E-learning leaps into the limelight

Delivering just-in-time online knowledge and training to workers’ desktops, e-learning is encountering renewed interest in the wake of shrinking budgets and flagging interest in business travel.

According to estimates from Framingham, Mass.-based International Data Corp., the worldwide e-learning market will grow from US$2.2 billion in 2000 to US$18.5 billion by 2005. As a result, now is the time to invest in education initiatives designed to fuel worker productivity, says Cushing Anderson, program manager for learning services research at IDC.

“In the economy we are in now, there will not be the same investment in technology, but we are demanding of employees greater productivity. In order to [achieve] that you need to give [employees] internal tools to make them work smarter,” Anderson explains. “If you invest in the worker’s skill set overall, you should be able to see a change in productivity.”

The anytime, anywhere characteristics of e-learning tools, and the fact that they are available from devices including desktops and notebooks can accelerate the productivity gains by making education more accessible, Anderson adds.

Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers had no qualms about expressing his view of e-learning at Comdex, where he declared that “e-learning is the next major killer application.” Cisco currently has e-learning applications for its sales force, says Tom Kelly, vice-president of Cisco’s Internet learning group.

“This is understanding a complex situation and applying your knowledge to it,” Kelly says. “Moving from not just what you know, but what you can actually do – that’s broadening the application of e-learning.”

Kelly adds that e-learning must be personalized and presented in small chunks to hold interest and to be most convenient, because workers “expect small, short things they can work into the fabric of their day.”

Cisco will launch simulation-based testing in the first quarter of 2002, with a focus on learning that involves complex situations, and it is working to expand the reach of e-learning within the company. Part of that effort involves a personalized portal, called MyLearning, that aggregates e-learning information targeted at a specific user, based on the individual’s profile and skills. Cisco piloted the program during a 90-day period with its sales force, and Kelly says it has reduced the effect of search duties “by about 40 per cent. We hope within a year or so we can get that to 70 per cent or more.”

Although initial e-learning infrastructure investments can be steep, “there are tremendous efficiencies you can realize by delivering e-learning online right at people’s desks when they need it instead of sending them to a training [seminar],” says Charles Luce, senior analyst at Delphi Group Inc., in Boston.

With this in mind, e-learning technology providers LearnKey and Crisp Learning have entered into a partnership aimed at growing the range of e-learning courseware.

St. George, Utah-based LearnKey Inc. will deliver the business skills library of Visual Crisp Interactive courseware in LearnKey’s online e-learning format, according to LearnKey officials. In addition, Crisp Learning will distribute IT courses from LearnKey to more than 100,000 Crisp Learning customers. Both systems allow employees to log in to receive timely access to the specific learning content they need.

Meanwhile, Plano, Texas-based EDS is expanding its year-old relationship with San Francisco-based e-learning technology provider DigitalThink to provide learning to approximately 140,000 EDS employees around the world. DigitalThink’s E-Learning Platform will offer English-language and localized versions of DigitalThink catalogue courseware, EDS-developed custom courses, and soft-skills courses for EDS University, the company’s internal e-learning group.

The DigitalThink platform includes integrated reporting and analysis tools and an enterprise gateway, which allows the integration of the e-learning platform with enterprise applications such as CRM and ERP.

Web conferencing vendor PlaceWare is also pushing into the e-learning space with its Virtual Classroom, to be released in January 2002. The offering provides a medium for live, collaborative training and content development over the Internet, with features such as customized teaching forums and interactive chat, officials say.

PlaceWare is busy on other fronts as well, partnering with KnowledgePlanet and WBT Systems to combine content and analysis with its Virtual Classroom services and forming a similar content and services deal with e-learning company Saba.

Driving the partnerships is a belief that the lines between Web conferencing and e-learning have dissolved. E-learning departments and e-learning initiatives are driving a majority of enterprise use of Web conferencing, says Michael Weber, senior product marketing manager at Mountain View, Calif.-based PlaceWare.

“We have always been in the e-learning space, but we just haven’t focused on it,” Weber says. “A third of our customers are already using [PlaceWare] in an e-learning context. We make the core conferencing platform, and we are now enhancing it to serve the e-learning market.”

Other emerging technologies also bode well for more involved implementations of e-learning applications. “Games, simulations, and scenario-based learning – you’re going to see more and more of that,” Cisco’s Kelly says. “You’re going to see more of what e-learning is supposed to be: better tools and technologies in the live classroom, more students and teachers online, and better self-paced activities.”