Continual education

Continual education<@VM>Get close to classroom teaching with one of these online services

With distance learning, class can be in session anytime, anywhere

By Gina M. Roos

Special to GCN

For organizations that need to train their employees, distance learning can provide the shortest route. It's a cost-effective, time-saving method of teaching new skills and refreshing current ones. It's less expensive than tuition and saves travel expenses and time spent away from work.

It may not work in every situation, but distance learning is an increasingly popular option.

Classes via the Internet, an intranet or other connection come in many flavors. Universities offer classes over the Web or via satellite at scheduled times; application service providers host and support distance-learning programs or help organizations develop electronic learning programs, and agencies or bureaus can create and deliver customized courses or deliver courses from third-party content providers.

A class act

There is also a trend toward Web-assisted learning, live Web broadcasts conducted by a professor or instructor at a specific time and that resemble classroom teaching.'Each program offers several benefits and drawbacks based on cost, implementation, ease-of-use and management tracking. For asynchronous classes, students log on at their convenience and work at their own pace, and in synchronous classes the professor and students are online at the same time for real-time lessons.

The programs typically offer a wide course selection, for example, desktop PC applications, database, Internet training, Microsoft certification, information technology management, Web development and programming languages.

This guide takes a look at businesses that offer courses and services that are available primarily via the Internet or an intranet. Some of the companies provide Web hosting. In many cases, the companies develop content and provide Web accessibility, while other companies offer third-party courses via their Web sites.

A major benefit for users is that some courses count toward a degree.

Many government organizations, such as the Defense and Labor departments, the Library of Congress, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and NASA already use distance learning.

Get a distance-learning orientation
Check on accessibility. Some distance-learning companies require users to have a computer with a 56-Kbps modem to download courses and required plug-ins.

' Make sure the courses are interactive or have some form of engaging multimedia. Some trainers complain that they have a difficult time getting employees to use the training.

' Ask if the service offers feedback or a tracking system to gauge students' progress and test results.

' Look at the selection of courses, the
number of titles and the hours of content. One vendor may offer only 600 courses, but it may include six to eight hours of content for each course, while vendors that offer 1,800 courses may include only two hours or less of content for each.

' Check the delivery modes. Does the vendor offer the type of delivery system your agency requires? Will they host the training courses on their server?

' Find out if the vendor offers a customer support network to answer questions.

Smart steps

Defense is sharing FasTrac, a technical learning program, with government agencies to keep it affordable and efficient.

Depending on the service provider, application plug-ins and downloads may be required before you can enroll. In many cases, online courses don't require a hardware investment or development time. Most of the courseware will support a 28-Kbps modem. Nevertheless, modem speed or bandwidth can be problem for some users.

Distance-learning companies, such as NETg, offer two delivery modes over the Internet, depending on your organization's available bandwidth. One version is browser playable, the other is downloadable.

'If you have low bandwidth, the downloadable version is preferable and more efficient. If you have a decent bandwidth, the browser playable is acceptable,' said Bill Bonner, associate director of marketing communications for NETg.

NETg also offers a service called Extreme Learning. 'It's primarily a Web-based learning program that is hosted by NETg for companies that don't have the infrastructure or resources to launch it within their own organization,' Bonner said.

Users log into the server with a user name and password, and in many cases, it's transparent to the users that they are not at their company's Web site. NETg works with information technology companies to develop course content.

Similarly, Inc. offers online training. To access the courses over the Internet, students log on to the Web site and take the classes at their own pace. To work via the intranet, CD-ROMs are downloaded to a company's server.

Checking out progress

A key feature of many distance-learning services is management tracking or reporting, which lets managers track an employee's progress.

'We feel that anyone should be able to see their return on their investment,' said Chad Mathias, corporate sales director for

'You will be able to see the progress that your employees have made, where they need to go back and do more work, and even how much time they spent in each section,' Mathias said.

DigitalThink's tracking system offers six standard reports that track each student's activity, such as logging on to a course and taking a test, said Sally Turner, director of the government sector for DigitalThink. Customized reports on student progress also are available.

After students' performance has been assessed, managers can give employees the opportunity to go back and learn skills they missed in a shorter customized tutorial or learning program, said Kelly Mulligan, director of sales for Active Education, another distance-learning company.

NETg's learner management system, called SkillVantage Manager, lets the administrator or manager monitor the training program to ensure that it is being used and is effective.

NETg also offers a Learner Management Alliance Program in which the company works with top learning management systems to ensure that its courseware is compatible with their systems. 'We work with third-party vendors to make sure that our courses will work and track and launch through that third-party vendor system,' Bonner said.

NETg structures its content around a learning object architecture, which is fast becoming a widely recognized online learning format.

The company offers thousands of learning objects that let customers access them directly and mix and match them as needed.

A learning object is a five-to-eight minute chunk of specific instruction targeted toward a training objective. It lets a user ask to learn a specific skill, then instructs and tests the user.

Customization or personalization is another feature that distinguishes learning programs.

ActiveEducation, for example, generates customized courses based on the results of pre-assessment exams. In this way, courses are focused on what the students don't know.

The biggest problem with distance learning is getting people to finish the course, said Ann Boland, president of consultant company E-Learning for Business of Tucson, Ariz. 'Even with management tracking you still have a lot of people starting the courses and not completing them.'

A few distance-learning companies have sought a way around that problem., for example, uses a performance motivator tool, an automated e-mail system that a training coordinator uses to set learning goals.

If a trainer wants each employee to complete a training course in Microsoft Word 97 in two weeks, the automated e-mail system sends e-mail messages to the employees who are not progressing.

In some cases, employees who meet their goals receive award points that can be redeemed at local retail stores.

Digital Think's courseware, such as these on HTML programming, JavaScript use and Web database creation, presents the user with a clear, simple interface., along with other course providers are also integrating animated characters into the training courses to make them more interactive.

The characters will ask the user to perform a function, for example, in Microsoft Excel, and walk the user through the entire process.

DigitalThink's online courses' principally developed by instructional designers and Web producers'have a 70 percent completion rate. Turner said that is partly because of the strength of its expert tutors.

'The tutor is a very integral part of the courseware; it's not something that has been crafted on later as a help desk,' she said.

Before you decide if an e-learning program is the correct move for your organization, distance-learning service providers suggest that you understand what the organization wants from an online learning company.

Boland suggested developing an integrated learning strategy. 'And that means looking at what is the application, who is to be trained and then what is the most cost-effective and efficient way to deliver that training,' she said.

There are many reasons why learning via the Web makes more sense than learning in a classroom, said Scott Mitec, president of Headlight Inc.

The top reason is the cost savings, which typically is 50 percent less than taking a classroom course, he said.'

Other benefits of Web learning include the convenience of not having to travel and the higher employee retention levels that often result.

Gina M. Roos is a free-lance computer journalist in Plymouth, Mass.

CompanyProductsFeaturesMode of deliveryPrice
Active Education
Golden, Colo.
300 courses, including Microsoft Office 97 and 2000, Windows 2000, Crystal Reports, Visual Basic; additional IT courses and minicourses under developmentNo plug-ins or downloads required; custom courses based on user knowledge; management reporting or tracking, and virtual instructor support via e-mailInternet or intranet$110 for three-course bundle, $135 for six-course bundle, $249 for 15-course bundle Inc.
Bellevue, Wash.
Web-based courseware, learning management and authoring software products, and an e-learning portalOffers full service professional consulting, development and integration services.Hosted via its e-Learning Web site or delivered via the Internet or an intranetPrice determined per number of users
Digital Think Inc.
San Francisco
Application service provider offers 165 courses plus custom courses, including Microsoft desktop applications and certification, Oracle, Unix, e-commerce, Java and HTML programmingNo plug-ins or downloads required; tracking and reporting available; all courseware supports 28-kbps modem speeds or higher; interactive features include expert tutors and student interaction via posted discussion or real-time chat roomsWeb hosting$99 for desktop PC courses, about $325 for tech courses; volume discounts available; custom courses based on cost per course hour, plus maintenance fees
Headlight Inc.
San Francisco
More than 3,000 courses from 30 publishers, including software applications, programming and business courses such as negotiation skills, strategic planning, and interpersonal skills; other courses include Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Unix, network administration, Web development and programming languagesCourses are available for bandwidths as low as 14.4-Kbps; includes assessment tests to determine level of course (beginner, intermediate or advanced); other features include learner management system.Internet$12 to $400 per user; company also offers blanket pricing model for NETg courses, most from $75 to $150 Inc.
White Plains, N.Y.
More than 1,200 courses developed internallyMinimum hardware requirement is 28.8-Kbps or faster modem; includes performance motivator, tracking tools and custom learning agentsInternet, intranet, CD-ROM, and video; provides fully hosted virtual university, and pay-per-view site for home usersOne- or two-year subscriptions; for example, one-year subscription to 36 courses on Microsoft Office for 10,000 users priced at $10 per user
Naperville, Ill.
600 courses ranging from desktop PC applications to programming languages, Internet development and LAN managementNo plug-ins required; offers learner management system for trackingInternet, intranet, LAN and CD-ROM$75 per user for desktop PC courses, $150 per user for IT professional courses; discounts available based on length of subscription, number of users and number of courses; Extreme Learning program is priced at $7,000 annually in addition to course contract Inc.
More than 15,000 tutorials including live chat with technicians or technician support via e-mailTransparent integration of its relevant support content and servicesWeb hostingTransactional pricing
Redwood City, Calif.
More than 6,000 hours of training available in addition to online seminars, expert-led events, online mentoring services, certification test preparation and online labs; more than 1,200 courses including end-user training, system administration, network management, application development, web authoring and publishing, database administration, and business skillsAll programs have consistent student interface, promote student involvement Internet, intranet, LAN and CD-ROMsBasic fee is determined by the number of titles ordered and number of students; hosting and mentoring services are standard options; tech support and deployment software are included for all government customers on some contracts


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