In fact, upon careful and honest analysis, most would say their investment in e-learning over the past five years has been a disappointment. The pendulum-swing of training budgets away from instructor-led learning to asynchronous e-learning may have saved money on paper, but it did little to improve overall performance. Chief learning officers are now rethinking their e-learning strategies to place greater importance on live e-learning.
Live E-Learning Defined
IDC defines live e-learning as Internet-enabled conferencing to support specific learning objectives. Essentially, live e-learning is any form of training delivered live over the Web. This segment is the fastest-emerging area of the e-learning industry and is expected to grow 66 percent worldwide by 2006 to reach $5.8 billion. While IDC considers live e-learning a subset of the conference services market, its use and applicability go far beyond delivering information to large audiences.
If used effectively, live e-learning can help organizations overcome many of the problems associated with traditional instructor-led training and asynchronous e-learning. These may include the high cost of content development, scheduling challenges, travel costs, instructor quality, rapid obsolescence of content and time spent away from other productive efforts.
Live e-learning has the added advantage of paralleling the traditional form of classroom learning that most adult learners and organizations are comfortable with. Live e-learning technologies—available from vendors such as Centra, Interwise, WebEx and PlaceWare—offer many of the features and functions commonly used in classrooms to enhance learning and improve motivation:
- Real-time tools such as two-way audio, the ability to raise your hand, whiteboard, surveys, PowerPoint slides and even live demonstrations, live labs and sharing of software applications.
- Chat boxes and breakout rooms that facilitate the sense of community that is vital to adult learning.
- Further engagement and communication in the learning environment with emoticons, which are tools to communicate emotions and responses by applauding and laughing virtually.
Solving Problems of Cost, Time and Travel
With the advancements in live e-learning, this medium is increasingly becoming the solution for the common training barriers of cost, time and travel. Live e-learning can be delivered very inexpensively to large audiences dispersed anywhere in the world. This eliminates the need to fly expert trainers to various offices or have students travel to a central location. It also eliminates the need for expensive train-the-trainer events, which are otherwise necessary for developing multiple instructors with the capability to train effectively.
Content creation with live e-learning is extremely efficient and cost-effective. Slides can be created, simulations can be utilized, and other learning resources that already exist in an organization can be easily implemented, either internally or by outside learning partners. Once a course or event is delivered, it can be archived for playback by any number of users at almost no additional cost.
United States Gypsum Company, a leading manufacturer of building materials for the construction and remodeling industries, needed to upgrade 5,000 users from various platforms to Windows XP. They faced many common obstacles, including the geographic disparity of plants and remote locations and the expense associated with training this number of employees. Since the company saw the need for human interaction to effectively make this transition, it did not want to implement a stand-alone asynchronous solution. Instead it worked with a training vendor to utilize live e-learning and create a facilitated asynchronous e-learning program.
“Consistent training for all employees across the country was extremely important to us,” said Michelle Cassin, director of IT enterprise technology. “Instructors can have a different flair, and we wanted to ensure that each employee would receive the same base information. Using e-learning alleviated our concerns because we could capture that exact course and then make it available for playback. Also, having facilitated sessions on scheduled days and times provides additional benefits over standard self-paced learning.”
Multiple Training and Business Uses
The uses for live e-learning are limited only by your creativity. For example, this medium is ideal for mass deployments of new systems and business processes, such as enterprise-wide rollouts of proprietary software. The dissemination of mission-critical information, such as employment benefits and company policies, can be facilitated rapidly and inexpensively with live e-learning. Organizational events and news, including quarterly earnings reports and personnel changes, can be communicated to key executives. New products can be rolled out simultaneously to sales teams, technicians and resellers at a fraction of the cost and time.
Citrix Systems Inc., a global leader in virtual workplace software and services, recently launched a new product, NFuse Elite, and needed to provide training for its 7,000 resellers worldwide. The Citrix education team had to make this happen in a mere 10 weeks while staying within tight budget constraints. Citrix met these business objectives by using live e-learning to develop a unique custom solution. The product-training course was presented online and recorded for playback. Resellers accessed this playback at their convenience and then took an online exam to validate that the required knowledge transfer had occurred and they were prepared to successfully launch the new product.
“We gave our training provider a very short window to turn this project around, and that was one of the challenges we faced,” said Socrates Sakell, manager, Citrix Authorized Learning Center Channel Program. “It was phenomenal that they were able to take our content, develop it into an e-learning solution and have it ready when we went live on this offering. Meeting this deadline was extremely aggressive, and live e-learning made it possible.”
Citrix’s resellers benefited by having the most up-to-date information on the product prior to its launch. Live e-learning reduced costs and put more control into the hands of the resellers. Instead of having to travel to attend class, students logged in to the course from their offices or homes.
“The use of live e-learning in our training solution was a success,” said Sakell. “We were able to attain our goals in less than 10 weeks, which would have otherwise been closer to four to six months. We saved a great deal of time in enabling our partners and becoming channel ready by product launch time. That is monumental in the IT training industry where products are continually revised and getting them out to market can sometimes take much longer. With that as a baseline, Citrix plans to continue utilizing e-learning in our training strategy going forward.”
Maximizing the Potential
While the potential uses and value of live e-learning are tremendous, so too can be the challenges in implementing it effectively. Technology platforms available from leading vendors vary in performance, feature sets and cost. You need to understand the primary objectives of your platform prior to selecting a vendor to ensure a proper fit of features and business objectives.
For example, some platforms do not adequately support voice over the Internet and instead require a conference call in addition to logging on to the online environment. Aside from creating inefficiencies, this makes the recording and playback of the sessions cumbersome. Other providers do a spectacular job of blending voice and data.
Firewall, Internet connections and bandwidth constraints also need to be thoroughly investigated with both the technical staff and users to ensure a reliable and satisfactory experience.
Another important consideration is whether to host the events on the organization’s server or utilize a hosted service. A hosted service allows you to experiment with the platform and gain valuable experience with the medium before investing in a licensed and self-hosted solution. Platform vendors and experienced training vendors can assist you in determining the option that is best for your organization.
Delivering Extraordinary Events
The quality of delivery with live e-learning is perhaps even more important than in instructor-led classroom training. Exceptional instructors and subject-matter experts from the actual classroom will not necessarily be star performers in a virtual classroom. Presenters need to be thoroughly trained and practiced in using the live e-learning classroom tools and engaging students in this different forum. Most platform vendors and training providers have programs to provide presenter feedback and refine high-quality presentations.
The use of facilitators or training assistants encourages lively and engaging events. These individuals are crucial in monitoring chat boxes, engaging attendees during breakout sessions, overseeing student exercises and responding to private e-mail. Periodic surveys and interactive questionnaires during the session enhance the sense of community and effectiveness of the learning. Online post-class surveys immediately following each session provide opportunities for instant feedback and continual improvement.
Implementing With Success
A key consideration in planning for the implementation of live e-learning is the level of technical expertise and preparedness of the users. While live e-learning is not much more difficult than accessing a Web site and using a headset, the initial setup should be carefully planned so the first experience for a new user is exceptional and obstacle-free.
Conducting pilots with more technically proficient users will help you negate problems before the less-experienced users participate. Requiring all users to attend test sessions, providing orientation events and mandating users to log on to the sessions at least 30 minutes in advance will assist in avoiding problems. Additionally, having a knowledgeable help-desk technician available during the sessions alleviates frustrations users may have with a virtual classroom.
Increase Live E-learning Usage
Effectively marketing events will enhance your live e-learning program and accelerate the use of this medium throughout your organization. The starting point must be the enthusiastic endorsement by the executive team. Following the initial pilot program, facilitate an online discussion with all stakeholders and user groups about the learning objectives and strategies for deploying a live e-learning initiative. This will assist you in gaining buy-in from these executives and critical business unit managers.
Internal marketing should then take priority when planning the learning strategy:
- Showcase strategies, case studies, event schedules and success stories from varying perspectives in company newsletters, intranet, extranet and other communications tools.
- Promote events through e-mail campaigns targeted at the designated user groups highlighting the learning events, dates and times.
- To increase attendance, distribute a reminder message the morning of every event.
- Cross-market events and note the availability of archived sessions at the end of each session to further highlight learning opportunities.
- Monitor your success in implementation and marketing by integrating your live e-learning platform with a learning management system to facilitate tracking of attendance.
While technical issues with live e-learning can cause some challenges, the real keys to achieving an excellent return on investment are in the quality of the learning experience and effectiveness of internal marketing efforts. Live e-learning is not the “Field of Dreams”—just because you build it, that does not necessarily mean they will come.
Achieving an Outstanding Return on Investment
Accelerating learning through the effective use of live e-learning is no longer a wish—it is a mandate. The good news is that there are many experienced users and excellent service providers to help your organization achieve great results. Many organizations are already improving their bottom line by implementing live e-learning solutions.
“An average cost for one day of instructor-led training in our training situation is over $100 per student, which could have cost us more than $500,000,” said Cassin of United States Gypsum Company. “By using e-learning as a component in our training and facilitating our own events on-site, we were able to bring this expense down to well under $100,000.”
Through proper planning, the selection of the right platform and effective delivery and marketing, the mastery of a live e-learning program can make a significant impact on your organization.
Leveraging his extensive industry and hands-on business experience, Gene Longobardi is senior vice president of North American operations for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc. Before joining New Horizons in 1992, Gene was chief financial officer for RFG Management Group and held similar positions in other real-estate investment and management companies.