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The Worldwide classroom

Despite the ease of e-learning, the field has suffered recently as a result of belt tightening in the dot-bomb era. But some new systems and applications may bring learning back online.

This summer, New York City technology consultant Erik Tomasi is headed back to school–virtually speaking, that is. The veteran adjunct of the City University of New York’s Baruch College is training to become an instructor for the online division of the University of Phoenix, purportedly the world’s largest private university, boasting a distance learning program with more than 60,000 students enrolled as of February.

Tomasi is motivated by a passion for teaching that is periodically challenged by a significant business schedule. “I am traveling more for work, but I still want to teach,” he says.

Teachers are flocking to e-learning classes for the same reasons as their students: It is remarkably convenient (imagine lecturing about advanced project management in your pajamas); it typically is self-directed (imagine conducting that lecture at 3 a.m.); and it is private, removing any of the personality hassles that may arise in a live classroom (come to think of it, who wants to see you in your pajamas anyway?).

“The ubiquitous nature of the Internet and advancements in technology make distance learning more viable then ever,” Tomasi notes.

Being familiar with e-training basics might even provide you with an advantage at work–a valuable asset in today’s tight job market. According to Julie Kaufman, Toronto-based skills development research manager for IDC, the corporate e-learning market, which was roughly $5.2 billion in 2001, is expected to exceed $23 billion by 2006, a worldwide increase of more than 35 percent.

By 2005, revenues for virtual-classroom software and services are expected to exceed $1 billion, according to Lewis Ward, senior research analyst for San Francisco-based Collaborative Strategies LLC.

Caution: bumps ahead

Those expectations aside, though, there has actually been a large decrease in spending in this area recently as a result of the dot-com bust and the lack of capital expansion. In addition, corporate culture has been slow to accept distance learning as a viable means of training, the infrastructure necessary to support sophisticated program packages is not yet optimal, and rich media is not developing fast enough to satisfy anxious consumers.

“The biggest challenge of teaching online will be the limitation of the medium,” Tomasi says. “E-mail is an outstanding communications leveler, but I wonder whether it can replace the group interaction and two-way learning that takes place in a classroom setting.”

While Tomasi has raised the critical issue that has plagued the growth of correspondence-type education since its inception, distance learning is no longer about sending e-mail back and forth. There has been a real paradigm shift in online training. The foundation of the medium was laid by relatively simple programs based on e-mail–threaded discussions, chat rooms, instant messaging and even the Track Changes feature of Microsoft Word. But the market’s resurgence will be stimulated by the emergence of new items built to reproduce the classroom experience in every way possible and to cater to wireless learners. These products include content management system software, learning management system software, real-time video applications, and enterprise-learning suites.

Content management

Content management system software, such as Documentum eRoom 6 from Pleasanton, Calif.-based Documentum Inc., is nothing if not versatile. It provides a range of functions from fully integrated learning management systems and learning content management systems to content development tools and knowledge management systems These features capture, store, and deliver information across an entire enterprise. Its purpose is to deliver the appropriate content to the proper people at the correct time in the right way. Content can also be published as either structured learning or accessible through a particular interface anytime it is needed.

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania’s webCafé program provides virtual “rooms” on the Internet in which faculty and students can discuss topics of interest, share and search for documents and collaborate on projects, regardless of location or schedule conflicts. Based on eRoom, webCafé is used in over 525 course sections during each full semester. In a recent annual student satisfaction survey of all Wharton MBA candidates, 97 percent of respondents categorized webCafé as “valuable.”

Learning management system software, like WebCT Campus Edition 4 from Lynnfield, Mass.-based WebCT Inc., is designed to deliver the content to each individual learner, to manage that content, track its usage, and deliver reports about who’s taking what, how they did, and whether they finished.

Content management is only part of the collaboration equation. In addition to getting the content teachers want them to, learners also need to share with others in class–in real time as well as asynchronously.

Real-time audio/video applications, similar to WebEx Training Center from San Jose, Calif.-based WebEx Communications Inc., are designed to provide individuals with the ability to spontaneously collaborate on any information at any moment to enhance the quality of decision-making and analysis. They enhance the typical send-and-receive e-mail communication practice and provide instant connectivity. Real-time services have been referred to as “instant chat on steroids.” These can be used in conjunction with content management systems to provide complete solutions.

According to Sanjay Dalal, director of WebEx Training Center Business, real-time services help to recreate the classroom experience online by allowing students and instructors to view each other’s body language. They do so without the expense of required travel and loss of productivity. “The key to the future of distance learning is the hands-on experience that a service like Training Center provides,” says Dalal.

Hybrid systems

This variety of programs and vendors has made the e-learning market extremely fragmented, according to analyst Kaufman. Ellen Slaby, director of strategic communications for Lexington, Mass.-based e-learning software maker Centra Software, echoes this point. She says that as a result of fragmentation, CIOs want to standardize their e-learning programs under the umbrella of one vendor that meets a company’s needs and provides scalability, fault tolerance, and firewall security because “they do not want to spend money on so many diverse products.”

Popular enterprise learning suites, like Centra 7 from Centra and Saba Enterprise Learning Suite from Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Saba Software Inc., combine many of the features of the products discussed above into one complete package. Typical systems offer real-time collaboration tools, content management, and authoring capabilities, open-architecture Web platforms, a single access point to all live online events and the ability to seamlessly integrate with other distance learning programs.

In addition to flexibility, prospective customers are looking for quality. As a result, the market has seen the surge in the use of international distance learning standards. Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model (SCORM) and Aviation Industry CBT Committee (AICC) are popular metrics governing the delivery of online services. Both have been gaining acceptance in the past few years and have grown out of a need for compatibility among the various learning environment solutions and the fragmentation of the market.

SCORM is a suite of technical standards that enable Web-based learning systems to find, import, share, reuse, and export learning content in a standardized way. The AICC compliance program is a self-regulated campaign to identify products that comply with specific AICC guidelines and recommendations.

Success stories

These new standards and technological improvements are changing the face of distance education worldwide, particularly where that is the only option. In the Australian Outback, isolation prompted the South Australian government to establish the School of the Air more than 50 years ago. Until recently, lessons were broadcast to hundreds of children via radio; but poor-quality communication and other deficiencies led to the second generation of distance education in the Outback.

School of the Air is now providing live two-way satellite delivery of Internet services and virtual classroom software that supports two-way audio and video, e-mail, an interactive whiteboard, break-out rooms, and pop-up questions. “Teachers report a greater eagerness on the part of their students to settle down and study, to work for longer periods of time, and to experiment with freer written expression,” says Roger Edmonds, satellite Internet access School of the Air project manager. “Children love coming to lessons on the computer.”

In addition to access and convenience, a classroom without walls offers the potential for diversity, both in the student body and the faculty, that is unparalleled in traditional education. And, given the overlap in distance learning at home and in the office, online environments offer the opportunity for true global networking.

Dr. Thomas Gionis is an attorney working toward an online LLM (master’s in law) degree in International and Offshore Tax Planning from Miami-based St. Thomas University School of Law (the only accredited program of its kind in the United States).

“The breadth of exposure of students to faculty from all over the world is simply unbelievable,” Gionis says. However, he adds, “as humans, we naturally like to ‘put a face on things'” and with asynchronous learning, we cannot do so. This remains a significant problem for many people.

Ironically, the social aspect of asynchronous learning is one of the main factors that has made the University of Phoenix Online so popular, according to Brian Mueller, its CEO. More compelling than social interactivity for the success of distance education is the intense writing requirement. Mueller says, “if you are a below average writer, an online course is not for you.” Since the courses are so writing-intensive, they fail to provide students with the oral presentation skills that traditional classrooms offer. There is also a charisma factor that a very small percentage of teachers bring with them to school that cannot be duplicated in an e-mail, he adds.

Training Center’s Dalal says new real-time audio/video services “allow online students to learn by doing, rather than just viewing.” This should significantly enhance the experience of current students. As the premier online program, the University of Phoenix Online is following this trend with its Data Warehouse Resource project. Though the institution currently offers a robust, though simple, scalable communications system that creates an interactive, cohesive, and dynamic learning environment, it will soon begin streaming audio and video content, according to Mueller.

One outgrowth of e-learning development will be a blending of classroom courses with the Internet to enhance the course and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of education, says Mueller. The breadth of programs delivered online will also continue to increase. Although most courses currently are discussion-based, laboratory-heavy courses are sure to follow. For example, the University of Phoenix has started offering the first online Bachelor of Science in Business/Software Engineering.

Finally, institutions will begin offering programs using local cultural methodologies and local languages, Mueller notes. The University of Phoenix, for instance, serves students from 90 different countries; however, all of its courses are offered only in English.

So, while Erik Tomasi heads back to school this summer, he can look forward to intense but extremely flexible communication, advanced social interaction, and an incredibly diverse student population. But, as Training Center’s Dalal points out, “while distance learning highly complements the learning experience it still cannot eliminate the need for face-to-face interaction.”

Collaborative learning solutions

Centra 7 is a real-time collaboration application that combines virtual classrooms, eMeetings, Web conferencing, and content management in a single program. The hallmark of its product is its two-way VOIP (voice-over IP) conferencing feature available in the eMeeting module that boasts scalability, fault tolerance, and firewall security. It also supports up to 13 languages and integrates with Microsoft Windows and Outlook. Clients include Coca-Cola, the University of Tennessee, and the Australian government’s School of the Air. Licenses are $200 each, and Centra 7 is also available on a lower-cost ASP subscription basis.

Saba Enterprise Learning Suite uses Java-based architectures, as well as XML support, to make it compatible with various other administrative applications. It also enables users to conduct real-time, interactive learning events and to integrate slides, photographs, animations, videos, charts, and other materials into Web-based courses. The suite includes content management, collaboration, and analytics solutions. Customers include Cisco Systems, Proctor & Gamble and Ford Motor Co. Saba does not publish pricing data.

Documentum eRoom 6 is a secure, Web-based workspace that provides a complete real-time and asynchronous feature set, which includes drag-and-drop file sharing, a customizable database, multitopic, multithreaded discussion applications, application sharing, and whiteboarding. The program integrates with Microsoft Office while also supporting other platforms, as well as XML, SOAP, and WSDL (Web Services Description Language) for expansion and customization. Clients include the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Bausch & Lomb, and Aventis Pharmaceutical. eRoom is typically priced by seat with departmental implementations ranging from $25,000 up to $100,000, and enterprise deployments exceeding $1 million.

WebCT Campus Edition 4 is a course management system with design wizards that faculty and designers can use to create a homepage, syllabus, content module, discussion room, e-mail center, calendar, and chat room. Users can import pages designed with Microsoft FrontPage and PowerPoint directly into the WebCT system. The program also includes an HTML Editor with spell-check, a browser checker that automatically detects whether or not the user’s browser is supported, and a new adapter for integration with the Datatel Colleague student information system. Clients include London’s City University, LaSalle University, and Ithaca College. It offers multiple licensing options that typically begin at $10,000 for a basic package.

WebEx Training Center is a live training service that allows multiple users to coordinate training schedules, deliver live instruction from different sources directly to a participant’s desktop, incorporate audio, video, and interactive media into presentations, administer tests, organize breakout sessions, share and modify documents in real time, and archive sessions for later use. It also integrates with Microsoft Outlook and utilizes the secure WebEx Interactive Network. Customers include Emory University, Ticketmaster, and Cisco Learning Institute. A subscription is $225 per month per concurrent user for unlimited use of the system. It can also be purchased as an enterprise services suite that is charged at a fractional per-minute rate. All systems require a one-time integration set-up fee that ranges from $6,000 to $10,000.

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