Feds reap rich rewards with e-learning

Three years ago the Ministry of Public Works and Government Services of Canada (PWGSC) launched an e-learning initiative that is starting to transform how federal government employees acquire new skills.

Dubbed the ICT E-Learning Gateway, the program enables users across multiple federal departments to learn IT as well as Office Application (OA) skills – quickly and effectively.

Under the program, PWGSC licenses courses from e-learning material provider SkillSoft Inc. and, in turn, offers them to other federal government ministries, agencies and departments as a service.

So far PWGSC has sold about 7,800 licenses to 21 different federal entities.

However, only around 65 to 75 per cent of purchased licenses are being used, according to Michael Turner, assistant deputy minister, IT services at PWGSC in Gatineau, Que. He said government agencies tend to buy licenses in bulk and then market them internally to staff, but as everyone does not sign up for e-learning courses, some licenses remain unused.

SkillSoft Inc. provides PWGSC with about 1,000 courses for IT and Office Application (OA) training, 250 of which are in French.

Of the 7,800 licenses, 4,100 relate to IT training and the remaining 3,700 are for OA instruction, which includes courses on how to use Microsoft Excel for example. After a yearlong pilot project, the solution went into production. The first year was so successful that users increased by 50 per cent in the second year, Turner said. In 2005, he expects to see another 20 per cent jump in enrollment and at least four more government agencies signing on.

PWGSC also licenses the OA courses to another government agency – the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS), a learning provider for Canadian civil servants that offers OA courses along with its roster of management-themed classes.

Additionally, PWGSC just renegotiated its contract with SkillSoft with a new agreement has allowed PWGSC to reduce licensing costs for the e-learning gateway from $520 per user down to $475 per user, Turner said. However, if licenses are bought in bulk, individual licensing costs are further reduced, Turner said. PWGSC resells the SkillSoft licenses in bulk from 0 to 99 users, 500 and 500+.

Choosing an e-learning course provider was the only feasible route for PWGSC to bring this type of training to its employees, since it would have been both too time-consuming and expensive for PWGSC to develop the courses in-house, Truner said.

By licensing SkillSoft courses, PWGSC didn’t have to add anything to its IT infrastructure as the courses are hosted off-site by SkillSoft. Employees only need a Web browser and login information to access the service. If users have difficulty completing a course, they can call a toll-free help line or post their difficulties on an online bulletin board to be reviewed by PWGSC staff.

So far, PWGSC is very satisfied with this approach to e-learning. Turner 85 per cent of users polled said they would recommend e-learning to colleagues. About 300 employees at PWGSC use the E-Learning Gateway. The biggest users are the Canada Revenue Agency and the Department of National Defense and Canadian Forces, Turner said.

“E-learning,” said Turner, “is very effective for both just-in-time learning and learning modules.” Just-in-time learning occurs when a user has to solve an immediate problem, for example, learning Extensible Markup Language (XML) or .Net development, he explained.

E-learning has also been successful when users need to take a series of courses, or modules, associated with a certain vendor such as Cisco Systems Inc. or Novell Inc. However, for more intensive training, PWGSC’s IT staff will follow a blended learning curriculum that involves in-class courses from academic institutions in conjunction with e-learning.

Indications are other levels of government will start to sign on to PWGSC’s ICT E-Learning Gateway. Turner said the program has generated interest from some provinces and municipalities across Canada and partnerships for e-learning are currently in the works.

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