E-learning catches on

E-learning catches on

Agencies save money and time through online training


Online training has won the hearts and minds of practically every agency. Seeing many upsides and few downsides, agencies are wasting no time getting onboard.

Take the Health and Human Services Department. Its new distance learning program, called DL\Net, has been running for six months.

HHS' 6-month-old portal makes training available to users who've been starved for it, the department's Roberta Katson and Roy Tucker say.
'We have about 8,700 users logging on to our learning portal,' said Roy Tucker, director of the Organization and Employee Development Division in HHS' Human Resources Office. 'We anticipate 10,000 users by the end of the fiscal year and double that next year.'

Using DL\Net is a breeze. An HHS user logs on to the portal, at www.learning.hhs.gov, clicks on the Employee Access button, types in a password and goes to school.

The site offers 1,200 classes on an array of topics using courseware from SkillSoft Corp. of Nashua, N.H., and NETg of Naperville, Ill.

'It's making all that training available to people that have been starved for training in the past,' Tucker said. 'The truism in government is that the first thing that gets cut is training. Some of our agencies went through consistent downsizing, streamlining and budget cuts and had no money for training for several years.'

Smaller staff, more programs

One of those agencies, the Administration for Children and Families, has faced a 25 percent staff reduction in the last five years because of a budget squeeze. During the same period, ACF has added 15 programs.

'Out of necessity, we've had to move a lot of people around within the agency,' said Roberta Katson, director of ACF's Office of IRM and Training. 'That means retraining people and teaching them new skills. And being very pressed to get all of this done.'

For Katson, DL\Net has been a godsend.

'It's been wonderful,' she said. 'We bought full access to all the courses for all of our employees in the pilot phase. Our latest data shows that 44 percent of our staff members have completed a course this year. We think that's a wonderful acceptance rate. People have really bought into the program.'

As government online training programs grow in number, two benefits are coming to light. It costs much less than classroom training, and employees can take courses at their convenience, often from anywhere they have access to the Web.

'It's an incredible bargain,' Katson said. 'If you look at the number of courses our employees completed through March, it's less than $50 a course [per employee]. We never would have been able to provide that kind of training in a classroom environment' for the same amount of money.

Elsewhere around the government, similar cost-saving stories abound.

Col. Christopher Olson, director of the training development and analysis activity for the Total Army Distance Learning Program, reported big savings from online learning for the Training and Doctrine Command's Program Information Office at Fort Monroe, Va.

Olson told an audience at a recent e-learning conference in Washington that the Battle Staff NCO Course, for example, cost $759,000 to implement but saves $2.9 million a year in travel and per diem costs.

Getting training to a widely dispersed work force and saving dollars on travel costs were the main reasons the Commerce Department cranked up an online learning program in December.

Globe-hopping to class

'By virtue of our global organization, classroom training has been extraordinarily expensive,' said John Fogarasi, director of Commerce's Commercial Service Institute. 'We've had to pay folks to travel halfway around the world to come to Washington.'

Online learning spreads

The market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres PLC of London earlier this year surveyed 300 government and private organizations in North America about trends in online training. Government agencies represented 23 percent of the participants. The survey was commissioned by SkillSoft Corp. of Nashua, N.H.

A similar situation prompted the Interior Department to launch DOI University about a year ago.
'We have employees at remote locations all over the place,' said Robert Veltkamp, director of Interior's Online Learning Center. 'Most of them had access to the Web and no access to training.'

They do now. They have access to hundreds of courses at a price tag of less than $50 per employee annually, Veltkamp said.

Now, Interior's learning center is about to implement customized online training for staff members in Boise, Idaho, who process cases for a retirement program. Veltkamp estimated that live classroom training for the processors would have cost between $670,000 and $1 million over two years.

Instead, the department is putting the training program on the Web for $82,000.

'The $82,000 will make it available 24 hours a day and include a course that employees can take to get certified to process the cases and a Web site with reference materials,' Veltkamp said. 'You can look at the cost and look at the benefit and say, 'This is a no-brainer. How can you not do this?' '

There also are benefits that can't be measured in monetary terms.

One is improvement in quality of life, said Richard Arnold, training officer at the Coast Guard's Training Center in Petaluma, Calif., and president of the Federal Government Distance Learning Association.

He offered an example: 'You've just come back from a patrol in the Bering Sea, you've been gone quite a while, and now during your short time in port, you have to go away for two or three weeks of resident school. Instead, you come back from patrol and take your course via the Web, which means you don't have to spend more days away from home, and you can see your family. It's better for the unit, the members and the members' families.'

Right now, the picture for online learning is sunny. Unlike almost any other new technology effort, few horror stories are circulating.

The biggest hurdles appear to be cultural'having to do with people and organizations, not technology.

New way of training

For HHS' Tucker, the challenge is helping people get used to a new way of training.

'Some people tend to focus on the technology as if that's the major hurdle,' he said. 'It's really not. It's getting people to think about learning in different ways and to adapt their learning style to this new medium.'

The Guard's Arnold agreed and added that the cultural barriers are receding.

'As computers and the Internet become ubiquitous, along with the growth of internal government intranets, you're really beginning to see a sharp change in the willingness of people to use technology,' he said. 'The tools are becoming internalized to the point of unconscious use. That makes it ripe and fallow ground for distributed learning.'

Getting employees and managers to take to it might still be a hard sell, said ACF's Katson.

'It's getting people to be comfortable sitting at their desks doing it,' she said. 'They may feel that they're cheating because they're not doing real work. And managers may [accuse employees] of not working on what they assigned. Getting management buy-in is really key.'

One solution, she said, is to give employees the time to do training on their home computers.
Will online training ever completely replace classroom instruction? Not likely.

'We don't view online training in opposition to classroom training,' Commerce's Fogarasi said. 'We want to continue to have classroom training but set it up with online courses as prerequisites.'

It's exactly that approach to training'a mix of online and classroom learning'that most observers see unfolding.

Web training 'is always there, whenever you need it,' Tucker said. 'It's just-in-time. And you don't have to do a whole course. You can go in and do a piece of it. In that regard it's more powerful than classroom learning. But there are things about classroom learning that are obviously much more powerful than the Internet. So I think blended solutions or complementary activity will be the wave of the future.'


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