Elearning on the Rise:
Companies Move Classroom Content Online

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Cisco Systems' employees and partners routinely watch videos on the Internet. It's not goofing off or a waste of time. They're watching the videos to learn about the new products that they work with nearly every month.

Cisco is not alone. Companies are opting for elearning over more traditional learning due to the increasing mobility of the workforce, the need to save on training costs, greater acceptance of Web-based training, and better interoperability of systems. In fact, IDC predicts that elearning in corporate and government environments will grow at some 11% per year between 2004 and 2007. "Thousands of organizations have demonstrated short-term returns through cost savings and speed to productivity by integrating elearning content and technologies into training processes," according to IDC researcher Mike Brennan.

Digital content will grow in conjunction with elearning; IDC predicts double-digit expansion in econtent through 2007, when it should become a $4.9 billion industry. Growth in the asynchronous subsegment, which remains very fragmented, will be driven by innovations in content customizations and other value-added services like the use of performance support and simulations, according to the report.

Though Brennan does see growth in off-the-shelf elearning classes, Frank Russell, president of GeoLearning, Inc., says that companies are looking for systems that enable them to integrate content from other applications along with that off-the-shelf content. "They want more flexibility," Brennan says. Most early adopters of elearning point to customized content as having the greatest strategic impact on their businesses, according to Brennan's IDC study.

Training solutions that integrate proprietary processes or work knowledge are more valuable than typical off-the-shelf content, agrees Brennan. However, many early adopters of elearning are satisfied with their off-the-shelf content.

According to IDC, nearly 80% of all companies and nearly 90% of organizations with 10,000 or more employees are either currently creating elearning objects internally or are planning to do so. Web conferencing applications are among the most popular tools for creating online learning content that can be broadcast synchronously or asynchronously, according to Brennan. Even more common is the use of office productivity tools from Microsoft, used by nearly three quarters of the elearning developers, and Web development tools from Macromedia, used by just over half of the developers.

Classes À La Carte
More than that, companies want systems that enable them to present and access knowledge-based content component by component, rather than mandating that users take entire courses at one time, says Lee Maxey, chief learning officer for Pathlore. For example, Pathlore client Imagistics, a manufacturer of multifunction printers and copiers, first attempted elearning at the beginning of the decade. Those first courses contained too much content and the courses were too long to hold the attention of the employees, according to Joan Malay, Imagistics' director of sales training and development.

With too much content that had to be reviewed in order to pass a course, salespeople weren't absorbing needed information and were still selling fax machines and copiers, rather than value-added and more profitable networked multifunction devices. So the company changed from 30-hour courses to 30-minutes modules with less content and more focused testing. Malay credits the improved elearning for much of the company's growth in sales of networked devices.

"Content is king," Maxey from Pathlore adds, citing the popular content credo, "but it has to be the right content in the right context." GeoLearning's Russell agrees, saying, "You need the right time, the right place, and the right amount. And to get a real return on investment, you need to build once and distribute many times."

Elearning Riches
But simply storing and providing access to learning objects is not enough. To evaluate ROI, companies like Imagistics need to employ learning management systems that provide details about employee access to learning content, test results, and other information. "By having everything in one place, we can see what employees have and haven't used," Malay says of Imagistics' learning management system. "This gives us a seamless way to access content. It's most helpful for online training and certification of sales reps; we couldn't do that before."

Another factor in getting an elearning system to pay off is being able to modify the system as needed. The desire for flexibility in elearning programs has resulted in an increasing reluctance among elearning customers to buy large packages of content or to sign multi-year license agreements because they've found they buy a lot of content they don't use, according to GeoLearning's Russell.

Elearning developments are often designed not only for company use, but also for use of business partners. For example, Cisco reports saving more than $100 million a year by leveraging elearning to educate its workforce and partners, according to Mike Mitchell, director of Cisco Media Networks, who manages video on demand (VoD) inside the parent company Cisco Systems. Cisco has some 3,000 video-based learning initiatives for training employees and partners.

With so much information, it's important that learning management systems enable a company to automatically archive or remove content and learning objects so that the learning library doesn't become unwieldy. The number of accessible VoDs at Cisco remains relatively steady. As managers publish new VoDs and add them to the library, the least requested ones are automatically removed from active files. They're archived for emergency use, but aren't available in a streaming media format once they're removed from the on-demand library.

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