Class Struggle

Does E-learning make the grade?; Web conferencing offers more to attendees; how "business maps" may take brainstorming in the right direction.

Like college deans everywhere, Rick Taniguchi knows a thing or two about the high cost of education and the need to balance student expectations against administrative realities. Having lobbied for a $4 million expansion to his “campus,” his careful cost-benefit approach will soon be put to the test.

As associate dean of learning technology at the University of Toyota, Taniguchi played an important role in the creation of the “Insight” project, the car maker’s most substantive foray into Web-based training and development to date. Beginning next month, more than 50,000 Toyota and dealer employees will have online access to 100 hours of training on everything from car repair to financial management.

Toyota has offered Web-based training to some workers for more than a year, through a hodge-podge of systems that have grown increasingly costly and burdensome to administer. By centralizing and standardizing these efforts, Taniguchi says that the company can earn back its investment in just two years.

On Course

While computer-based training is at least 20 years old, the advent of the Internet has triggered what Gartner analysts Kathy Harris and Jim Lundy call the “hyperadoption” of E-learning. They say that by 2005, E-learning will be the single most-used application on the Web. Not all of that will be corporate use; primary, secondary, and higher education will also tap the Web extensively, as will government entities. But corporate investment in E-learning will grow, they say, from $2.1 billion last year to $33.4 billion by 2005. Another IT consulting firm, Meta Group, says that 60 percent of companies will deploy E-learning systems over the next two years.

Genuine E-learning is not the same as using the Web to retrieve information. As practiced at the corporate level, E-learning encompasses several distinct technologies or business practices. At the heart of most companies’ E-learning programs is a “learning management system” (LMS), software that acts as a course catalog and registrar’s office rolled into one. Priced from $250,000 to $350,000, an LMS provides a repository of information about course content, the ability to enroll employees in courses and, more important, a range of information pertaining to employee development: who has taken what course, how they’ve fared, whether they are working toward professional certifications or taking the course as part of a career-development plan, and so on.

“Authoring” or content-creation tools are used to develop Web-based courses or translate courses developed for classroom or other use into Web-ready versions. Web conferencing and collaborative technologies can be added to the mix so that the experience of Web-based learning is as interactive and, where appropriate, team-based as possible. And a host of companies provide professional services to tie these disparate elements together.

Proponents of E-learning claim the technology can yield impressive returns, from obvious savings on travel to harder-to-quantify benefits such as better customer service and a more-productive employee base. But they often face skepticism on the part of senior managers, who balk at the high price and wonder why current methods of training don’t suffice.

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