Squeezing into a hardwood desk, breathing that hot, stuffy air tainted with just a hint of multi-coloured chalk – spending time in a classroom is none-too-appealing, even for the most eager of students. But things are changing.

Canada’s oldest corporation, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), announced Tuesday that it will begin training its 70,000 employees through the Web. The new training-on-demand programs allow employees to keep up-to-date anywhere and anytime they choose.

To accomplish this feat, HBC has charged Toronto-based Bell Nexxia Inc. with the task. “They were very concerned about keeping their employees as updated on new trends as possible,” said Derek Rickaby, vice-president of e-business solutions with Bell Nexxia, “and at the same time, reducing their overall costs to deliver its learning solutions.”

The three-year contract began June 1, and is designed to help HBC reduce costs. Rickaby said e-learning is just one way firms can save money. “If you look at where business is going,” he said, “it’s about cost savings.” He added that Web-based learning helps reduce travelling costs, but at the same time, increases employee retention and helps deliver better customer service – affecting both bottom- and top-line revenues.

Under the agreement Bell Nexxia’s Bell e-Learning Centre will Web-enable the retailer’s aging mainframe computer-based training programs, and maintain the system once it’s up and running. But Rickaby said he doesn’t expect HBC to throw out the textbooks and wooden desks just yet. “E-learning doesn’t necessarily get rid of class-based training, it actually integrates with it,” he said.

Case-in-point is the University of Alberta. In the last three years, the number of Web-enabled courses available at the school has grown to 1,100, serving a combined 100,000 students. Michael Byrne, director of computing and network services at the university, warned that e-learning isn’t meant to replace the classroom, but supplement it. Some subjects are “better served with face to face discussions,” he said. By organizing e-learning sessions into modules or portions of courses, with applications such as multi-media enriched examples, information can sometimes be passed to the students faster.

But most importantly, the sessions have to be reliable and secure. “There’s nothing more frustrating, especially in the university environment, than having the training interrupted,” Byrne said.

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