E-learning cuts costs

Although plagued by issues such as low bandwidth and poor Internet connectivity, companies in the Middle East are gradually warming up to the idea of using e-learning solutions to re-skill their employees. Meanwhile, IT vendors have stepped in to offer “integrated” learning solutions. Windows takes an in-depth look at the Gulf’s e-learning scene.

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By  Vijaya George Published  March 31, 2002

I|~||~||~|Information Technology has reduced the shelf life of our skills. With shorter business cycles, faster product roll-outs, and surprise mergers and acquisitions becoming the norm in today’s knowledge-driven, e-business market, our current skills are rapidly becoming outdated. Companies in the region have begun to realise that they must provide their employees with an ongoing learning environment to re-skill themselves or upgrade their skills regularly if they are to maintain a competitive edge in the market against multi-national companies. Unlike before, however, they do not need to look far out to the West or Europe to resolve this issue anymore. There is a profitable, pragmatic and productive solution in the guise of Electronic learning.

E-learning primarily refers to the delivery of educational content and learning services, through the Internet, to a user. However, the term has also come to include technology-based training (TBT), and the delivery of educational content through CD-ROMs and any computer network such as the Internet as well as a company’sIintranet. Companies are using e-learning successfully for tasks such as educating their sales people worldwide about a new product, briefing employees after a merger and educating business partners and colleagues on new systems. On a long term basis, companies are also using e-learning to train their employees at regular intervals.

According to market research agency International Data Corporation (IDC), e-learning is projected to grow at the rate of 83% a year over the next three years and worldwide revenues in the corporate e-learning market are expected to surpass $23 billion by the year 2004. Of that, the US corporate market alone will account for more than $11 billion by 2003. Research agency Gartner Group adds that by 2003, at least 60% of leading organisations in the US would have deployed ubiquitous learning platforms. Thanks to the availability of sophisticated delivery models, access to high bandwidth and efficient Internet connections, organisations in the US have been able to exploit the full potential of e-learning and use a combination of instructor-led training, Intranet, Internet and other technology-delivered methods to skill and re-skill their employees.

||**||II|~||~||~|The Middle East has not attained such high levels of sophistication yet, but the poor rate of Internet penetration and low bandwidth have also not deterred companies and academia in the region from exploring the possibilities of using e-learning.

Limited bandwidth, for instance, may restrict a company from using video conferencing to brief its sales channel on a new product that it is launching. But it does not stop it from using e-learning in other ways such as loading tutorials for essential applications such as Microsoft Office and accounting tools on its Intranet, which employees can access at their convenience and learn at their own pace. Although these courses may be available from a vendor on the Web, loading them on the Intranet resolves bandwidth issues. Saudi Aramco, Qatar Telecommunications, many banks, shipping companies and universities in the region are reported to have deployed e-learning solutions on their Intranet to train employees.

Such growing interest in e-learning courses and solutions from companies in the Middle East have lured foreign e-learning companies such as Smart Force (www.smartforce.com), Element K (www.elementk.com) and Blackboard (www.blackboard.com) to come in and set up local offices here. These vendors have ready-made Web courses on topics ranging from business, technology and finance to improving your home and interpersonal skills. Most of these courses are skills-based and are available to individuals as well as the corporate sector. For the corporate sector, however, vendors work out different arrangements by which customised e-learning solutions and courses are developed. Moreover, hosting services are provided as well for companies that have developed their courses in-house.

Individuals who want to take a course need to go to the vendor’s Web site and pay for the course with a credit card. The system will then generate an access code or user name and password with which you can access the course at your convenience. There may be a time period within which you have to complete your course. For instance, Smart Force allows you a time period of one year to complete a course. To counter piracy, the company also ensures that a user can download only one section of a course at a time. When you have completed one section, you have to upload it before you can download the next. For individuals and small-to-medium business companies, this is a cost-effective way to upgrade their skills.

||**||III|~||~||~|Cost-effective e-courses, in short, are what most individuals and small-to-medium businesses need today if they have to upgrade their skills regularly. Sun Microsystems, which plans to launch its e-learning platform in the region shortly, claims that it is this realisation that initiated the development of its Web Learning Centre. Shane Carlson, regional manager, Education Services, Sun Microsystems Middle East & Africa (MEA) explains that this was especially relevant to Sun’s MEA zone because it included countries which had the highest certification pass rates worldwide although it had very low per capita income and insufficient number of training centres. This, in turn, compelled people to pay for travel and accommodation as well if they wanted to attend training classes. However, when Sun made its courses available online, expenditure reduced drastically.

“The cost of an Instructor-led training (ILT) course could be anything from $2000 upwards. Our Web Learning Centre (WLC) courses are around $150-$200,” says Carlson. He does not deny the importance of class-room interaction but “for many, the financial benefit of this solution is too good to resist. The student gets the benefit of authorised training from the source with prices normally associated with unauthorised grey market training.” While Sun recommends its WLC as a cost-effective e-learning solution for individuals and SMBs, it touts its LearnTone Management System as a befitting solution for larger enterprises with over 1000 users.

Like Sun, IBM has also ventured into the e-learning market with its Mindspan and LearningSpace solutions. The vendor, however, admits that at this stage, it is still working towards creating more awareness about e-learning in the region. “IBM has every piece of the jigsaw when it comes to e-learning right from providing content if the client needs it, to planning, upgrading and deploying solutions,” says David Warren, learning services manager, IBM. He says Big Blue addresses the needs of all organisations, whether it is “a big oil company or a small bank, a large university or a small school.”

For small companies with limited budgets, Warren recommends an easy-to-use e-learning solution called Web Lecture from IBM. If a small pharmaceutical company, for instance, wants to train the rest of its branches in the Middle East about a new medicine in the market, it can create a presentation in Power Point, which IBM’s technology will capture and convert into an audio-visual Web Lecture. Staff members can access the lecture by visiting the relevant URL. To make the training more effective and give companies value for their money, IBM provides built-in surveys, testing methods, detailed statistics and reports as well.
IBM is not just selling e-learning solutions to the rest of the world. In 1999, the company tapped into its own technologies and developed Basic Blue — an online management training programme using Lotus LearningSpace — to train its 30,000 plus managers scattered across 50 countries. The 26-week programme, which combines Web-based learning, simulations, and collaboration with traditional face-to-face learning labs, is said to have saved the company $24 million in just the year 2000.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Like IBM, Cisco has also attempted to sell e-learning solutions to countries in the region but the takers are very few. Having deployed it successfully in its own organisation worldwide to train employees, Cisco has reason to believe that e-solutions will work wonders for companies in the region. In just one instance of training its worldwide Enterprise Content Delivery Network (ECDN) sales team on its new content networking strategy, products, and solutions, Cisco saved itself $600,000. Ordinarily, the company had considered flying all its 300 members to Florida, Orlando for a week’s training. Expenses would include a rental fee for the training venue, airfare to Orlando, and a week of hotel accommodation, food, auto rentals and more for 300 employees. This would have cost Cisco $750,000. Instead, the company decided to deliver a live, four day, training broadcast via its IP/TV broadcast servers in March 2001. An estimated 500 to 700 simultaneous IP-based broadcast video streams were run per day, with a total viewing audience of nearly 2000 Cisco employees worldwide. E-learning reduced Cisco’s expenditure, and 2000 of its employees were trained instead of 300.

However, an exercise such as Cisco’s would have collapsed in the Middle East for lack of necessary infrastructure and bandwidth to carry out such extensive live broadcasts. Rather, internal e-learning methods, such as those conducted over the Intranet, are currently one of the more broadly-used modes for content delivery in the region. And each company uses it to different degrees. While some rely only on the courses themselves, others combine it with instructor-led training to make it more effective. Maroun Naser, area academy manager of Cisco Networking Academy Programme, MENA and Pakistan cites the example of a regional telecommunications provider that has over 1000 employees. The company sent a small team of its staff for training to a Cisco-training centre in the UK for instructor-led training courses. Those staff members returned and helped train the rest of the members in the company through the Intranet. Those who needed clarifications could go to the people who had got hands-on experience in the UK.

This kind of e-learning gives companies greater control over the skills that their employees acquire. Satish Kumar, channel sales manager, Smart Force, Dubai explains: “Most companies are looking for a ‘corporate university’ i.e. in-house training, where they have control over skills transfer and their employees. They want competency-based training, where they want an employee to learn only as much as is relevant to his job.” To ensure this, courses are loaded onto the Intranet and a tracking system is put in place to generate a progress report on each employee giving details about how many times he has accessed the course, what percentage of it has been completed, the time taken to complete the course and more. Although such intentions may sound dubious, Kumar explains that this ensures that the company is getting a good return on its investments and its employees are acquiring the necessary skills.

||**||V|~||~||~|Working with more non-profit intentions in mind are universities in the region, who are considering e-learning as a means to supplement classroom education, offer distance education to local students as well as “continuing education” to corporate professionals who want to upgrade their skills. Among these, the prime concern among universities is the critical need to offer their courses online and encourage their students to get comfortable with technology. In an attempt to emphasise the significance of e-learning in higher education and promote its cause, the UAE University will be hosting a two-day symposium including workshops for all the GCC countries at Al Bustan Rotana Hotel, Dubai on May 12 and 13. “This is an effort on the part of the Ministry of Higher Education and the universities to implement the infrastructure and resources needed to advance e-learning in the country,” says Dr. Khaled Kamel, Dean of the College of IT, UAE University. UAE University began its e-learning initiative last year and has since aimed at implementing four courses on the Web each semester. “But there will come a time, when the course will become available offline and on the Web simultaneously,” promises Kamel.

Universities in the region have also begun to realise that collaborative efforts might prove more efficient than independent attempts to put up each course on the Web. “We are not talking about just posting courses on the Internet,” says Kamel. “This does not give instructors and students the benefit of the new learning environment. This new method requires interactive learning tools. But it is a waste of resources for each university to do it on its own. Instead, if we can pool our efforts, we’ll achieve better results faster.” Having realised this, UAE University, the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) and Zayed University have started a joint project, whereby, they will develop an online course on Business Basics and make it available to students of all the three universities by the end of the year. Kamel cautions that this is a pilot project. “If it works, we’ll have more such projects in future.”

Another pilot project has been introduced at a more elementary level by Microsoft in Al Mawakeb school, Dubai. A part of the school’s Web site runs on Microsoft’s Encarta Class Server, enabling parents to log in and check on their children’s progress reports and pending home works making the learning process more efficient.

Most IT vendors like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco have been eager to work with schools and universities in the region, providing the necessary infrastructure or offering their certification courses as part of the curriculum. “We have e-enabled all our courses,” explains Saeid Marashi, HRD manager, Microsoft Gulf. “And the cost benefits are enormous. An MS certification track that costs $600 offline costs only $150 online.” Most of these certification courses were modified to cater to the Web a year earlier and are available through their network academies and certified technical education centres (CTEC) such as ExecuTrain and New Horizons.

New Horizons had only instructor-led classes previously. Early this year, it launched other modes of content delivery as well such as Online Live, a virtual classroom where students log onto the Net at scheduled times and are given remote instructor-based training, and Web-based learning, where application, technical and certification courses, and management titles are available for self-study. “Even our Web-based curriculum for each certification course is approved by the respective vendors and conforms to their certification,” explains Nadeem Younis, general manager, New Horizons, UAE. And to make education more flexible, Younis explains that New Horizons has bundled instructor-led training with the Web and that some companies are using this integrated learning method to train their staff. “But in contrast to ILT, Web acceptance is very low, especially among individuals,” he rues.

||**||VI|~||~||~|One chief reason for low acceptance of the Web and e-learning methodologies is the cultural barrier. Kamel explains that traditionally, people are used to classroom education. It will, therefore, take time for them to make the transition to a new learning environment. Moreover, e-learning demands a great deal of discipline from the individual to work towards self-study. In a corporate environment, this comes more easily as it is supervised. Also, there is a great demand for Arabic content courses in the region and most vendors and training centres are working towards making this available. Eventually, such challenges are expected to be met.

However, a more pressing issue demands attention — the issue of bandwidth has frustrated both the academic and corporate sector. Kamel speaks on behalf of the UAE’s academic sector. “In the UAE, there is a single company that coordinates and provides communication services. They may be the best in the region providing this but the bandwidth that we need to modernise and provide for our educational requirements is far beyond the current plans of Etisalat.” According to Kamel, things to be considered are joint initiatives between the higher education and Etisalat or private offerings of bandwidth or the possibilities of satellite connection.

“What is needed is a comprehensive, high bandwidth between all the universities and adequate bandwidth to the Internet as well. This is a big initiative but it has been done in other countries, where a supernet connects the higher education facilities. And it is necessary because at the end of the day, although our philosophies are different, we work towards a common cause,” he says.
The corporate sector has had mixed views about bandwidth. Most IT vendors operating in the region agree that current bandwidth and Internet connectivity leave much to be desired. However, Marnie Gracey, vice president of development and operation, Element K, Middle East disagrees. “Dubai especially has good Internet connection. It is a misconception that the bandwidth is very low. 28.8 k modem connections are good enough for e-learning. Moreover, high connectivity lines such as ISDN are readily available to companies operating outside Dubai Internet City as well,” she explains. In Saudi Arabia, she explains that the country has “good lines internally” but owing to the government’s strict monitoring procedures, any flow of data to or from servers outside the country takes time to download.

Element K is working around this problem in Saudi Arabia by having a web site set up exclusively for the country’s residents. Course content will be hosted within the Kingdom, thereby, reducing connectivity problems. Meanwhile, telecommunication monopolies in the region are aware that they must buck up to keep pace with the rest of the world and will be compelled to take steps to put the right infrastructure in place.

For now, the challenges faced by the region compel vendors to tout “integrated” and “blended” learning methods, which use a combination of instructor-led training and e-learning. Even this may have only a few takers presently. Nevertheless, the fact that two big markets, namely the corporate sector and academic institutions are working towards implementing e-learning models reassures us that e-learning is here to stay, even if it is only as an “integrated” solution.||**||

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