Transportation cyberdean lives for e-learning

Transportation cyberdean lives for e-learning

Program manager of department's virtual university brings fervor and marketing experience to an expanding curriculum

By Richard W. Walker | GCN Staff

You might say Larry Mercier is a bit passionate about online learning. E-Learning or Die! is the title of his recent white paper on electronic learning.

Mercier, program manager of the Transportation Department's Transportation Virtual University, touts e-learning as 'the most significant killer app to date' for government agencies.

'I look to e-learning as the great democratization of training,' he said. 'This is the information age and, even more so now, it's what you know.'

But Mercier also is a realist about online training.

'There's going to be a lot of hype with this,' he said. 'It's not a panacea. There's a substantial number of people who will not learn this way. And all technology has phases. You're going to have growth, then you're going to have a big drop-off, and then you're going to have much more reality-based growth.'

Mercier's own program, however, is looking as if it may defy that pattern.

Launched about a year ago, TVU, at, has exploded across the federal landscape. Currently, the site offers more than 1,800 courses to users at 31 agencies.

And more users are lining up. Mercier recently met with Washington state officials who are interested in using the Web program.

'Growth has been exponential,' he said. 'And I'm getting more and more requests from folks who want to partner with us. You can see there's really a need out there.'

TVU, run by the Transportation Administration Services Center's Information Technology Operations, has largely supplanted in-house training based on instructor-led classroom learning that, Mercier said, was not working.

What price service?

'It was operating in the red,' he said. 'We interpreted that to mean that the service was being provided in such a way that it wasn't being valued.'

Transportation's Larry Mercier says the difference between good and bad courseware is the degree of interactivity.
To develop a new training strategy, Mercier and his team consulted with Gartner Inc. of Stamford, Conn., conducted focus groups and had extensive discussions with training coordinators within Transportation. They concluded that an online learning program was the answer.

'All of our feelers out there told us this was something we should do,' Mercier said.

When it came to choosing Web courseware, one factor was key: Taking classes online had to be easy for end users, or they wouldn't do it.

'That translated into making sure that we had something that was point-and-click and camera-ready, with no downloads or security issues,' Mercier said. 'It was out of the question to have proprietary [applications] that had to be installed on LANs. It had to be completely browsable and Web-playable.'

Based on feedback from the focus groups, Mercier knew that courses had to be interactive.

'Who wants to look at a bunch of Microsoft PowerPoint slides on the Web? You're better off reading a book,' he said. 'The great divide between good courseware and bad courseware was the degree of interactivity.'

In addition, courseware must consume a minimum of bandwidth, even when using audio. 'Bandwidth consumption is a big issue,' Mercier said, 'We looked at a couple of offerings that were incredibly robust. But bandwidth was a problem.'

In the end, the Transportation team decided on courseware from SkillSoft Corp. of Nashua, N.H., and NETg USA of Naperville, Ill., provided through a contract with ThinQ Learning Solutions Inc. of Billerica, Mass.

TVU's classes are primarily self-paced and range in content from personal development and computing skills to technical training and business and management courses. SkillSoft's online mentoring component lets users communicate one-on-one with instructors.

At $125 per user for an annual subscription to courses, Mercier said, TVU is a real bargain. The reduced costs have put Transportation's training program in the black.

Mercier recently discovered the usefulness of TVU's just-in-time learning when he ran into a problem with Microsoft Excel.

Online to the rescue

'We had a database with 10,000 records in it and needed to make a correction in one field in every record,' he said. 'We were faced with editing 10,000 records. I logged on and didn't even bother going to the Excel course. I went right to online mentoring.'

He typed in the problem and two minutes later got a response from an instructor. In 20 minutes the problem was fixed. Mercier estimated he saved $1,000 in staff time.

As with every new technology, not everyone is so enthusiastic.

A big piece of deploying an online training program is getting managers to buy into it, Mercier said. Often, they have to be convinced.

'E-learning can either be a big yawn or it can have a tremendous impact on the bottom line of the organization. If you just build it and expect people to come, you're going to get a relatively low usage rate,' Mercier said. 'But if you build it and work toward integrating it with the existing training system, program managers will see that this is a tool they can use.'

Selling people on online learning comes easily for Mercier. Marketing is a skill he has honed during 27 years at Transportation.

'Of course, I was nine when I went to work at DOT,' he joked.

His association with Transportation began in college, when he enrolled at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and majored in engineering.

After graduation, the Coast Guard sent him to the University of Michigan, where he earned master's degrees in management and mechanical engineering.

When he completed active duty, he took a job in the private sector but soon found himself back with the Coast Guard, as chief of marine engineering at the Guard's shipyard in Baltimore.

It was there that he cut his marketing teeth.

'When I took over the engineering group, they were basically out of work and were looking to cut the staff in half,' he said. 'I said, 'Give us six months, and we'll bring in our own work.' So six months later, instead of cutting staff, we grew by 50 percent. I had a lot of success in getting out and bringing in the work, doing the marketing and being able to deliver.'

Mercier later moved on to the Marine Safety Center at Transportation headquarters, where he spent three years as a technical adviser. It wasn't the best of times.

'It was more of a policy-type position,' he said. 'I sat in my office and waited for people to ask me questions. I like to be more involved in the operation of things.'

Three years ago, he jumped at the opportunity to take over marketing for IT operations at TASC.
But that job did not last long. Several months later, he was named program manager of TASC's fledgling online learning program.

Mercier now spends his days doing what he likes best'promoting TVU and online learning.

'I spend a lot of time just talking to people,' he said. 'I probably do three to five presentations a week. If I'm not talking to potential clients, I'm talking to our partners about solutions to present to potential clients.'

Mercier savors his role as Transportation's cyberdean: 'I just believe that e-learning is noble work.'


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