What's working for the e-learning sector? Here's what analysts say:
Online classrooms work. "Almost all of our clients have been pleased with their use of virtual-classroom technology," says Mike Flanagan, vice president with Intrepid Learning Solutions, Seattle.
Some firms are still piloting and testing, others have enterprisewide capabilities. Most, however, "see an immediate pop in using this kind of tool," says Flanagan.
Why? Virtual classrooms are just experts talking to learners—same as the good, old-fashioned classroom. Virtual classrooms also keep workers in the office, minimizing travel costs—and just at a time when travel-security concerns mean many workers are happy to stay put anyway.
Fast tutorial-builders work. These applications quickly generate demos of software products. Consultant Flanagan cites ViewletBuilder (starts at $799) from Qarbon.com Inc. of San Jose, Calif., and RoboDemo ($349) from eHelp Corp. of San Diego. Both build interactive tutorials and demos.
The tools output to Flash, Macromedia Inc.'s Web-animation software. Resulting files are small enough to e-mail. "They're enabling a kind of information-transfer and sharing that is fairly light on its feet and that can be used in a wider and thus more flexible array of situations," says Flanagan.
More tools work. Training professionals are getting better at picking tools from a growing tool kit, says Clark Aldrich, a consultant whose simulation-development firm, SimuLearn Inc., is in Norwalk, Conn. Training professionals now can develop and deliver training in six weeks that that would have taken a year or two not long ago, Aldrich claims. "The problem is," he quips, "that it takes six months to decide to initiate the program!"
Supplements work. Web sites, collaboration, e-coaching and e-mentoring are supplementing e-courses. Learners are making the choice. "What they choose will depend on what they want to know, how fast they want to know it, what they already know and what they want to do with what they learn," says Marc Rosenberg, a Hillsborough, N.J., consultant. "When access to an expert becomes easier and faster than access to a course, where would you go?"
Rosenberg points to a major oil company that uses communities of practice to update engineers and technicians on new processes in refinery management. "Instead of going to training, each community—and there are dozens—collaborates around problems," says Rosenberg.
Why is this important? Sometimes people need instruction, sometimes they only need information. Salespeople need training in sales skills, but they don't need training every time a product changes or when they need the latest information about a prospect, Rosenberg notes.
"While training may be appropriate in many situations, there are many other situations where it is overkill," he says. "Training is often the most expensive way to facilitate learning."
What's not working in e-learning? Learning content management, the software that lets you create and archive learning objects for use now and repeat use later.
"For most of our clients it's still more of a must-discuss technology than a must have," says consultant Flanagan. "I think it's more timing than technology. There just aren't that many organizations yet that are fully committed to authoring and reusing large quantities of internal content across the enterprise. But this can happen in time."
For now, Rosenberg says to keep an eye on how existing technologies—online discussion and instant messaging—break the bonds of courseware. At least 70 percent of learning is informal, and instant messaging and online communities will take the place of strolling down the hall to ask Fred or Mary how to do something.
Consultant Flanagan is watching how firms reorganize the training function as e-learning, formal or informal, rolls out. "While you don't want your learning technology to be driving your organizational structure," Flanagan says, "there are any number of cases where the technology can be a powerful catalyst."
Don't change your organization to help technology work, warns Flanagan. Instead, use technology to help make the organization work better.
Click here to read the related feature, "The State of the E-learning Market."