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E-Learning For Short Attention Spans

The latest trend in e-learning: delivering short segments of training when and on what topics employees need them most. Benefits include increased productivity and reduced travel expenses, but content management approaches may have to change.

by Penny Lunt Crosman

It's 7:30 a.m., and a salesperson for a high-end electronics retailer has several house calls to make. One customer wants to consult on a new home theater, another would like a stereo for her Rolls Royce. Recalling that a third customer had a question about in-wall speakers, the salesperson logs on to the company's e-learning site, takes a refresher course on suitable speakers and heads off to a 9:30 appointment.

On-demand training is the latest trend in e-learning. Companies using e-learning technologies have found that long lectures don't cut it online. Short, targeted learning segments with simulation or how-to scenarios let employees take classes when they have time or when they need the help. It's far less disruptive than taking a week-long seminar.

But this approach comes with technological challenges. Who creates the content for this training model, which at times cuts instructors out of the picture? How do you store and manage thousands or millions of small training "objects"? How do you make sure people aren't just clicking through the segments as opposed to really learning something? Let's explore some of the nuances of the short-segment e-learning experience.

THE ABCs OF E-LEARNING

E-learning is training that takes place over the Web rather than in a physical classroom. E-learning technology comes in three major categories. Virtual classrooms replicate the teacher-student interaction of a classroom online. They usually combine Web conferencing, instant messaging, chat, whiteboards and application sharing. Learning content management systems (LCMSs) store and retrieve learning segments. Learning management systems (LMSs) handle administrative tasks, such as course enrollment, attendance, test scoring, reporting and grading.

These software tools used to be sold separately by different vendors, but market consolidation has resulted in a smaller number of vendors offering e-learning suites that contain most or all of these elements (see the Product Guide). Further convergence is bringing general-purpose content and collaboration tools into the e-learning space. For example, some companies base virtual classrooms on a plain-vanilla Web conferencing tools, such as Webex, Microsoft Live Meeting or Placeware. In fact, the most common use for Web conferencing software is e-learning, according to IDC analyst Michael Brennan. And generic CMSs can be used for learning content management, if the CMS vendor provides a way to integrate with e-learning authoring tools, such as Macromedia Flash, Dreamweaver or Authorware or Lectora Publisher. Alternatively, some LMSs provide connectors to systems from vendors, such as Documentum and FileNet so that while the coursework may be authored in an LCMS tool, it's ultimately stored in an enterprise CMS.

One benefit of using general-purpose document management or content management software to manage learning content is that documents and content can simultaneously be reused for learning and general use. You can build content once and make it available to instructional designers as well as the rest of the organization, saving time and effort. Good reusable content might be anything from technical specs to marketing brochure descriptions. Another benefit of using common software tools is that employees get familiar with one set of tools to do many things

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"You want to be able to use the same tool for a virtual classroom that you use for meetings or projects," says Elliott Masie, president of the Masie Center, an e-learning research, consulting and training firm based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "Ultimately, people want to just do their work - they don't want to think about what tool to reach for in the process."

In fact, a goal for some companies is "pervasive learning," whereby e-learning is such a natural part of each employee's desktop that they don't even realize they're doing it.

WHY E-LEARNING?

Approximately 80 percent of companies with 1,000 or more employees are currently creating and providing e-learning content for their workers, according to IDC. And e-learning software sales will grow 28 percent in 2004, Gartner predicts, far faster than the 7.5 percent growth it expects for IT spending in general.

Two good reasons to replace conventional classroom instruction with e-learning are that it reduces travel costs and time spent away from the job. At Circuit City, sales associates used to receive an average of 200 training hours per year. After rolling out e-learning, training dropped to 60 hours per year, yet associates were selling many more products, according to James Lundy, a Gartner analyst.

"You can do more in a shorter amount of time and you can train many people all at once," Lundy says. "This makes e-learning ideal for product rollouts and the new processes you need to [support] them. It can help improve time to market."

E-learning can help get new hires up to speed quickly, particularly at a location that has more new employees than seasoned veterans. It can be used to meet compliance needs, by rapidly training large staffs on new regulations.

A combination of geographic, deadline and compliance issues drove Geisinger Health System toward e-learning. Geography was a challenge because the system's hospitals and health-care centers are spread throughout 38 Pennsylvania counties covering 22,000 miles.

"A lot of our training was held at our two main hospitals in face-to-face classroom sessions," explains Jack Latshaw, assistant director of technical education. "Travel to one of these sites can involve a two-hour drive. The lost productivity is expensive when you're dealing with physicians, nurses and medical technologists."

These caregivers have limited discretionary time, he says, and they don't have the luxury of blocking off time for training. But occasionally a 10- or 30-minute block of time frees up when a patient cancels.

Geisinger's biggest challenge is providing, tracking and reporting on mandatory training. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act introduced tough requirements for education about patient privacy rights. HIPAA doesn't spell out how to train employees or what to train them on, but it requires health-care providers to be trained sufficiently to be able to answer any question on patient rights, and regulators spot-check for compliance.

Geisinger has developed a one-hour HIPAA 101 class for employees that goes over basic rules and regulations in real-life scenarios, such as: the patient is in the hallway with a friend, you walk by, you're on duty, what can you say and not say? Geisinger has created advanced HIPAA 501 courses for specific jobs, such as receptionist, doctor and nurse. Over the past 18 months, all 8,500 employees have taken the required training, for a total of 120,000 online course completions.

"The bottom line is we're heavily regulated, and the ability to demonstrate compliance is where we get our return on investment, although it's a soft return and you can't put always a dollar amount on it," Latshaw says.

Although the program has been successful, the organization is implementing new software from Pathlore that doesn't follow an academic model that assumes that an instructor monitors students' progress, assigns work, records grades and interacts with students. Pathlore uses a corporate, self-paced training model, in which employees can log on to the training when they have time. This will work better with caregivers' tight schedules and with OSHA and Department of Health requirements for reports on safety training. It will allow managers to see at a glance how their staffs are coming along with the training and who needs to be nudged along so that the team can meet its annual training deadlines.

SHORT AND SWEET

Experienced e-learning practitioners have found that it's better to shorten the lessons into digestible bites and deliver them to employees' desktops so they can apply their new knowledge right away. Employees may even access an e-learning segment while they're in the middle of a customer interaction or transaction.

E-learning on demand can make employees more self-reliant. "If I know where to find something, then I don't need to know it all," says Masie. "It takes the emphasis away from memorization and moves it toward familiarization. As e-learning matures, users are less interested in taking courses and more interested in having knowledge at their fingertips."

The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) is experimenting with the lengths of online and conventional classroom sessions for credit union employees. There were originally six two-hour live sessions along with 90-minute Web seminars.

"We've been talking about shortening those Web seminar timeframes as research indicates that folks' attention spans are shorter," says Marlo Foltz, director of market development. To retain students' interest, instructional designers are asked to incorporate activities or exercises, such as quick polls or having students draw or write on whiteboards, every three to five minutes.

The impetus for e-learning came after Sept. 11, 2001, when the association saw a dramatic decrease in attendance at in-person training events. Two months later, CUNA began offering Web seminars and e-schools. Today the association offers a mix of e-learning and classroom segments. The online portions use case study simulations built in Macromedia Flash. Back in the live classroom, students are debriefed on the exercises they did on their own.

One result of shorter e-learning segments has been that graduates appear to have higher retention levels. Foltz believes this is because students get to learn a new skill, apply it and then go on to the next skill, rather than being overwhelmed with information over three to five days.

QUALITY CONTENT AND SIMULATIONS

Another aid in keeping students engaged is making sure the learning content is useful and interesting. "If there's anything that will cause a program to fail, it's not making the investment in content," Lundy says. Recycled PowerPoint slides or classroom materials converted to HTML do not constitute high-quality e-learning content. "You have to make it entertaining and captivating—make people want to pay attention to it."

A good way to start out is to outsource the first series of courses to a third-party developer that has a proven track record in e-learning content development. After that, a business process owner can recruit internal subject-matter experts to articulate the information or skills required for the training. Drafts can be created using lightweight tools, such as Trivantis' Lectora Publisher or even Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. Then give the drafts to instructional designers to make eye-catching, interactive and polished presentations using more advanced tools.

At the highest level of sophistication with the greatest coolness factor, is simulation software that mimics tasks a person would do on the job, but in a risk-free setting. "Companies are looking at ways for people to practice and fail without consequences," says Masie. "As the younger, gaming generation enters the workforce, we need to make it more like gaming." Video and animation is compelling, but Masie says the point is to give people the chance to try things in a simulated world to see if they succeed.

Some companies are creating hard-coded, independent simulation applications or environments within which people can create their own scenarios. One of the oldest, most widely used tools is RoboDemo, recently acquired by Macromedia. This tool lets users create and annotate screen shots and build software simulations

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Simulation helps prevent employees from just clicking through online training. It forces participants to apply certain principles in realistic settings so they can't fake it.

THE CONTENT CHALLENGE

Storing and managing large numbers of simulation and other e-learning content components can be a technical challenge, especially if you're trying to create e-learning materials that are reusable objects that can be repurposed from one class to another.

"Reusability is one of the benefits of a LCMS," says Lundy of Gartner. "Not everybody does it - there are still stovepipe training groups in a lot of companies, but the smarter ones get the reuse thing."

One company that "gets it" is Dow Chemical, which has a huge global e-learning program, Learn@dow, that delivers 1,400 courses with 380,000 course completions per year. But managing and sharing massive amounts of learning content is an ongoing struggle. "Content is always king - you have to be able to deliver content - but the infrastructure is God," Walker says. "The only reason the king exists is because God, she lets him exist. It's true with brick-and-mortar training, and it's even more true for e-learning."

One of Dow's challenges is the unwieldy task of managing and maintaining 55 million learning objects. Walker hopes that a large technology provider will emerge and offer a large-scale, robust e-learning platform that will easily accommodate its volume of material and provide better uptime than the 96 percent to 97 percent reliability their current system provides. He'd also like a system that will let e-learning staff manage updates of learning objects, rather than requiring a database administrator to do it.

Being able to store and reuse learning components is particularly important for compliance training; certain rules apply to all employees around the world, while others, such as construction safety policies, change from country to country.

Like other companies, Dow finds it difficult keeping content up to date - deleting the learning objects that are completely obsolete and updating those that are slightly aged. Walker compares his collection of 55 million learning objects to an overgrown garden.

"Eventually the nutrients run out of the ground and weeds take over, and it's a lot harder to retill the soil and determine which are the vegetables and which are weeds," he says. "No tools exist to help with that." While database technology can handle the objects, there's no GUI to manage them.

One thing Dow has done that's helped infrastructure-wise has been to standardize e-learning technology as much as possible to fit with companywide hardware and software standards known as the "Dow workstation." For example, the only streaming technology used in Learn@dow will run on Windows Media Player. The company sticks to the SCORM (Sharable Courseware Object Reference Model) standards, which enable Web-based learning systems to find, import, share, reuse and export learning content in a standardized way.

COLLABORATION IS CRITICAL

If you're not careful, what can get lost in the transition from classroom training sessions to short e-learning segments are the teacher-student and student-student interactions that help make abstract or confusing concepts clear. Collaboration tools, such as chat, instant messaging and application sharing can help fill that gap.

CUNA has always considered collaboration a cornerstone of its learning programs for credit union employees. "One of our main goals was to make sure that when folks come to a class, they're not just being lectured to," says Foltz. "They should be fully engaged, whether it's with case study work, small group teams or other techniques."

When the organization was exploring e-learning tools, "we wanted to find a tool that would provide us with the same types of interactions that we'd have in a traditional face-to-face setting." The chosen solution, IBM's Lotus Workplace Collaborative Learning (hosted by ASP Berbee), provides a virtual classroom, Web conferencing, whiteboard boards, polling capabilities, a screen sharing mechanism and the ability to group people into small teams or chat groups. Students instant message and network with each other throughout the process, and they make heavy use of the whiteboard and polling. The same collaboration tools used in e-learning are also used for internal staff meetings and board meetings.

BATTLING RESISTANCE

One hurdle in e-learning is cultural resistance from employees who have a sense of entitlement to weeklong, offsite training programs. Some older workers also fear using a computer in general, let alone taking courses on it.

"In today's world with so many people being raised with computers, I was surprised by how many people still have not adopted computer technology in their work and life," says Latshaw of Geisinger Health System. A hospital has employees from all walks of life, from brain surgeons to triage nurses to janitors, and some workers have little need for computers. Latshaw has addressed computer ignorance with a good supporting training program - a series of basic computer classes with one-on-one mentoring available. Computers were also made available in every exam room, doctor's office, nurse's station and break room.

In some cases, instructors fight the migration to e-learning. "They have a fear of the unknown and the opinion that there's no way you can beat good classroom instruction," Lundy says. Getting past this obstacle is a management issue. Instructors might be given a choice to move to e-learning or other options.

Another common ordeal is getting subject-matter experts to contribute e-learning content. "It's like pulling teeth," Latshaw says. The key is to have a structured process in which instructional designers work with subject matter experts to obtain the salient points the training should cover, then turn it into workable learning bites

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