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Distance training is changing the way IT managers keep employee skills fresh.

“If this course wasn’t on the Web, there is no way I could ever find the time to get my Oracle certification,” says Emmanuel Delpierre, business development manager at Esoftsolutions, Inc., a Plano, Texas-based IT solutions provider. “Because the classes are online, I can tune in when I can-at 8 p.m. or midnight or whenever my workday ends–and that’s how I’m able to finish 60-plus hours of coursework. Without e-learning as an option, this wouldn’t be happening for me.”

Delpierre isn’t alone. He has plenty of company in the online classroom. E-learning–the process in which students augment or replace classroom learning with online learning–is emerging as the hot IT education trend. Why? Because it delivers training to workers on the workers’ own schedules, and because it’s cost-effective compared to traditional classroom education.

Sweetening this trend is that it is occurring at a time when the need for work-related IT education is at an all-time high. Every day, it seems there are new programming languages, new protocols, new standards, and new customer demands. Indeed, the realization has spread throughout corporate America that knowledge is a competitive advantage.

Delpierre is a case in point: “I’m taking this because my boss told me I’d better,” he says with a laugh. “The reason is that this knowledge will help me work better with our clients.”

Bottom line: probably soon, you will be taking e-learning classes yourself, or if you are a manager, you (like Delpierre’s boss) will be enrolling others in them. That said, however, e-learning’s future is still uncertain. Will it be the dominant medium for IT education, or will it merely augment existing classroom learning? Is today’s e-learning Release 1.0, and if we wait for tomorrow will there be better, more student-friendly modalities? What will those new methods look like?

Tough questions, but ones whose answers are getting clearer by the day. As the e-learning picture emerges, like an interlaced GIF image loading over a dial-up account, we are slowly understanding the role distance training will play in IT budgets and techie schedules. What follows is our picture of this phenomenon.

Bumpy road

The distance training picture is emerging more slowly than the evangelists had predicted, thanks to numerous unexpected challenges. Claire Schooley, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Giga Information Group, estimates that e-learning is a $4.5 billion market. As immense as that sounds, many times more is spent on traditional learning modalities.

The old-fashioned classroom–in which you sit a few feet from a living, breathing teacher–still rules. Research from the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD), based in Alexandria, Va., shows that e-learning won around 8.8 percent of training dollars in 2000. ASTD reckons that number nudged up a bit in 2001, and it predicts continued growth. But 8.8 percent? That’s no killer app–not even close.

The whole e-learning industry got a burst of activity after 9/11 when a reluctance to fly and a corresponding preference for remaining seated at one’s desk swept the workplace. For a few heady weeks, predictions were everywhere that e-learning had won the day. But those attitudes already have faded and now e-learning has an uphill battle to win acceptance.

That’s even with today’s extremely broad definitions of distance learning (or e-learning; the terms nowadays are interchangeable). E-learning includes anything from e-books and CD-ROMs to synchronous classes. The latter brings a teacher and students together from disparate locations at the same time. Software such as Microsoft’s NetMeeting enables teachers and learners to conduct an Internet-enabled version of an old-fashioned class.

Other, newer class styles–featuring so-called “blended learning”–build in extensive, one-on-one contact with instructors (via instant messaging, videoconferencing, or chat tools) and also stress heavy interaction with fellow students (usually via instant messaging or e-mail tools).

Many, many approaches fall into the e-learning bucket. But the bucket still remains only half full. Why? As experts chew on that question, one generally accepted answer is that e-learning has been very much a trial-and-error process. Much of the earliest material was simply bad. Sloppily and hastily repurposed coursework was thrown online. When that didn’t stick, teachers and trainers tried every available distance technology in a desperate attempt at success.

“The earliest forms of e-learning were more accurately called e-reading,” says Schooley, who says that in some classes, instructors just posted their lecture notes on a Web site and that was that. In other cases, training companies took bulky CD-ROM files, put them online, and told students to access them via the Internet, typically with dial-up connections as pokey as 14.4Kbps. Students fled, and word spread that e-learning wasn’t ready for prime time.

Bright horizon

But that was then, and this is now. “A lesson learned is that e-learning material has to be compelling and highly engaging. People need to be lured into the experience,” says Tom Graunke, CEO of KnowledgeNet, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based e-learning company that specializes in IT. “When it is compelling, it will find an audience.”

Meantime, more bandwidth–particularly DSL, cable, and other high-speed connections–is letting distance-learning course writers assemble rich material, and that’s fueling wider adoption. While the T3 connection at work can easily handle rich media, people also need to study at home after hours. This is where broadband connections become necessary. Content creators also are finding out which topics work in an e-learning mode, and which don’t. “Certification training and technology courses are working very well in e-learning,” says Michael Feldstein, an e-learning consultant.

Classes in which students are able to quickly try out what they are learning on the job are also proving their value. Because this requires the learner to, in effect, master a new way of study as well as new course material, it tends to tax students more than classroom study. But when the payback comes quickly, students are demonstrating a new eagerness.

“E-learning isn’t learning for the sake of learning, ” says John Leutner, manager, Worldwide Learning Services at Xerox, based in Stamford, Conn. “E-learning allows you to integrate what you are learning with your work. Our learners apply what they learn very quickly on the job, and that’s when student satisfaction is highest.”

These findings are triggering a rethink and a refreshed, if cautious, optimism on the part of distance-learning industry leaders. “E-learning isn’t happening in the way some marketing analysts had predicted,” says Paul Henry, an executive vice president with SmartForce, a pioneering distance-learning leader. “Having said that, there will be a lot of growth in front of us. In a few years’ time, e-learning will be the bigger piece of the training equation.”

Giga analyst Schooley shares much of that optimism. “Eighty percent of Fortune 500 companies already have some kind of e-learning activities. Very large corporations are going this way,” she says, and a safe prediction is that as mammoth corporations go, so go smaller companies–and individual, self-employed learners.

When will all this happen? “Within three to five years, e-learning will be fully accepted,” says Kurt Linberg, dean for online Capella University’s School of Technology, based in Minneapolis. “The courses are getting better and students are seeing the benefits of distance education.”

“E-learning is in its infancy, but it very definitely is a wave of the future,” says Pat Galagan, an ASTD executive. “It’s inevitable in an environment where so much work involves technology.”

Benefits and bonuses

What’s in this for you? There are ample inducements for getting used to e-learning, says Michael Metz, a Cisco director of e-learning marketing based in San Jose, Calif. First, there are immense cost savings because there’s no airfare to pay, no hotel rooms, and no time wasted standing around airports.

“The savings are very substantial,” says Metz, who says Cisco enjoyed $42 million in revenue in 2001 alone due to the spread of e-learning. But Metz quickly adds that distance learning tools usually provide more potent benefits than money saved, and perhaps the biggest is sheer convenience: “You can do the classes on your schedule,” he says. That’s because most of these classes are asynchronous–there’s no need to tune into the instruction at a set time.

A related plus: Because learners are tuning in when they decide to, absorption is frequently more thorough. When customers are yelling, the boss is in a panic, and your kids are bed-ridden with the flu, you just have the time to sit down for that 3 p.m. Windows XP class, well, it’s easy to see why traditional classroom students sometimes have trouble with focus. The e-learner, by contrast, can wait until his or her head and desk are clear before tuning in.

At the same time, what is learned is changing, often with a time-saving payoff to students. With e-learning, “you can pull down what you need to know when you need it,” says Metz. With traditional courses, usually it’s all or nothing, but a key advantage of most distance learning is that it’s customizable to user needs, meaning a student can learn just what’s needed, just in time. You want to learn C#, but don’t want to be burdened with the rest of Microsoft’s .NET technologies? No sweat: E-learning will let learners pick out exactly the modules they want to master, and nothing else.

E-learning proponents are vocal about this benefit: “The traditional five-day course will be history within a few years,” predicts Graunke. “E-learning lets students get what they need much faster.” “We now are able to create courses that are better suited to the learner,” adds Dr. Margaret Driscoll, director of strategic ventures for IBM Mindspan Solutions, based in Somers, N.Y.

A last e-learning benefit: It just may be the better way to bone up for certification tests. Steve Trehern, vice president of Unisys University, the training arm of the large IT company, reports a surprising fact: When students in e-based certification classes take their final exams, 95 percent pass. That’s a much higher percentage than in traditional classes. “In instructor-led classes, around 80 percent pass,” says Trehern, who indicates that “retention seems better when learning is self-paced, as allowed by e-learning.”

Cisco also reports excellent pass rates for certification courses–around 89 percent of e-learners pass, says Don Field, senior manager of certifications. In the traditional classroom, 81 percent pass. Note: Cisco insists it doesn’t interpret this as a death knell for old-fashioned classes. “To us, these results say that both approaches work,” says Field.

Blended learning

Consider this paradox: Despite the higher pass rate for online students, the cost savings, and the customizability of e-learning to meet individual students’ needs, converting end-users to e-learning certification classes has been “a slower progression,” says Metz. Inside Cisco, the rush to e-learning has been brisk because the company (like most other large organizations) is actively directing employees into these lower-cost classes. But among outsiders, who are asked to pony up their own cash to take certification courses, there’s been a reluctance to pay this electronic piper.

The e-learning product just isn’t currently perceived as equal to the traditional classroom. And while that negative perception is changing, this process is very gradual. “We are seeing clear, consistent growth, and we do think e-learning is the wave of the future,” says Metz. “But it isn’t and won’t be an either/or proposition for our customers,” meaning that as long as end-users or their corporations are willing to pay for in-person instructors, airfares, and hotel lodgings, Cisco will continue to offer up traditional classes.

Other IT vendors report similar results. Internally, all are pushing employees into e-learning, but with outsiders, the companies are treading lightly–in this case the customer, the student paying full fare, is always right, and Cisco admits reluctance to try to force the issue. The upshot is that e-learning enrollments are creeping up much more slowly than many initially predicted.

What will it take to up e-enrollment–not just at Cisco, but wherever students have a choice? Ask Joe Dougherty, president of e-learning leader Thomson NETg, based in Naperville, Ill. (Incidentally, the owner of this magazine sits on Thomson’s board of directors.) He points to a solution that just may be the breakthrough that will knock e-learning up several notches in preparation for future success: “Blended learning is the future,” he says.

Dougherty has ample company in this prediction. Throughout the industry, confidence is growing that blended learning just may be the killer app that finally persuades students that e-learning is the smartest route.

That’s because blended learning is succeeding in erasing the big complaint about e-learning: that it’s too distant and anonymous, making it too easy for students to detach from it. Blended learning deliberately seeks to inject e-learning with the flesh and warmth of human contact, via tools that let individual learners interact not only with instructors but also with students. Perhaps they collaborate on homework, or hold private chats. In many cases, students offer each other support in going forward with the course. Stay tuned, say the experts, because this is where e-learning is heading. “E-learning is getting much more similar to traditional classrooms,” says WorkForce’s Henry. “The lines are blurring.”

At the core of this new-style learning will continue to be Internet-based education, however, because the economics of classroom education don’t look good and aren’t likely to improve. Hotel rooms, airfare, and time wasted on the road are costs that no company wants to pay, thus e-learning will retain its center-stage positioning.

Besides, e-learning—certainly blended e-learning, at least–will continue to get better and better. “We are still in the infancy of online course design,” says IBM’s Driscoll, who feels the pressure is on to design courses with “compelling content”–that is, tools that keep users riveted to their screens and keep them coming back.

The next wave, adds Cisco’s Metz, will see “a blending of learning and teaching techniques to match the individual’s particular needs.”

“It’s not about specific technologies,” adds SmartForce’s Henry. Those technologies and tools can be mixed, matched, and improved. “This is about meeting the needs of learners, and that is where e-learning can excel.”

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