ISO 9000:2000



Electronic Education
E-learning programs can reinforce
a company's commitment to quality.

by Teresa Sininger Cochran


In today's climate of career leapfrogging and relatively rapid turnover, finding and keeping good people has become crucial to the long-term success of organizations. In light of this, access to industry-specific product training and employee development courseware is fast becoming a priority for organizations that are committed to quality, customer satisfaction and their employees' success. Accordingly, it's no surprise that a virtual campus, which offers affordable training that's accessible anytime, anywhere, is the vehicle of choice.

 Web-based e-learning is the latest trend in education and the Internet. Research analysts at International Data Corp. expect the demand for online training to expand into an $11.4 billion market by 2003, an aggregate growth rate of more than 100 percent per year.

Reinforcing a commitment to quality

 By taking advantage of existing curriculum or creating a course that's company-specific, organizations can reinforce their commitment to quality by providing uniform methods of knowledge delivery and management for on-demand solutions. E-learning can be used to keep a workforce informed of corporate mandates, quality systems, management and assurance, as well as provide training on new product rollouts or technical certifications. Offering a vast range of subjects, Web-based training provides an on-demand solution for improving the workforce skills needed to keep a company competitive.

 Most e-learning platforms offer tracking and administrative functions that can provide certification upon completion of a course, the ability to track a student's day-to-day progress within a course, verification (testing) of a student's progress and features to create individual training plans specific to an employee's needs. Given this ability, e-learning can be used as a tool for complying with commercially or federally mandated quality standards, performing corporationwide audits or even reducing liability insurance costs.


 Courses can be designed to meet the individual needs of any kind of business, either by tailoring existing content or having it developed from scratch. A business might need a course to mandate to its employees as part of their job requirements, to embrace a new product rollout or a quality assurance, for example. Or the corporation may need to satisfy a federal mandate to keep in compliance with its contract requirements. Whatever the case, an e-learning solution can meet any of the challenges.

Measuring quality

 All e-learning programs are not created equal. To ensure that you know what you're getting, use the following guidelines for evaluating the value of an e-learning program and its courseware:

  A good Web-based program provides students with the ability to e-mail a mentor or instructor and offers chat rooms as a discussion forum for people taking the same course.

  A good course utilizes computer technology to engage the learner but avoids the bells and whistles that have no training value.

  A quality course is sensitive to how people integrate knowledge and is presented in a way that ultimately contributes to each individual's bottom-line performance.

  The student must be able to return and review material over a period of time. The course should remain available for revisiting for a number of months regardless of how quickly the employee completes it.

  A Web-based training course must be designed with the assumption that every student comes with some prior knowledge. An assessment of this knowledge, such as pre-testing, is important to ensure effective knowledge transfer.

  A solid instructional design model should have been developed specifically for Web-based training. A course must encourage students to discover principles by themselves, and information needs to be appropriate to targeted knowledge levels. Material sequencing is paramount, and the curriculum must be organized in a spiral manner so students continually build on what they've already learned.

  Graphics, interactivity and audio must serve a very real purpose, reinforcing the learning experience rather than simply providing distractions. The three basic characteristics of hypermedia--interactivity, links and browsing--can detract from the learning process if not properly used. Too much interactivity overwhelms; too little turns Web-based training into online textbooks. Unguided "surfing" or browsing in unfamiliar territory often wastes time and leads nowhere. The end result must be retainable knowledge and applicable tools--not just information.

  A quality program offers tracking tools to measure a student's progress and performance. For example, a construction company working for a government contractor requires employees to take OSHA courses to ensure that they know how to use certain pieces of equipment.

  If a course specific to a business's needs is required, the virtual campus should offer subject matter specialists along with its own curriculum. Alterna-tively, the platform should provide the ability to upload existing conventional course materials to which tracking mechanisms and graphics are added.

 Students must be kept interested throughout course deployment or the education won't be of any use to them. Conversely, once the student is interested, the information must be available, or the effectiveness of e-learning is lost. This includes not only interesting and intellectually appealing content but also interactive functions (such as "drag and drop").


A successful e-learning example

 Graybar Electric Co. of St. Louis provides one example of e-learning success. To centralize its entire training program, Graybar implemented an e-learning solution to enable its employees at 240 different locations to access product training, safety issues, skills enhancements, technical training and employee development courseware. With training from a single online source, Graybar optimizes the impact of its educational offerings while minimizing the cost. In an average month, Graybar provides more than 50,000 courses to 9,200 employees, including their sales staff in the field.

 "Twenty years ago, when our primary focus was the electrical market, it wasn't too difficult for an individual, after a few years of service, to develop comprehensive knowledge about almost all of the products," explains John Teipen, Graybar's director of training. "In the 1980s, we accelerated our emphasis in the communications and data market. Additionally, the electrical industry became more dynamic. Many new products were introduced, and energy-saving systems were developed. By 1990, the number of products we offered had quadrupled. As a distributor of more than 500,000 different products from more than 1,000 manufacturers, our product and employee development training needs escalated."

 Following a 1990 survey that documented its employees' strong desire and need for more training, Graybar established a distance-learning network emphasizing product training. Employee acceptance of the technology and the results of the initial program led Graybar to pursue the use of the online medium. The final phase, the Web-based system, enables Graybar to create a complete training program available from a single online source.

E-learning and traditional schooling

Figure 1: Integrated Learning System

 In some ways, instructor-led and virtual classrooms are much the same. With an instructor-led course, the student works from a book. In a virtual classroom, the student works from a computer screen with a mouse. Students at a virtual campus are still able to interface with a registration building, an information building and a commons area. The full learning environment includes student management systems to enable employees to use the same grading, lesson pages, and monitoring and tracking systems that are available in traditional educational settings. However, with the online version, the simplicity and efficiency of the systems are accelerated. The full learning environment of the virtual campus enables employees to take tests, receive grades and track their progress as they participate in their company's other educational programs anytime, anywhere.

 E-learning can be integrated into a company's entire training effort to enhance the entire training package. "Some strictly knowledge-based learning can be completed online," says Teipen. "However, there's a common misconception that online training can entirely replace instructor-led courses. That's incorrect. But it can serve as a valuable tool to maximize the effectiveness and reduce the cost of those courses. If employees can complete prerequisite courses online, they arrive in the classroom with a common knowledge and the background necessary to assimilate additional information. Additionally, an instructor can use online pretests or assessments to determine the weaknesses and strengths of a particular group of people. That's a big advantage because expensive class time can be devoted to weak points and the skills that need to be developed."

 Graybar's new-employee orientation program begins online. Individuals are given a password and begin with the new employee core curriculum, a combination of online instruction and videotape. Graybar's dedication to ongoing employee education is the key to its ability to provide high-quality, value-added customer service. By centralizing its entire training program, the company has created a means for cost-effectively optimizing the effect of its educational efforts to meet changing needs and provide application-specific courses, such as accredited and certificate programs, core courseware of basic skills, core workplace competency and compliance programs.

 "E-learning gives us the ability to develop new product or employee development offerings," adds Teipen. The company is currently developing core curriculums for 13 different job classes that include 250 job titles, the foundation of the company's continuous education environment. "The tools and systems of the full learning environment provide specific information that streamline performance evaluations. The online environment also provides Graybar employees with an effective tool for career planning. In the past, individuals had to determine how to manage their careers on their own. Now, their virtual campus presents information about career paths within the company and the knowledge and skills required to achieve specific goals."

The future of e-learning

 E-learning programs are becoming more cost-effective and their returns on investment more apparent, especially as the number of users per system increases. Instructor-led courses cannot be as cost-efficient when the cost of the instructor, employee down time, and possible travel time and expenses are taken into account. Eight hours of classroom training is equivalent to about four hours online with e-learning.

 But what if some employees aren't computer literate? Not a problem: Their first course will provide training on how to operate the computer, offering a two-for-one training situation (i.e., teaching how to use the computer and as well as covering the company's course materials).

 Many e-learning solutions also allow students to talk in real time with their instructors, who appear on their computer monitors. The only obstacle is company infrastructures: The bandwidth isn't quite there yet. But as soon as the technology exists within a company's building, the virtual classroom can be up and running.

 E-learning provides on-demand solutions for growth and training in a competitive work force. With e-learning you can continue to build upon the worker skills you already have in-house. This is a bonus employees can offer.

Keeping the edge

 Finding and keeping good employees is critical to long-term company growth. Product training and employee development courseware is fast becoming a priority for organizations that are committed to quality and the success of their people. A virtual campus can be up and running in a matter of 14 days. No hosting hardware or software, specialized management systems, or staff to design and create or support the system are needed. Instead, companies can free up valuable resources and time to focus on business and knowledge distribution.

 Technology merely for technology's sake is counterproductive in the educational process. Instead, it must go hand-in-hand with learning objectives. The self-directed, self-paced nature of Web-based training at its best leads to independent decision-making, work-readiness and knowledge--the critical elements of success in today's businesses.

 Web-based training is more than just a high-tech means of eliminating geographic barriers and connecting learners with educators. It's more than just a means of delivering training across the world at any time. These features are important, but Web-based training is also immediate, accessible, economical and learner-friendly. Its interactivity promotes effective learning, and it breaks the constraints of time and place.


About the author

 Teresa Sininger Cochran is director of marketing at Reston, Virginia's VCampus Corp., a leading e-learning solution provider that develops, manages and hosts turnkey, Web-based learning environments for corporations, academic institutions and government agencies. For more information, e-mail Cochran at tcochran@qualitydigest.com  or visit www.vcampus.com.

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