Widespread use of computer networks and the adoption of voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) phone service are fueling the rapid growth of electronic learning beyond the classroom. The e-learning technology is improving the way for students to earn degrees and enhancing the way employers in-service their workers’ job skills and reduce training costs.
In academic circles, students could already interact with their instructors and other students without being present in a physical classroom. Now, advances in technology have put a new face on traditional distance learning offerings from colleges, adding such features as voice interaction.
Traditional distance learning involved students working alone viewingtext-based content and listening to audio track supplements. Students would e-mail questions to professors or discuss their reactions to assignments in mostly text-based chat rooms.
Reshaping the Landscape
As for businesses, the new technology allows companies to offer focused training to workers on demand. Software and hardware combinations now make third-party production companies that used to package e-learning obsolete. Corporate seminars can be recorded live and instantly uploaded for network or Web site access, requiring little or no extra cost or employee down time.
Three companies that are part of this growing new e-learning industry are reshaping the training landscape with highly refined computer-based programs. Each takes a different approach to high-tech learning.
Witness Systems, a global provider of performance optimization software and services, markets browser-based software for customer contact centers and IP telephony, as well as performance analysis and e-learning applications.
New Horizons Learning Centers provides corporations and individual consumers a combination of online, traditional and hybrid learning methods that help workers stay competitive and get trained.
Sonic Foundry offers a rich media platform that gives organizations automated control over their training and marketing content.
When Internet technology exploded in the last decade, much of the e-learning that developed was based on the self-help module. Along the way, companies began putting training materials on company servers in anticipation of employees helping themselves to the company-sponsored knowledge, John Golden, vice president of products and programs for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, explained. The company has computer-based training centers in key cities around the world.
However, “Utilization rates were poor. Large libraries of database information went unused because employers weren’t offering their employees incentives to use them,” Golden told TechNewsWorld.
As the technology and broadband access became more prominent, companies focused on new ways to save time and money while training their employees, Golden said. That process is continuing as new technology and an evolving office environment change the way both employers and their employees view workplace education.
James Dias, senior vice president of marketing and business acceleration for Sonic Foundry, sees an active climate for e-learning in today’s corporate training rooms.
“We find a lot of companies are using e-learning in full swing and are getting full benefits from it,” Dias told TechNewsWorld. “Others are not, however.”
New Horizons’ Golden also sees e-learning adoption on the upswing. The company’s e-learning module has grown 70 percent since last year. He attributes this growth to many factors, including the emergence of VoIP that enables students to interact online via voice with their instructors and other students. New Horizons is also seeing certain markets rapidly adopting this technology and others that are more cautious.
Readying a New Call
AGL Resources, an Atlanta, Ga.-based customer call center, is one of those enterprises that Golden describes as not yet fully adapting to the full e-learning module. However, Lee Lively, AGL Resources’ manager of performance solutions, is in the process of changing that.
AGL Resources is a regional energy holding company with business segments in natural gas distribution operations, wholesale services and energy investments. With over 2,100 employees, it has more than 1.8 million customers across 250 communities in five states: Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas and Arizona.
AGL Resources installed the training software from Witness Systems one year ago. AGL’s in-house training until then had amounted to mostly classroom instruction, e-mail lessons and voice mail responses to workers’ questions. The deployment of Witness Systems’ e-learning software and hardware products — eQuality Producer and eQuality Now — was part of a companywide initiative to use technology to streamline business process execution, increase productivity and extend AGL Resources’ business capabilities across the company, Lively said.
“When we first set up the training product, we used only the learning lab component. We scheduled our call agents with time off the phones to give them time for e-learning,” Lively said. “We have had a very favorable response to e-training so far. We are waiting to see the response to blending other e-learning components.”
Technology systems delivery manager Myron Holder said AGL Resources has used the eQuality product for four years. In that time, AGL advanced performance excellence in its customer service organization by increasing first-call resolution policies. The training also helped improve its customer satisfaction, she said.
Learning New Methods
In order to get the most benefits from high-tech e-learning in the office, corporate officials have to be willing to assume a new mind set. As New Horizons’ Golden explained, solo-based e-learning needs tight controls to succeed. Most workers prefer live experts doing their training.
However, designing e-learning programs in-house can often be more expensive than hiring e-learning producers to provide the training programs. Such pre and post production costs can add up. Generally it takes six or seven hours of preparation for every hour of training content.
With the right product in place, Sonic Foundry’s Dias said, employees can receive the training they need while their companies control the costs and the availability.
“About 95 percent of our customers are doing their in-house training alone,” he said.
The individual companies are able to offer their own experts in live seminars. Then their training staff can digitally capture the session and instantly make it available to employees.
“In designing the recording appliance and the production software, we were very determined to make this system a one-button operation. Using it is like having a digital photo copy process,” Dias said.
E-learning will change the face of traditional classroom education, New Horizons’ Golden believes. Most schools have Internet connections now, and the average pupil per computer ratio is five to one, he said.
“It won’t be long before we have e-learning in schools,” Golden predicted.
Several industries are already showing strong interest in the new generation of e-learning technology. According to Golden, the retail and banking industries are prime targets for new training programs.
“The e-learning market is maturing. We see a lot more players now,” Golden said. “More people are comfortable with technology today. Technology is reducing training costs.”
Dias said new technology for e-learning is already breaking new ground in the aerospace, defense, medical and pharmaceutical industries.
“Technology doesn’t get in the way. It’s very transparent.”
For Lively, the corporate learning management system was not able to get best practice examples and training clips to workers who needed training. “We had an immediate need for a system that would be compatible with the e-learning scenarios we were creating, and [Witness Systems’] eQuality Now product had the seamless integration …” he said.
Witness Systems line of eQuality products solved that problem. EQuality Now provides a system for recording live training sessions and eQuality Producer by Witness Systems allows for editing of actual recorded customer interactions and adds interactivity.
Sonic Foundry sells a physical appliance and software companion product that goes on a client’s server. The set up lets corporate trainers record an entire onsite lecture with all audio-visual displays included. The package synchronizes, indexes and uploads the content in HTML format to either the corporate server or a hosted Web site.
New Horizons Computer Learning centers lets individuals or a team of workers enroll in a customized training class. They log on at a set time and view a live instructor. The enrolled learners can participate in question and answer sessions as a follow up to the instruction.
“It is more than a ‘webinar.’ It actually replicates the experience of attending a physical classroom,” the learning center’s Golden said. “It is really a vibrant and interactive experience that is the next best thing to being there.”