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Online Learning and the ROI of Training High-Tech Wizards

By Alison Diana E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Dec 8, 2003 3:55 AM PT

Online learning has come a long way from its roots in simple how-to Web pages. Today, corporations hoping to enhance their employees' skill sets and individuals seeking to advance their careers can choose among a smorgasbord of online tutorials, courseware and classes.

Online Learning and the ROI of Training High-Tech Wizards

After suffering as a result of the poor economy last year, the U.S. market for corporate e-learning is expected to reach approximately US$10.6 billion by 2007, according to research firm IDC. Specifically, IDC has forecast the U.S. IT training services market will begin growing again in 2005 and will reap revenue of $9.7 billion in 2007.

"This year, we estimate the total through corporations is in the $3 billion range," Eric Bassett, a senior analyst at Boston-based Eduventures, told the E-Commerce Times. "Direct to consumers or direct to users would be just a little bit larger -- $3.3 billion or $3.4 billion." However, this figure also includes individuals who are reimbursed by their employers upon completion of a program, he noted.

"The split for e-learning, specifically among IT pros, is around 85 percent company-paid and 15 percent individual," said Michael Brennan, program manager for Learning Services Research at IDC, in an interview with the E-Commerce Times. "I don't expect this to change much, although with the economy picking up, I expect a slight uptick in the proportion that is company-paid."

Techno Students

Among industries, the high-tech sector has led the way in e-learning adoption. "IT was one of the first [professions] to go online for natural reasons," Basset of Eduventures said.

For example, technology's constant evolution lends itself to Web-based education. "E-learning got started in IT because IT couldn't get enough training," Dorman Woodall, director of e-learning strategy at SkillSoft, told the E-Commerce Times. "That led us to develop a lot of content for IT."

In addition, Woodall said, "IT people tend to be independent learners. [They] tend to be more self-taught.... IT tends to learn because they're motivated."

Making the Grade

When deciding which e-learning provider to tap, potential students -- whether individual or corporate -- should consider the depth, wealth and relevance of the vendor's reference material, according to industry executives.

Some corporations, such as Deloitte, ultimately seek a global partner, said Candy Haynes, director of consulting learning for Deloitte's U.S. Consulting Group, during a conversation with the E-Commerce Times. "[SkillSoft] was a global firm," she said. "They were very cognizant of the importance of 365, 24/7 support."

Another e-learning company, Useractive, also differentiates itself by providing hands-on skills and remote access to technologies 24/7, said Patrick Brown, president and CEO of the firm, which partners with publisher O'Reilly on its Learning Lab site.

"Useractive specializes in building and enabling Active Discovery Learning (ADL) courses by providing courses that merge specialized online content with a real lab environment in a single Web browser interface," Brown told the E-Commerce Times. "Active Discovery emphasizes exploration and discovery by the student and coaching by the instructor. ADL is enabled by Useractive via Useractive's patent-pending Learning Sandbox, where students can gain new skills through actual hands-on experience."

Mixed Approach

Likewise, Thomson Learning also melds different approaches to deliver technology and business training, Eric Shuman, president and CEO of Thomson Lifelong Learning Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

"Through NETg, one of our businesses, organizations get the power of our Open Learning Solution, which is combining multiple methods of learning and delivery to achieve fast and targeted outcomes," he said. "Our high-impact, easy-to-implement learning is flexible and can be designed to meet any budget.

"We also offer an unmatched blend of learning instruction, from e-learning to instructor-led training materials, from mentoring to our premier electronic reference library, Safari Books Online," Shuman added. "And our learning delivery is completely interoperable with all of the major learning management systems, which allows organizations to maximize existing investments."

Bang for the Buck

At any time, but especially in today's economy, people consider the bottom line when weighing an e-learning commitment. Businesses have various ways to determine the ROI of such investments, IDC's Brennan said.

"The vast majority measure what they can easily -- usage and completion, for instance," he noted. "However, a small but growing portion are putting systems and processes in place to help assess if the material employees are training on is useful to their day-to-day job activities and to determine what the monetary payback of different training sources actually is. Some use control groups to do this. Some use surveys. There are training analytic tools available from companies like Docent, Saba and Knowledge Advisors that facilitate such measures."

It seems that more and more companies are realizing the bottom-line benefits of e-learning. "About 20 percent of our user experience was e-learning up until 9/11," said Haynes of Deloitte. "After 9/11, we shut our classrooms. We really focused on ratcheting up our e-learning. Last year, 85 percent of our users worldwide were e-learning users. It's been able to cut our training costs 60 to 70 percent over the last three years and yet deliver more training."

When determining ROI of Internet-based training, corporations should take into account its ability to free up employees' time, decrease time-to-expertise and "[reinforce] employee IT skills with safe, personalized, hands-on experience with personal coaching anytime, anywhere," said Useractive's Brown.

Although businesses could develop their own e-learning content, it is more cost-effective to purchase the bulk of necessary training externally, SkillSoft's Woodall added.

Get the Job Done

In addition to beefing up their long-term expertise, IT professionals also are using e-learning to resolve immediate problems, according to industry executives.

"The Holy Grail is workflow training," Eduventure's Bassett said. "It's breaking down training in all its elements -- both content and how it's delivered -- to make it more and more practical: to deliver the right information at the right time to the right learner."

In an effort to respond quickly to their changing environment, improve their knowledge base and increase their career opportunities, technology personnel are honing in on specific kinds of certification and technology programs.

"Our most popular courses over the last two years have been the four courses in our Linux/Unix Administration series," Brown said. "It makes sense when you consider the value of having root access on a Linux server and all the student needs is [a] PC with an Internet browser. We have great expectations for our new .NET courses -- VisualBasic.Net and C#."

The Real Bottom Line

Many clients also are attracted to Thomson Learning's array of Microsoft-related offerings, Shuman said. "NETg releases between 110 [and] 150 IT Professional and Desktop courses throughout the year," he noted. "Our most popular courses include Microsoft Office content, followed closely by IT content in the areas of Microsoft server technologies as well as Web technologies."

The real bottom line is that whether they need to brush up their skills on a product or learn about a new technology, IT professionals no longer must spend days away from work, sitting in a classroom. Thanks to a host of well-established and new companies, ambitious technology employees today have access to a wide world of information, labs, educators and research material that can help improve their productivity, capabilities and employability -- all without requiring them to leave their desks.


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