Changing culture paves way for e-learning

With tightening budgets and the continual skills shortage, e-learning has obvious potential benefits for businesses. Training people over the Internet keeps employees at their desks, and introduces a flexible learning environment, ultimately saving both time and money.

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  October 28, 2001

Changing Culture|~||~||~|With tightening budgets and the continual skills shortage, e-learning has obvious potential benefits for businesses. Training people over the Internet keeps employees at their desks, and introduces a flexible learning environment, ultimately saving both time and money.

Well at least that’s the theory, however e-learning has been slow to take off in the region, but e-learning vendors including SmartForce and IBM are claiming that the culture towards virtual learning is changing as companies and employees become more receptive and embrace e-learning.

“What is happening is the culture is changing, its becoming more like a process, so everybody learns every day for 30 minutes or an hour depending on the kind of skills set,” says Satish Kumar, channel sales manager, SmartForce, Middle East. “It saves them [companies] costs, in terms of travel, but it also brings in the concept of self-learning.”

As well changing attitudes towards learning methods, SmartForce also cites a shift in the type of training and courses provided online. IT-related courses designed for IT workers have previously been seen as the core content for e-learning applications.

“Over the last two years we went from being 90% IT training to about 60% IT and 40% business and inter-personal skills,” explains Conor Twomey, e-Learning designer, SmartForce Global Services.

“The nature of e-learning is that all the technical people jumped on it first [because] they were comfortable with it, and as it has become more user-friendly and accessible you’re now getting the broader population taking advantage of it,” he adds.

SmartForce is also anticipating that business and interpersonal courses will become more predominant over the next couple of years as the shift away from IT courses continues and the use of online learning becomes more accepted in mainstream business.

SmartForce is not alone in anticipating the development of the e-learning market. With the release of its Lotus LearningSpace 5.0, IBM is making similar claims that the need for enhanced knowledge delivered quickly and efficiently is fuelling the regional Internet learning market.

“In a competitive market knowledge is critical,” says Terry Burt, general manager, Lotus, Middle East, North Africa & Pakistan. “Learning equals employee satisfaction, which ensures customer satisfaction.”

Ensuring customer satisfaction and loyalty also requires fresh ideas, and according to Burt this is where e-learning can fit in, keeping staff up-to-date and fully trained with regard to any new company initiatives.

LearningSpace 5.0 is part of IBM’s ‘Mindspan’ strategy, and provides users with virtual classrooms and chat facilities, so users can learn in real-time. The virtual classroom includes features such as a white board, question & answer facilities, e-mail, and chat mechanisms enabling interaction between those involved.

||**||Arabic content|~||~||~|SmartForce is also entering the market with its Global Learning Management System (LMS), which is a ‘behind-the-firewall’ intranet learning solution that enables users to develop, track and manage learning processes. According to SmartForce, the solution is already generating a lot of interest regionally.

“Some of the factors that are really attractive about Global LMS are: true mulit-language support, third party content support, a complete web-based solution and strong competency management,” says Jamal Khalfan Al Howaireb, director of www.sheikhmohammed.co.ae.

According to Al Howaireb, Dubai IT Academy and Emirates Venture Group are in the final stages of discussions with SmartForce concenring a partnership agreement for GLMS.

Key to ensuring the success of the e-learning solutions in the region, however, is the support of Arabic content. “GLMS is Arabic compliant, so that means we can now start getting Arabic language courses built,” explains SmartForce’s Twomey.

IBM is also looking to develop its use of Arabic content within the LearningSpace platform.

“We have a partner in Egypt that is developing content in Arabic,” adds Burt. “We are also looking at the content elements that can be Arabised very quickly.”

Although the e-learning vendors are addressing the needs of the regional market, according to Twomey, Middle East companies are keen to play a proactive role in the actual development of content.

“We provide the templates that allow people to build their own content. There seems to have been more interest in the Middle East in that, than in us building it for them,” explains Twomey. “They’re saying give us the tools, the technique, the methodologies, the [development] processes and we’ll do it ourselves, which is interesting.”

However, despite all the hype and vendors extolling the virtues of e-learning, the market is still going to struggle to generate business. Research group Ovum reports that e-learning will account for only 20% of the £650 million UK training market in 2004.

“Enterprises demand that ‘pure’ e-learning content be priced lower than traditional forms of teaching; but e-learning content is costly to develop and maintain. This has serious profitability issues for IT training and companies looking to develop their own content,” explains Anthony Miller, analyst, Ovum.

However, this doesn’t necessarily indicate failure for the likes of IBM and SmartForce. “The only successful companies will be the big, global players which can cater to a mass audience on a large scale and niche players creating bespoke e-learning content,” adds Miller.||**||

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