Virtual technology followed closely on the heels of e-learning as the next big thing to replace instructor-led classroom learning with one notable exception: E-learning has to be specially adapted to get the same impact as classroom programs, and even then it doesn’t always cut it due to a lack of interactivity. Virtual technology, on the other hand, usually allows the learners to experience learning comparable to that in a classroom.
Siebel Systems Inc., which was acquired by enterprise software company Oracle in January, implemented virtual lab technology in order to increase the reach of Siebel University to its customers, partners and employees around the world. The company found that the medium was especially useful when delivering detailed technical training. Brad Samargya, formerly group vice president of Siebel University, said he was not sure that they could provide the level of training program quality required until the company partnered with Surgient in 2004.
“We did not want to sacrifice students’ ability to learn in a real-life environment. They needed to install, configure and play with the software just like they would in a classroom,” Samargya said. “It was our first foray into this, and it pulled along soft skills, sales and end-user training. The toughest test in my opinion was how to provide the detailed technical training for customers and partners.”
Prior to virtual lab implementation, many Siebel employees couldn’t attend training sessions because of travel logistics, cost or work commitments. Samargya said the farther you got from the company’s home base in San Mateo, Calif., the less training you received. Now that growing pains from implementation have passed and the program has proven to be successful, Siebel University is putting corresponding curriculum and training paths in place around the virtual lab concept and establishing metrics to gauge learning impact.
“On the technical side, we have certifications, so ultimately the measures of whether they’re competent or not is whether they can get certified by passing technical exams,” Samargya explained. “One of the biggest and most formal measures and probably one of the things that pushed me to move toward this solution is that every six months we do an employee survey. One of the questions specifically is ‘Are you adequately skilled and trained to do your job?’ A lot of the feedback in the past has been ‘no’ on the professional and on the technical side.”
“At the end of each class we have a standard smile sheet to measure satisfaction of the course and the instructor,” said Jim Recker, director of distance learning, Siebel University, Siebel Systems. “We’re using the same survey in both the instructor-led training live classes as we are in the virtual classes. We’ve added a few questions in the virtual classes just to understand better how people perceive the technology. The results indicate that in the live technical training, we’ve actually scored maybe a couple of points below where we would normally score in the instructor-led training, but the margin is such that we really can’t distinguish the difference between the two at this point. Interestingly in the two professional-skills classes that we’re doing we’re actually scoring much higher virtually, and I think it has to do with the convenience of the class. I think it also has a little to do with the presenters. We have some excellent presenters presenting the content virtually. However, in one particular class, it’s the same presenter that teaches both live and virtually, and is scoring much higher virtually. We’re trying to figure out why.”
Siebel is looking to expand its use of virtual labs to full virtual classroom activity for some of its extended training, which can require several weeks of intensive, hands-on classroom work. “In the Analytics Fast Track in particular we’re looking to operate a more blended learning approach,” Recker said. “We’re starting off in the virtual world, giving them an introduction to analytics and some of the basics in terms of set up. Then we bring them into a physical classroom where we can be with them, looking over their shoulder as they go into some of the more advanced areas. As the class wraps up, we finish up virtually with some more advanced applications. There’s also been some discussion in terms of longer term plans, adding some online components that literally take the abilities of the virtual and physical classroom and work on the strengths of both to get a well-rounded program. This program actually is quite aggressive, and unlike most technical education programs that may last a few hours, these programs are six to eight hours long, lasting over a period of several days, which is far beyond what most companies do in terms of virtual training.”
–Kellye Whitney, email@example.com