Head of the class

E-learning has traditionally been reserved for teaching IT skills. However, the vendors are trying to expand their reach into business and soft skills training as well.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  October 27, 2002

I|~||~||~|While e-learning has long been accepted for teaching specialised and basic IT skills, companies have traditionally been sceptical about utilising it for non-IT subjects, such as business and communication skills. However, e-learning vendors are seeking to break into this area by touting e-learning’s flexibility and cost savings. Furthermore, they argue that using the full potential of modern technology makes e-learning more effective and enjoyable for staff than classroom-based training.

Business skills promises to be a large growth area for the e-learning industry, as it moves its focus from IT skills. IDC is predicting that the US corporate business skills training market alone will hit US$18.3 billion by 2006, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.3%.

This growth is being spurred by the general spread of IT skills throughout the workforce, as more staff have the skills needed to use e-learning. The spread of IT skills also means that the e-learning vendors need to find new markets, as there is less demand for basic IT literacy training.

“The need to educate end users in IT is now somewhat less than it was in the 1990’s, so the focus on non-IT skills is a natural development,” says Andre Hogan, director, NETg International.

There are already some users of e-learning in the region. For instance, Emirates Airlines has recently launched its own internal e-learning unit. In general though, it has not been widely adopted in the region. “Except for a few large business houses, we haven’t seen a concerted push towards e-learning,” admits Anil Kumar, CEO, Edutech.

However, the Middle East is not alone in its reluctance to adopt the new training method. A recent Vanson Bourne survey, for instance, showed that 65% of UK companies were also not using e-learning. The most commonly cited reason, 26%, for not having done so was a perception that staff preferred classroom-based courses.

Although many current employees might be nervous about using e-learning, this is probably due to their limited IT experience. This problem should therefore fade away as the next generation, which has more experience of using computers enters the workforce. “The generation that has been working for sometime didn’t get IT training at school,” notes Dr. Richard Straub, director, IBM Learning.

In the meantime, companies need to show leadership in order to get staff to accept e-learning. “It doesn’t always come automatically; we must sometimes drive people through certain experiences,” Straub contends.

This was done at IBM, where there was resistance to switching management training to an e-learning model. However, once staff experienced it, they enjoyed it and asked for more e-learning courses. According to Randa Ayoubi, CEO, Rubicon, a similar thing happened when a Middle East bank deployed an e-learning system. The HR department originally insisted on lots of monitoring tools, as they didn’t think the staff would use it otherwise. However, the system proved to be so popular that two months later time limits had to be imposed.

||**||II|~||~||~|The vendors contend that the main reason e-learning is popular among students is because of the greater flexibility it offers them. Instead of having to wait for a course to be scheduled at a convenient time, staff can access training whenever they need it. This means they can acquire new skills just before they need them, which is called ‘just-in-time’ learning.

Furthermore, as e-learning content is broken down into separate elements, students can study exactly what they need, depending on their individual skills and requirements. Instead of sitting through material presented in a sequential order in a classroom, the student can just cover the topics they need and skip the things they don’t require.
“You can link training objects together to create a learning path, which can vary from one learner to another,” explains Dr. Abdulla Al Karam, director of Dubai’s e-learning free zone, Knowledge Village.

Creating individual paths not only allows students to cover different topics, but also to study at different speeds. The quicker students can race through the course, while the others can pursue it at a slower pace. “[Students] can also repeat a piece of learning a number of times, which would be very difficult in a classroom environment,” adds Hogan.

E-learning can also be more effective than traditional teaching as the technology allows for an interactive approach using a greater variety of instruction methods, such as videos and interactive quizzes. Simulations are another core tool offered by e-learning, as they enable students to experience situations that cannot be created within the classroom.

“In the traditional learning environment, the trainee may never see a real [oil] refinery or part of a pump, but they can do that in the simulated world,” says Moyez Kassam, managing director, 21st Century Skills.

However, e-learning will never entirely replace classroom training for this kind of mechanical topic. While the preparation work can be done online, there is still a need for hands on training. “You cannot get the feel for it, unless you physically do it,” says Dr. Al Karam.

The blended physical/virtual approach also extends to the instruction of business skills. Best practices can be taught using e-learning, which can be then put into a real world context within the classroom environment.

The ability to do most of the learning anywhere at anytime is one of the major advantages of e-learning and a potential cost saving. The Hilton International, for instance, trains all of its staff worldwide through its online Hilton University, thereby preventing the need to pay for travel and accommodation in one central venue.

To help staff use the system, all Hilton hotels have their own training & development room with PCs, which staff can use to study courses whenever they want.
“We have made [the university] accessible in the hotels, but it is also accessible when staff are not in the office,” adds Benny Joseph, regional IT manager, Arabian Gulf, Hilton International.

“If staff are at home and they have a PC, they can log in with their name and password, and continue their studies,” he explains.

The online university allows the hotel chain to standardise its training worldwide. “When you go into a geographical region there are some changes, but generally speaking… the brand standard remains the same everywhere. That is one thing [all staff] are trained on,” says Joseph.

Consistency can also benefit companies with a less disparate workforce, as the e-learning content and its presentation will never change. “Once you have a good course that fits your organisation, it’s always a good course. It doesn’t depend on the facilitator or the instructor,” notes Hogan.

The Hilton’s courses, which include English, customer service training and other soft skills, are primarily targeted at middle managers, or those seeking to achieve that rank. This is a common approach as this level of the organisation has both the IT skills to use e-learning and the size to make it cost effective. “What corporates look at is mass employees. How they are going to get the benefits from middle management or potential managers,” says Janine Croft, alliances & partnership manager, professional education, Middle East, Pearson Education.

This though requires a general commitment to developing staff, using either e-learning or classroom training, which few companies in the region have demonstrated. “The concept of HR here is just timekeeping and payroll. Instead of saying what are our requirements over the next five years and how do we grow future managers and executives,” complains PJ Corum, managing director, Quality Assurance Group.

For companies that do decide to invest in e-learning courses, there is a need for a significant hosting infrastructure in order to make the content available to a large number of users. This can be done either in house or by outsourcing it to a data centre. The major vendors, such as NETg, offer outsourcing facilities and these allow companies to save on the infrastructure costs, as well as reducing the time and headaches associated with implementing a new system.

Worldwide, customers use both internal systems and outsourcing, but the latter tends to be marginally more successful. “I think it’s because it’s easier to set up,” says Hogan. “You don’t have the huge involvement of the whole infrastructure within your organisation to set it up and to implement it. It’s available with a click.”

||**||III|~||~||~|The infrastructure requirements for e-learning are generally quite big, as the programmes tend to include a huge amount of bandwidth-hogging video and flash animation. However, to access this remotely requires a good telecoms infrastructure, which is not always available in the region.

“In Saudi Arabia, corportates typically have quite good corporate intranets… whereas outside the corporates, the local telecom infrastructure is in need of improvement. So the use of the internet to deliver these types of solutions would only work within the corporate space,” says Hogan.

Aside from the inability to access content online, a lack of localised content may also be holding back e-learning within the Middle East. “What makes it a little bit harder is that much of the content is in English. It is not only the fear of using the technology, but the fear of jumping to another language,” contends Dr. Al Karam.

At present, there is very little Arabic e-learning content, although the amount available is being boosted by the region’s various e-government projects. However, some vendors question whether there will ever be a wide demand for Arabic content, given English’s dominance in the business sector.

For instance, Kassam notes that Aramco used to train staff in Arabic, but this left them unprepared for working in the field where they needed to communicate in English and use English documents. “This broke down their whole training programme, so they rapidly switched,” he says.

Kumar agrees that “[e-learning content] is still mostly in English, as most corporates are using English as their base language. The push towards Arabic content hasn’t been that heavy,” he adds.

However, there are companies that are developing Arabic content. For instance, Rubicon, which is part of the Jordan Technology Group, has more than 70 Arabic titles, covering areas such as banking, money laundering and business skills. It also develops customised courses to meet regional companies’ specific needs. According to Ayoubi, Rubicon’s CEO, the company is seeing a rising demand for purely Arabic content, even in GCC countries where it has traditionally sold bilingual packages to cater for the multinational workforce.

The regional trend towards nationalisation may also boost demand for Arabic content, as new employees with low skill levels need to be trained up to replace departing ex-pat workers. “With nationalisation you are taking people who couldn’t find jobs in their own countries and you are trying to develop them and put them in a [job]... These are the people who have the biggest lack of English, IT skills, professional and business skills, so, it’s going to be a huge market,” says Mohammed Hassoun, regional manager, MENA, Human Soft, which is beginning to translate NETg’s content into Arabic.

||**||IV|~||~||~|Despite this growing need for training, the deployment of e-learning may be resisted by corporate training managers who see it as a threat to their job. The problem of internal company politics is further compounded by the fact that e-learning involves both computers and training, so there may be conflict between the HR and IT department.
“If you don’t get the buy-in, organisational dynamics tend to pull down the whole [e-learning] project,” warns Kumar.

To overcome these change management issues, companies must use people from both departments to create one e-learning team. E-learning can also be sold to the training department as a means of reducing the amount of paperwork they do, as opposed to a means of replacing them. This requires a learning management system (LMS), which sits above the e-learning content and takes care of much of the training administration. At Hilton International, for instance, the HR department uses an LMS to measure staff performance, as well as to distribute content licences among the hotels. The LMS also creates the web portals that staff use to access the e-learning content.

The hotel chain developed its LMS and content in house, but the major ERP vendors, such as SAP and PeopleSoft, offer standalone LMSs. Trainers can also use these to design courses by selecting elements from different e-learning packages. LMSs can also be integrated with back end ERP apps so that HR records are automatically updated when employees successfully complete a course.

Despite these possibilities, LMSs have yet to take off among companies that have implemented e-learning system. One of the biggest impediments to their adoption is the lack of standards in the e-learning industry. This means that content from different vendors is difficult to link together and that LMSs cannot automatically identify the different elements of some e-learning packages.

Standards are now emerging — primarily the AICC (Aviation Industry Computer-based training Committee), which emerged out of the airlines, and the XML-based SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Model). Many older packages don’t comply with these standards, but the spread of standardisation across the industry should ease integration in the future.

“There’s still a lot of compliance issues, especially with legacy systems, but most of the people building content today are SCORM compliant,” says Kumar.||**||

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