E-Learning anytime, anywhere -- almost

Beyond the significant cost reductions, e-learning's primary selling points are its ubiquity and timeliness. Armed with a Web browser, the argument goes, an e-learner can access an array of courseware designed to meet any need, at any time, from anywhere they please.

But even with the best-laid plans, technology can get in the way. While new training platforms and content have enabled great gains in the area of electronic learning, the Internet and other underlying technologies currently temper some of the dreams that chief learning officers and IT executives envision for corporate employees.

By Air and by Sea

Just ask Ken Eberhardt, director of MIS, telephony and administration services at Miami-based Carnival Cruise Lines. As part of an enterprisewide IT career-advancement and retention project, Eberhardt and his team are going live with an extensive distance-learning effort designed to ensure that the company's IT workers continually retool their skills so that they can adapt to market changes. Carnival has contracted with Redwood City, Calif.-based SmartForce to host access to more than 2,000 IT courses.

"E-learning is paramount to our success, as our program is tailored to the business goals of the company. We've been able to create a tailored program for every employee so they can increase their skill sets and knowledge," says Eberhardt. "It's a two-way street: The more [learning] opportunities we give them, the more valuable they become to the company. At the same time, we prove our commitment to them."

While Eberhardt says he's pleased with the fact that employees are able to gain round-the-clock access to SmartForce's online courses, it's the "anywhere" access that's more of a problem. Though Carnival can easily deliver rich, interactive training to workers on terra firma, it's more difficult to ensure those same capabilities to the IT professionals who staff every ship.

The ships communicate via satellite links, which are usually sufficient for IT staffers to take the courses that reside on SmartForce's servers. But the size of the pipe sometimes limits full access, so it's necessary to download courses and take them from the user's own hard drive, says Eberhardt.

"It means we have to use our own resources during training, when we'd rather leave everything on SmartForce's servers," he says.

Off-peak Learning

For financial services company The Advest Group Inc. in Hartford, Conn., it's the "anytime" promise of e-learning that gets compromised. Faced with the growing logistical difficulties associated with delivering classroom training to 90 offices, Advest opted to purchase Symposium from Centra Software Inc. in Lexington, Mass. Symposium creates a virtual classroom environment over the Web, allowing instructors and students to collaborate on applications and interact in real time.

"Before Symposium, our training program was planes, trains and automobiles," Mike Tracey, senior vice president at Advest. This new approach doesn't replace instructor training, which is key to the company's business model, but greatly extends its reach, he says. Currently, Advest breaks training sessions into manageable modules and offers three sessions per day over Symposium.

"We don't have to go out there and do everything at once anymore," says Tricia Reardon, technical training manager at Advest. Reardon and her team are currently upgrading to a version of Centra's product that features playback capabilities so they can further increase learning retention.

Tracey and Reardon say they've been pleased with the application-sharing capabilities of the new software and its ability to extend corporate training resources. They've also seen a reduction in calls to their service desk, which was a primary goal of rolling out such a system. However, Advest has been forced to put some limitations on the hours that it offers classes, due to the bandwidth-hungry nature of collaborative online training programs and the impact on its business.

"Market data applications, real-time quotes -- those are the bread and butter of our business," says Tracey. "Our concern with offering classes during regular hours was that we might tie up bandwidth with something that wasn't market data." Advest now offers classes before the stock market opens and after it closes, as well as at lunchtime.

"When we offered classes during market hours, people didn't take part anyway," says Tracey. "It ended up being our business that drove us to the answer of when to deliver training."

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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