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Distance learning starts to shine

The best distance learning providers simulate, stimulate, and even scintillate.

Knowledge is the coin of the realm in information systems. It’s so valuable that it’s counterfeited more often than the $20 bill. You’ve experienced this many times in many ways. Why, just the other day, Joe Geek at the help desk pretended he knew what he was talking about while simultaneously putting you down for your lack of understanding of how Microsoft Office wizards work. The truth is, you know more about Office than he would ever take the time to learn. But you’re stuck in collections while he’s doing daily damage to every ego in the entire organization, not to mention all the problems that he can’t seem to fix.

With a little training, you know you could do better for yourself and possibly even help your company. Problem is, you can’t seem to fit training into your schedule. You’ve got family commitments on the two nights per week your local community college offers the training you’re interested in. Sure, you’ve read a few books and done some computer based training (CBT). But none of that covers the hands-on lab portion that the certification exam requires you to know.

Even if you had been able to find a training provider that fits your schedule, you still feel awkward in a classroom full of sharks who talk really fast to mask their insecurities. For that reason, you prefer the self-paced nature of online training. Also, you have found over the years that you struggle in classrooms dominated by a few vocal types. You prefer to not waste your time listening to the instructor bring the course back on topic after a classmate diverted it with an irrelevant question. In short, you have found that your learning style does not fit well in the classroom.

Don’t fret. You are the perfect candidate for e-learning. With online training, you can fit the training to your schedule, your pace, and your learning style. And you’re not alone. A large and growing number of adult learners such as yourself are joining the ranks of the distance learning community for the very same reasons you are attracted to it. Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information recently reported that the e-learning industry will take in $4.5 billion this year. Framingham, Mass.-based IDC predicts that the e-learning market will grow by more than 40 percent in 2002. In a separate report, IDC says the e-learning market will exceed $18 billion by 2005. While some of that market will be in so-called “soft” skills, such as business process analysis, the vast majority of the market will continue to be characterized by learners of IT-related skills.

Naturally, with 40 percent year-over-year growth, everyone is jumping on the e-learning bandwagon. Large national vendors, such as Cisco Systems, Sun Microsystems, Microsoft, and IBM, have been developing e-learning systems for years. As these systems are now reaching maturity, providers’ marketing efforts are starting to match their development efforts. Large national independent vendors–such as Capella University, the University of Phoenix, Element K, KnowledgeNet, Serebra, and SmartForce–offer a wide variety of enhanced online course offerings. And even local training providers are realizing that they need to develop and distribute online courses in order to keep up with the growing market.

Though it may seem like a dizzying array of providers, you can use a process of elimination to narrow down your options. Each provider has strengths and weaknesses. For example, your local provider will enable you to blend e-learning with some classroom interaction, if that fits your schedule and needs. On the other hand, national providers tend to have more resources to provide more substantive e-learning environments. Key considerations include the richness of the e-learning environments, technology requirements, content, and cost, not necessarily in that order. It will be up to you how these considerations are prioritized.

Rich interactivity

E-learning got a bad rap in the ’90s, when it was often called e-reading. Many would rather just read the books and do CBT than wait for the Web to load, getting roughly the same experiences. But as we have shown in the previous two features in this three-part series, e-learning has come a long way in recent years. Besides generally more interactive Web presentations, the two main advances in e-learning are collaboration and simulation. Collaboration lets organizations train multiple learners in different locations at the same time. In the process, learners can interact with instructors and each other in a setting similar to the classroom. And simulations let learners immerse themselves in virtual worlds to solve problems just like those they will see in the real world. In the process, labs and other hands-on training can be taught remotely.

Collaboration technologies typically integrate multiple communications methods (audio, video, and data) across multiple communications media (wireless and landline phones, and the Internet) into one package. The result is a flexible blend of ways to access instructors, classmates, and outside experts in real and delayed time frames. Packages include Lotus LearnSpace, WebEx Meeting Center, Placeware Conference Center, and Blackboard 5.

Collaboration technologies simulate classroom discussion by bringing students together on their own schedules. While these technologies tend to be better at developing soft skills in the participants, there are niches in the IT world where they can improve distance offerings. For example, brainstorming and collaborative problem solving are growing in the programming field. With white-boarding and flow-charting applications delivered to course participants in real time, remote collaborative programming can be simulated fairly accurately.

Speaking of simulation, the Holy Grail of e-learning is being able to train individuals in virtual reality. Flight simulation has been around for years. Making other types of learning environments resemble the flight simulation model is an expensive proposition, however–in some cases as expensive as producing a full-length animated movie, like “Shrek.” For this reason, simulation courses have been mostly relegated to such life-and-death skills as surgery. Other types of interactive learning systems that call themselves simulations are more like adventure games than flight simulations. In these environments, you move through a tree-like matrix of choices and have brief real-world problems to solve along the way. While these are not as rich as pure virtual reality, they can be much richer than e-reading.

In general, simulations are effective in replicating the hands-on elements of IT courseware. The overarching trend in IT training is toward more hands-on training and certification and less book knowledge. The reason for this is the pervasive perception in IT that certifications merely produce paper tigers who have to then learn to use the equipment on the job. Hands-on certifications prove that the candidate didn’t just learn how to take the test, she learned how to solve problems with the technology.

For the moment, the leader of IT simulation software is Cisco. Over the last few years, the giant Internet equipment manufacturer has consistently developed more and more advanced training modules for distribution through its channels. It released a simulated version of its CCNA lab in March 2002, and has plans to make all its lab-based certification courseware closely simulate real lab settings in the near future, according to published reports. Because training is an integral part of the success of IT products (products won’t sell if people can’t use them), expect other vendors to follow Cisco’s lead in developing simulated hands-on learning modules to distance learning providers.

When choosing a distance training provider, ask if they use collaboration technologies and whether any of their offerings include simulations. These are less critical if you plan to use a local provider–in blended learning, you can do the hands-on and collaborative work on campus and get the rest done online. But if you plan to use a large national provider, it’s critical that they have the capability to deliver these rich-media courses.

Tech constraints

Before you find out if the provider offers rich-media courseware, you have to make sure your home system can handle it. First and foremost, you will need a fast and reliable connection to the Internet. Indeed, many analysts believe the primary reason e-learning has yet to dominate the market is the lack of consistent broadband availability across the country. While some of the packages mentioned above technically work over dial-up, don’t even think about paying for e-learning without some kind of broadband, preferably 1Mbps or higher.

If you have broadband, you can often get by with a PC and a Web browser. But not just any PC or Web browser will do. You will need a lot of RAM and hard disk space to handle all the images coming across your screen. Also, a large screen is always helpful if you want to get the most out of all that rich media streaming across it.

Oftentimes, there will be special technology requirements for certain courses, however. For example, many of the collaboration technologies require special voice over IP clients. Some of these clients can be just browser plug-ins, but many require special downloads. Your provider should include this software in the course offering, but ask if it costs extra and make sure it works on your particular home system.

Content is king

Most of the large national providers offer rich-media content that’s accessible through a slightly enhanced Web browser. What really distinguishes them is content. Even though two providers may seem to offer the same certification course online, there will be subtle differences in the way the content is put together. Some companies are content just to work with the material from the certifying company. Others offer value-added courseware that not only teaches the basics, but also gives some tips and tricks not covered in the vendors’ courses.

Providers publish the testing success rates of their students, so they have an incentive to help students with the tests, in addition to the content required to pass it. This may seem identical, but anyone who has ever been disappointed in the grade he got after an exam knows they are not necessarily the same thing. Various shortcuts and time savers can be the difference between passing and failing. While training contributes to the aforementioned paper-tiger problem, hands-on testing tends to negate that effect. Anyway, while you do want to learn as much as you will need to do the job effectively, it doesn’t hurt to know how to pass the test as well. If your provider publishes success rates, chances are it will also help you with test taking.

E-learning is not a panacea. But with the right provider and the right technology, you just may be able to take online courses that would not otherwise fit your schedule and learning preferences. If you’ve got the time and discipline for self-paced e-learning, you may pull yourself up by the bootstraps, out of collections and into the IS department. Who knows, maybe you can even help Joe Geek solve tricky tech problems without bruising any egos along the way.

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