Train the E-Learning Way

May 8, 2003
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As companies continue to keep a watchful eye on the budget, e-learning is one option for creating a happy marriage between continuous training for employees and a fatter wallet for management.

Electronic Learning, or e-learning, simply refers to training sessions or educational courses delivered electronically. It could be courses delivered through a CD-ROM, for example, or it could involve a live "virtual classroom," facilitated by a teacher interacting with students via the Internet or a satellite feed. Today, however, e-learning is increasingly associated with Web-based courseware -- educational courses that are developed in advance and then delivered via the Internet -- enabling users to take courses at their own pace, at any time of day or night.

Why e-learning?
It is sometimes difficult to select the right format to de-liver learning initiatives to an audience. Here are a few guidelines for choosing Web-based e-learning as the mode of training delivery. Consider e-learning if:

  • The target audience is large enough to justify the initial expense needed to create materials that will not require an instructor. As a general rule, an e-learning target audience should be at least 200 people.
  • The target audience is geographically dispersed with varied work schedules.
  • The content lends itself to knowledge, comprehension, understanding and application.
  • Consistency of delivery is of paramount importance -- introducing variables increases costs.
  • Some of the above conditions exist and there is a desire for fast delivery and low costs.

Six Sigma
Recently, a large aerospace manufacturer developed a seven-lesson Six Sigma training course for its employees. The course, designed to help improve overall efficiency and product quality, was implemented with the following business objectives:

  • Provide participants with the necessary skills and knowledge needed to apply Six Sigma and lean manufacturing principles and methodologies in their respective projects and work areas.
  • Reduce the time required for training.
  • Create learning units that can be used again and again, helping to leverage the company's investment.
  • Reduce the cost of training by decreasing travel expenses, food expenses and time away from work.
  • Increase the number of trained employees to better meet customer needs and improve customer satisfaction.
  • Provide training when it is needed: just in time.

Armed with these objectives, the manufacturer determined that Web-based e-learning would be its delivery method of choice.

Selecting a single training or educational project for e-learning delivery can be a good start, but it will not help create an effective e-learning strategy. The best strategy for e-learning is to think big, start small and build fast.

Think big means considering the whole enterprise. Consider the Six Success Factors-people, business, technology, learning, marketing and creative -- and think about how they might apply to the enterprise overall. Start small. Determine a budget for the first e-learning project or pilot. Remember, for an initial foray into e-learning, keep the scope small so it is easier to complete.

Finally, build fast. Don't overbuild or overdesign the project, or it may never see the light of day. It is a lot easier to get a smaller budget approved and then show early successes to generate enthusiasm. Learn from successes or mistakes and apply them on a larger scale.

Remember the bottom line. An e-learning initiative should improve the performance of the organization by providing training and education more effectively than it has been done before. How will the return on investment and the overall effectiveness of the e-learning strategy be measured?

Thinking big
The aerospace manufacturer used the think big, start small and build fast approach. Starting with some "think big" planning, the company determined that the Web-based e-learning program it envisioned would cover general concepts and factual knowledge about Six Sigma principles. The curriculum already existed but was taught via traditional classroom training.

The classroom curriculum was divided into three different courses. The Orientation course assessed the participants' current knowledge and provided an introduction to Six Sigma and lean manufacturing processes. The Basic course consisted of an overview of Six Sigma and lean manufacturing processes, project roles and approach, team dynamics and process documentation tools. The Advanced course reviewed the course content, tested and awarded Six Sigma certification to the e-learners.

Starting small, the aerospace manufacturer began its Web-based adventure by converting its Basic course, made up of 20 modules, including general Six Sigma/lean processing concepts such as project roles, project approaches, team dynamics and process documentation tools, into Web-based courses. The e-leaning course replaced the existing classroom-training curriculum -- which traditionally required three days of employee time -- and enabled e-learners to take courses at their own pace. By starting small, the company built a repeatable and predictable framework for converting the rest of its curriculum to the Web-based medium.

The aerospace manufacturer also wanted to build fast to get its Web-based courses up and running quickly. It realized that, in order to meet the specified timeframe and fulfill business objectives, outsourcing to the right e-learning provider was important. The firm needed a provider with an experienced staff and the right tools and technology that could make the transition to the Web-based medium a success.

Content is at the core of every successful e-learning initiative. So what type of content makes engaging and effective e-learning courseware? The aerospace manufacturer's Six Sigma course recipe required a mix of solid instructional design, world-class creative concepts and proven technology. Such a combination of elements can make an e-learning program come to life.

Solid instructional design. Instructional design is the structuring of learning so that the target audience can get the most from the course. Use experienced instructional designers or choose a partner that has expertise in creating an instructionally sound e-learning program to minimize costs and maximize the impact of the learning initiative. Outsourcing to the right provider at the right time, and not endeavoring to do everything in-house can have its advantages. The large aerospace manufacturer, for example, hired an e-learning provider with the staff and expertise necessary to accomplish both business and instructional goals.

World-class creative concepts. The first impression of a course is formed by the emotional look and feel that its graphics and layout convey. If corners are cut, everyone will notice and learner motivation will suffer. A course's graphic design should not only be relevant to the content and audience, but also should extend a company's brand.

Functional technology. Test the technology that will be used to develop and deliver the Web-based courseware. Consider relying on the provider's experience and knowledge to choose and implement the right technology for course delivery and creation.

Consider a few questions most good providers will ask: Will the e-learning program be delivered via a fast connection, such as the company's intranet, or will participants use slower, dial-up modems to access the course? What Web browsers will the audience use? Does the content require users to be tested to ensure they meet minimum standards?

The aerospace manufacturer is developing several Six Sigma e-learning courseware lessons and plans to test the program with hundreds of employees to ensure that it will be successful with a larger, more broadly disbursed audience. After achieving a successful pilot, the company will be able to reuse parts of the basic course in both its orientation and advanced courses.

Technical framework
Technology is such a big part of e-learning that it deserves a closer look. To complete the strategic planning, look at more than just the technology required for an individual course, and create a technical framework that can develop and deliver e-learning across an enterprise. This technical framework can be divided into four broad categories:

Select the right tools. When determining which technological tool set will be best for the e-learning program, think big and look beyond just the first course and think of what might be needed as subsequent courses are developed. Examine effective tools to use over the life of several courses. Some tools might help create the initial coursework content, but may cause problems later if the course is modified.

Development tools should also be selected with an eye toward the later cost of updating course content. Frequently, the benefits of e-learning are weighed against the initial cost. But the advantage of low initial costs can be overshadowed if maintaining course content is difficult or costly.

Employ a strategy for reusing content. Reusing existing content in different educational courses or situations is an emerging strategy. As an e-learning course is being developed, consider how its existing graphics, animations, pages of content, topics, modules or even a whole course might be reused for different audiences and different situations. Consider how to best archive and later, find those pieces for reuse.

The aerospace manufacturer, for example, used a systematic approach to build its initial Web-based course and later reused parts of its Basic course in producing its Advanced course. The company used a predictable and structured reusability approach to quickly convert the rest of its existing classroom training to a Web-based medium.

Learning Content Management Systems (LCMSs) are new tools on the e-learning scene. Built specifically to allow for reuse of content, an LCMS can also provide an enterprise-level development environment. Developers, authors and subject-matter experts from throughout an enterprise can share and reuse content. This concept drives down costs, shortens time to market and reduces opportunities for defects.

Delivery of e-learning. Delivery is as important as development. To deliver content on an enterprise level, consider a cataloging and tracking application known as a Learning Management System (LMS). The main objective of an LMS is to manage learners and learning events and to collate data on learner progress. In other words, the LMS manages the events leading up to the actual learning and then collates the total results of what happened in the course. The most robust technical framework includes an LCMS for developing and reusing your content and an LMS for cataloging and launching it to the end user.

Use e-learning specialists. When designing an e-learning technical framework, it is usually best to work with experts who specialize in technologies specific to e-learning. Such technologies can help cut costs and position an enterprise for the future. Many technology generalists may not be aware of these e-learning technologies-even if they already work extensively with the Web. To be successful, outsource to a provider that you know and trust.

Build a profit center. Traditionally, training has been looked upon as a cost. Some organizations may catch the vision, but lose steam when it comes to funding. They wonder how much will it cost to train people for a certain initiative. But thanks to e-learning programs, it is now possible to create revenue opportunities by expanding an educational program's target audience. Once developed, there is little or no additional cost to give more people access to an e-learning course.

Many companies are now offering their e-learning training courses to their vendors or even customers, providing quality training courses for a small fee. One manufacturer, for example, offers an e-learning training program on maintaining its products. This program has been extended to several thousand dealer technicians and hundreds of thousands of independent technicians. Creating these maintenance courses using e-learning made it possible to offer the courses to this entire audience for a nominal fee. In addition to ensuring that the dealers and technicians know and understand its products, the manufacturer has the potential to turn its e-learning training program into a profit center for the company.

TECH TIPS

  • Working with experts to create courseware can help make a smooth transition to e-learning.
  • When developing an e-learning program, think down the road to how current material can be used in subsequent courses.
  • Consider allowing vendors and customers to take e-learning courses to create a new profit center.

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