow the users to flow through a simulation without [the IT department] having to hard-code everything," says Gartner's Lundy.

So if a student is running a sales simulation and answers a question wrong, he says, "the system is smart enough to to take you back to a section of the course and do a review of that content, and you're not even aware that the system is doing that for you."

While many companies are bullish about the knowledge transfer that e-learning simulations have provided to their employees, most organizations are intent on sticking with a so-called blended learning environment that encompasses e-learning, classroom training and other educational formats.

Says Time Warner's Sullivan, "There's a learning curve that people go through as e-learners. Some people prefer having a person to interact with. That's why we haven't done away with instructor-led training, because that's still the most effective way to train."

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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