Computerworld

Online and on demand

IT's many names and methods - from CBT (computer-based training) to e-learning produce a teaching tool that's getting more interactive and dynamic. Online training is evolving - getting more interactive and more diverse in its uses for training, testing and group work. Because it can deliver a broad range of information - from skills to product and service details - to a variety of people, when they want it, e-learning is not only an educational asset, but can cut time and travel-associated costs.

In a 'get 'em young and train 'em' approach, Oracle has started a free, online education initiative for primary and secondary students, which more than 560 schools have adopted so far.

Called Think.com, the offering gives students aged seven to 14 and their teachers a global forum for sharing ideas, creating personal Web pages and collaborating on group projects.

Students are given the tools and space to create and share their work online, while teachers are provided with the infrastructure to post lessons and homework using visually stimulating tools such as multimedia video images with audio stream.

Oracle manages the hosted Think.com environment and absorbs 100 percent of the costs as part of its program to bring technology into classrooms worldwide, with the launch of Think.com coming at a time when the federal government had completed the rollout of its National Quality Schooling Framework (NQSF) initiative to help implement innovative and evidence-based projects to improve student learning outcomes in schools.

Brian Roberts, principal at Christian Brothers High School in Lewisham - an inner western suburb of Sydney, says Think.com is an example of technology's ability to improve teaching outcomes, with 405 students and teachers at the school using the program.

"Technology now plays a central role in student education, a factor driven by the students themselves who are becoming increasingly IT-savvy through the everyday use of technology," Roberts said.

"By using new technologies like Think.com we are able to offer our students the best, most innovative education possible to help prepare them for the future."

Computer-based teaching software provider Danware says traditional e-learning is moving forward and is creating new offerings to keep up. Its recently released NetOp School 4.0 is a tool for all classrooms to let teachers monitor and control student PCs in a computer-equipped environment. Teachers can simultaneously see multiple students' screens as thumbnail images on a single screen, as well as monitor and control students individually in real time.

The vendor has extended the range with an add-on module called NetOp School Class Server which supports connectivity in large educational networks. Teachers and students on the move can connect to a central database from different parts of the network via laptops.

NetOp School product manager Ole Haag says the company now offers features to cover the full teaching cycle - prepare, teach and evaluate. We're enabling teachers to easily create and perform online tests, and the server makes it easy to manage groups of classrooms, Haag said. E-learning organization Whizlabs is also tweaking its e-learning offerings, breaking into the Australian market by partnering with IT technical and e-learning solution provider ITIQ Plus in the Australian and New Zealand market.

Demonstrating another way in which e-learning solutions are being used, the recruitment and contracting services industry is using the vendor's training software to carry out online candidate testing, benchmarking applicants and short-listing the best before interviewing.

Whizlabs manager of corporate sales Alok Mittal claims that contracting specialists find that using Whizlabs IT Skills testing encourages and promotes a learning culture throughout their team of professional contractors, setting standards, measuring individual skill-set growth over a period of time.

"The association with ITIQ Plus will help us meet the requirements of quality and reliable online tests for pre-employment testing and employee evaluation for HR departments and contracting and recruitment consultants in the ANZ market," Mittal said.

Meanwhile, Accenture Learning is ramping up its offerings with e-learning forming a central part of the company's service.

The company delivers more than 14 million hours of training to more than 1 million people globally each year and recently launched a learning centre in Brisbane to provide training services to Australian and overseas organizations.

The Brisbane facility is one of five Accenture learning services centres worldwide, developing and delivering learning skills and services to clients. Services include content development, the creation of tailored e-learning solutions and the design of employee certification and accreditation schemes. Richard Clarke, managing director of Accenture Learning, said the centre aims to provide cost-effective, high-quality learning products to its clients. "We do enterprise learning outsourcing, and provide all types of content and also a lot of training for things like system implementations," Clarke said. "The centre was established initially to service the ATO, which is carrying out a huge system implementation over the next four years.

"Since then we have added more clients - a government department, an Asian bank, so as you can see, it's a mixture of the public and private sector."

Clarke said there is a growing interest in learning outsourcing, but there are few options in Australia for organizations requiring this sort of service. "The market in Australia is fragmented, and few vendors can provide end-to-end training services. But there are a lot of boutique players that offer content development," Clarke said.

"A key differentiator about Accenture learning is that we link all our training and development with business objectives, so that's a big part of our focus."

And while e-learning plays a big part in the training resources Accenture provides, it's not the be-all and end-all.

"E-learning is an important lever in terms of reducing costs, but there are other options that companies should consider," Clarke said.

Despite Accenture pushing the benefits of these sorts of services, a recent study by the Cape Group has shown that Asia-Pacific organizations are yet to embrace comprehensive, outsourced learning solutions.

The research showed companies are willing to outsource a combination of technology, content and helpdesk services, but not fully.

Cape Group director Dion Groeneweg said the local region has experienced a limited uptake of fully-managed learning solutions.

"Companies in the Asia-Pacific region don't appear to be realizing the benefits that a more comprehensive solution can offer," Groeneweg said.

Despite revealing that Asia-Pacific-based organizations are currently less inclined to outsource their entire learning function, the research highlights a growing market for learning outsourcing with an inclination towards the 'out-tasking' of specific components of learning.

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High flyers

Bringing high flyers down to earth to focus on training programs can challenge managers so Patric Moberger opted for a board game to get the message across to Qantas flight attendants.

Airlines have strict national and international compliance regulations which must be met on both standard operating procedures and safety and service processes. Moberger, who is manager of customer service training and development for Qantas, needed an annual update program for Qantas College Online, the airline's learning management system.

With an already competent audience, Moberger chose a program that was fun, interactive and highly competitive - giving 'frequent learner points' to the attendants which they could then swap for business-related prizes.

To get the program under way, Moberger selected Tata Interactive Systems based on a previous project for domestic flight attendants.

He said that, because of its compliance nature, the program's deadline were tight, which the India-based vendor met with the geographical distances causing no barriers or delays.

One company pioneering a workplace e-learning project is Masterfoods Australia New Zealand at its Bathurst NSW facility.

The project is being carried out in conjunction with the 2005 Australian Flexible Learning Framework, a one-year, $15 million national strategy funded by the Australian government and all states and territories to provide the vocational education and training system with e-learning skills, professional development opportunities, products, resources and support networks.

Developed by Masterfoods and the Central West Community College in Orange NSW over the last five years, the program, over the next 12 months, will see the college work with Masterfoods to develop online certification and assessment programs using a mix of traditional and onsite e-learning applications.

Masterfoods training coordinator John Lamberton believes the move towards e-learning is the logical next step for the company to provide increased levels of training flexibility in the workplace.

"As well as providing associates with the opportunity to achieve Certificates 2 and 3 in Food Processing, the online learning system will also offer them a broad assortment of other training program options ranging from basic computer skills through to Certificate 4 in Front Line Management," Lamberton said.

Meanwhile, Central West Community College project manager Sharon Bradley said this project is just the tip of the iceberg.

"Because the project involves piloting new e-learning techniques specifically designed for a food processing company, I believe that what we are offering within the workplace will also be attractive to a wide range of related industries across Australia," Bradley said.

"I'm also excited by this project because it further enhances the skills of our own trainers who, in turn, will be able to impart new e-learning techniques on to other industry's trainers and assessors."

Once complete, the e-learning program is expected to be used in the company's other plants in NSW and Victoria.

Learning on the go

In case e-learning strikes the student as too static, technology has another option.

Mobile learning, or m-learning, is adding mobility to training and is predicted to become a popular option over the next five years even, says Marcus Bowles, managing director at the Institute for Working Futures, that it is the next wave in e-learning.

"It has always been a component of e-learning but now with greater accessibility to mobile devices we are going to see the impact far greater than the hype," Bowles said.

Factors identified as fuelling m-learning's rise to prominence include all-time high rates of mobile phone access, especially among younger generations, advances in mobile technology, falling costs of mobile use and greater expenditure on mobile infrastructure by companies.

Bowles said the predominance of individuals who now have a mobile phone with Internet connection is going to be the main driver in the rise of m-learning.

Also, to meet the growing mobile demand, all the large telecommunication companies in Australia have been scrambling to ensure they have access to third-generation (3G) mobile infrastructure.

However, Bowles claims the present costs of running mobile communication technology has restricted m-learning's uptake, especially for small to medium size businesses and training providers, but this will change when the cost of wireless falls.

"Industry is demanding learning that is far more responsive and on demand," Bowles said.

"M-learning can make the learning process more contextualized to the individual worker's needs and in a lot of situations the workforce needs to learn new information when they are dealing with workplace and training issues out in the field."

In 2004, the Institute of TAFE Tasmania undertook a project built around the trial of m-learning in practical environments, funded by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework.

One trial undertaken at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens saw senior botanists develop a catalogue of tree disorders which was then uploaded to PDAs.

Using their PDAs, staff, from gardeners through to apprentices, could stand in any section of the gardens and have information available about tree disorders relevant to the trees in their immediate vicinity.

Botanical estate manager Richard Symmonds says that a sense of being involved in mobile technology made staff more enthusiastic.

However, TAFE Tasmania mobile learning project manager Marcus Ragus said because m-learning was still in its infancy, it needed industry engagement and government funding.

"The virtual learning environment which these mobile devices offer has great scope for rural and remote learners, and industry areas that are looking for alternatives to the current e-learning process," Ragus said.

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Common pitfalls

-Rolf Sohner
  • Poor instructional design Instructional design - the way training content is presented makes the difference between good and bad e-learning solutions. Present content in an interesting and relevant way, with enough interactivity to keep users engaged.
  • Eliminating human contact Moving all education and training to e-learning may not give the best results. People still value face-to-face instruction, and training in isolation eliminates the benefits of good teachers and peer-to-peer learning. Blended learning balances face-to-face and online learning.
  • Being too cost-oriented An obsession with the bottom line can result in cutting corners and lead to a diminished program. The ultimate goal is to improve business."
  • Unmanaged content Content management, or its lack, can hold hidden costs so check who owns the content, because updates can be very expensive. Look for a system that lets you control content and update it easily.
  • No 'wow' factor The wow factor generates enthusiasm and support for an e-learning platform, so pick your first project wisely. Choose one you know will be well received and can be completed quickly. A project that is difficult or doesn't excite may cause people to lose faith.
  • No choices for users There is more than one way for users to complete their e-learning. As different people need different learning pathways, it's important to provide multiple options. A system has to be flexible to be successful; rigidity may fail the needs of some sections of your user group.
  • Bandwidth can't cope The system looks great. User trials have been a success, but the program slows the company network and uses too much bandwidth. Bandwidth considerations are critical for online programs where users are dispersed geographically. Accessibility is as important as the content itself.
  • No feedback Are users fulfilling all e-learning requirements? As part of ongoing user research, organizations should be able to track user behaviour. If cheating or lessons jumping occurs, you need to know when and why. It could be a range of reasons, such as it's too easy, too hard, or the mix of interactivity is not right. It also enables you to identify content improvement opportunities. If users are consistently failing an activity, it is probably inappropriate or too difficult.
  • Non-rating data What is the scoring data telling you? It's no good having a 100 percent success rate if participants are taking six or seven attempts to complete the module. Scoring data not only provides insight to your users, it measures the effectiveness of a program.
  • No talking Encourage feedback from users and make it easy. Users are the key stakeholders in an e-learning program. To keep it successful, an organization must listen to its users.
  • Rolf Sohner is manager, learning services, iFocus