Going For Distance

Dec. 21, 2004
As the technology advances, more and more employees are reaping the benefits of distance learning.

When employees at Buckman Laboratories International Inc. enroll in training or pursue corporate course work, they no longer need to cart a stack of books and folders to a classroom. In fact, they no longer have to deal with a classroom at all. Using the Internet, the companys intranet, and a variety of online tools -- including a Web browser -- they are able to engage in online discussions, review course material, take exams, and interact with an instructor anytime and from almost anywhere. Whether sitting at home in Boston or in a hotel room in Brussels, employees can log on and learn. No plane ticket, hotel reservations, or time away from the job. And for Buckman Laboratories, a $280 million specialty-chemicals manufacturer with more than 1,200 employees in 80 countries, distance learning is ushering in a new era of cost-cutting and efficiency. "In many cases, its providing a higher level of training and making it easier for employees and the organization to achieve goals and objectives," states Mark Koskiniemi, vice president of human resources for the Memphis-based company. Koskiniemi is among a growing number of corporate executives who have discovered that distance learning has finally come of age. Although correspondence courses, satellite instruction, and videotapes have been around for years, theyve always been known more for their limitations than their capabilities. Student interaction -- one of the keys to successful learning -- wasnt part of the picture. In recent years, computer-based training (CBT) has helped remedy the problem. It lets companies distribute materials via CD-ROM or other media to employees across a far-flung empire. Although that ensures greater consistency in training, it still doesnt allow ideas to incubate and provides no central management tool. But todays technology is finally providing learning tools that combine the best of both worlds: computers and classrooms. Thanks to the rich capabilities of the Web browser and better software, its possible to create a collaborative virtual environment -- using whiteboards, threaded discussions, and an assortment of course materials. Indeed, a growing number of companies are discovering that the shortest route between employees and learning involves distance. "Internet-based instruction is bringing people together in new and interesting ways," notes Tina Parscal, director of education at the Denver-based International School of Information Management (ISIM), which produces online content for the likes of Microsoft Corp., Boeing Co., and Xerox Corp. "Distance learning is becoming a viable alternative for many organizations," adds Brandon Hall, editor and publisher of Multimedia and Internet Training Newsletter. "Despite bandwidth limitations and other technical concerns, it is making tremendous inroads." He says corporate training has become a $55 billion a year industry, and Web-based training accounts for about $500 million of that total. However, he projects that by the year 2000 the market for distance learning will exceed $1.5 billion. "Today, most [of the largest] companies are either considering distance learning or experimenting with it," he explains. "It has already become an important part of the corporate-education environment." International Data Corp. estimates that online learning will represent 15% of the total corporate-training market by 2001. The biggest draw to the virtual classroom is cost savings. Many companies are able to slash expenses by eliminating the production and distribution of CD-ROMs, binders filled with paper, and videotapes. Whereas an hour of training delivered on a CD can run $100,000 or more, Web-based training easily can cost one-third to one-half less. In addition, its possible to reduce travel and keep employees selling products or working with clients when they might otherwise be parked in a classroom. But the advantages dont stop there. Instructors no longer find themselves traveling on a seemingly endless journey to places like Bombay, Dubai, So Paulo and Kiev -- often exhausted and unable to provide the highest level of instruction. And, thanks to the power of the network, its possible to update material instantly. Nobody understands these facts better than Koskiniemi. Since Buckman Laboratories first put training materials and coursework online in June 1997, the offerings and capabilities have steadily grown. At present, more than 100 courses are available through the companys intranet, which runs LearningSpace software from IBM Corp.s Lotus Development Corp. Employees can view course descriptions, make selections, and obtain materials online. Using their browser and the LearningSpace software (which runs atop a Lotus Domino server), they can then read articles and coursework, take tests, collaborate on assignments, and engage in online discussions -- all under the watchful eye of an instructor. An assessment manager -- built into the software -- allows instructors to oversee quizzes, schedules, surveys, and performance. "There are cases where you can eliminate travel expenses and time away from the job, but it also helps synchronize the entire training process," Koskiniemi says. He points out that in the past Buckman would fly dozens of new hires to Memphis for orientation and basic training every few months. Although some of the employees might have worked for the company only days, others had been on the payroll for several weeks. "We had wildly different levels of competency and knowledge," Koskiniemi admits. Distance learning has helped eliminate that logistical problem. Today, new employees participate in an online orientation. Once they have the desired level of competency -- which can be measured by the computer -- they are flown in for in-depth training. "Everyone feels more comfortable because everyone is on the same page," says Koskiniemi. But orientation is only a start. Employees can take chemistry and biology classes, lab training, safety training, and participate in classes in an array of business topics, including time management, team building, finance, marketing, and business forecasting. They also can obtain advanced degrees online by connecting to major universities. Already, the company has courses available in five languages. Koskiniemi believes that 60% to 70% of company training and development programs will soon migrate to the online arena. Like many companies, Buckman is wading into distance learning as the technology allows. The advent of Web-based tools has transformed the virtual classroom into a viable concept over the last few years, but bandwidth and an array of technical problems have prevented most companies from using advanced features -- such as streaming video and audio, videoconferencing, and high-end multimedia. "The problem that companies consistently run into," says Peter Rothstein, director of the Distributed Learning Business Group at Lotus, "is people dialing in from different Internet service providers and different phone connections." Creating coursework and managing a distance-learning program also require a different mind-set. In many respects, it resembles a seminar more than lecture-based learning. Although an instructor can provide leadership, guidance, and direction, students are far more autonomous. In most cases, that translates into a greater emphasis on coaching and facilitation on the part of the instructor. It also means that instructors and content creators must adapt material to fit the online environment. "What works in a classroom might not work online," Rothstein warns. Hall says the online environment is most effective for knowledge and skills-based training. Some companies are now distributing CBT courses through their intranets and even combining the modules with distance-learning coursework, so that instructors can track progress and results in ways that werent possible only a few years ago. Yet even when CBT coursework is distributed on CD-ROM, its possible to integrate it with online learning and create more powerful capabilities. Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola Inc. has found that the virtual classroom can take a variety of forms. It now distributes self-paced CBT materials through its intranet. Students simply download materials as needed. The company also is putting together classes that allow instructor-student interaction via e-mail, bulletin boards, and an assortment of other tools. Motorola recently has begun migrating to fully interactive online learning -- using Java-based applications from Centra Software Inc., Lexington, Mass. "We can create a live, virtual classroom for people all over the globe," states Aaron Agrawal, director of the College of Technology within Motorola University. Motorola now offers nearly 100 courses online -- mostly in the information-technology arena. Like most distance-learning programs, employees sign up through the corporate intranet. "It is simply not feasible for a global company like Motorola to make conventional training available to a population around the world," says Agrawal. "In addition, the demands on the workforce make it difficult for people to attend classes. A lot of people simply dont have the time to fly to a location and spend three days in a classroom." Distance learning is also changing students perspectives. In many cases, virtual classes are smaller -- usually 10 to 15 people maximum -- and provide a more effective way to communicate. "When people attend a typical workshop or classroom environment, the most valuable discussions usually take place over drinks or dinner," says Rothstein. "The problem is that nobody captures the conversation. When you use threaded discussions, its possible to document ideas and thoughts and make them available for future students." ISIMs Parscal calls it "active" rather than "passive" learning. "Instead of information dumping you have information sharing," she says. At Graybar Electric Co. Inc., a leading manufacturer and distributor of telecommunications equipment based in St. Louis, distance learning has revolutionized the educational process. The 128-year-old employee-owned company -- once known as Western Electric -- has seamlessly migrated from chalkboard to Netscape. The company offers more than 250 courses online -- and 6,800 employees in 240 locations in North America, Central America, and Asia log on for training on products, distribution, manufacturing, customer service, and technical issues. Using software from UOL Publishing Inc., McLean, Va., Graybar has constructed a virtual campus thats on the cutting edge of the nascent distance-learning trend. "We are building a knowledge-based career-track organization, and the virtual classroom is the driver thats making it all possible," says John Teipen, Graybars director of training. When a worker decides to enroll in one of the firms courses, he or she is able to view the course syllabus online, click to specific lessons to get an idea of what the course entails, and then sign up electronically. The person then receives lessons and coursework online, takes tests, and advances to the next level. Its possible to study at home, at work, or while staying in a hotel room. Whats more, the system tracks and identifies employee skills. That not only allows trainers to reject those who lack the prerequisites for a course, it helps human resources maintain a database tracking knowledge within the organization. When a manager wants to fill a position from inside the company, its possible to view a list of qualified candidates instantly. Experts say that all this is just the beginning. Better bandwidth and more dependable dial-up access will usher in more sophisticated features and capabilities. Streaming video and audio will beef up the content of distance learning. Videoconferencing will allow group interaction on a more personal level. And elaborate multimedia -- involving everything from PowerPoint presentations to interactive Java-based applets -- will help ensure that students understand concepts and master coursework before advancing to the next level. "Distance learning represents the future of corporate education," says Hall. "Right now, its only in its infancy, but it has already proven its value."

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