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Meet Your New Teacher

New technologies revive interest in E-learning as businesses find that online lessons let them train more people and cut costs

Cadets at West Point, theUnited States Military Academy, listen to drill sergeants and grizzled veteran professors bark orders at them for four long years. It's the Army's way of teaching the lessons of dedication, loyalty, military strategy, and leadership to the best and brightest young soldiers in the United States. However, screaming superiors aren't the only way to get a cadet's attention. In some classes, professors are using a 3-D computer-based learning tool that looks and acts very much like a video game.

SimuLearn's Virtual Leader helps West Point cadets hone their leadership skills by simulating real-life business situations.

SimuLearn's Virtual Leader helps West Point cadets hone their leadership skills by simulating real-life business situations.
SimuLearn Inc.'s Virtual Leader software takes standardized business-leadership situations and translates them into a 3-D world similar to those experienced in computer-generated, role-playing computer games like "The Sims." Only here, students guide avatars through a series of meetings and make them delegate tasks to employees. If the manager doesn't direct people in the right way, game characters may nod off, get up from meetings, or develop a dislike for their superior. It works in real time, and it's supplemented with online reading and interactive lessons to teach leadership styles to senior cadets.

"The underlying leadership theory there is solid," says Lt. Col. James Ness. "Of course, it takes up a lot of bandwidth." The Army is testing the software, which costs $499 for the corporate edition, and weighing if and how it might be used in supplemental training programs for the Army at large.

Companies such as Johnson & Johnson and United Technologies Corp. also are using or have used Virtual Leader for leadership training. "It helps you calibrate how you're dealing with other people," says Mark Tuckerman, a former manager of training who introduced Virtual Leader to United Technologies' research group to prepare scientists and project managers for sessions with other company representatives.

Wild West

In attempting to teach and train people in the intricacies of interpersonal communications and leadership, Virtual Leader is a so-called soft-skill simulation, the "wild West" of the $10 billion worldwide E-learning market, according to Brandon-Hall.com analyst Bryan Chapman. While few companies are using those sorts of leading-edge E-learning applications, more of them are employing increasingly complex E-learning strategies to better prepare employees to do their jobs. "It's become part of the corporate learning structure," Chapman says. E-learning "has a seat at the table."

Spending on E-learning slowed when general technology spending crashed in 2000, but demand is growing again. Prices for enterprise E-learning systems have declined, and industries like finance and health care have turned to them to keep their employees up to date on government regulations. Meanwhile, mergers and acquisitions are creating bigger brands and more complete and integrated E-learning suites. Research firm Gartner predicts that larger software vendors may enter the E-learning market, while IDC expects the worldwide market to more than double by 2008 to $21 billion.

That growth will be fueled by companies like Turner Construction Co., which has moved from traditional classroom training to online training of employees. When Jim Mitnick took over as senior VP and director of training and development five years ago, he started moving the company's training programs from classrooms to computers. Now employees can train online, at their own pace, and on their own time.

Turner created its own Internet classes and pieced together various E-learning, Web portal, and business-management software to create a learning network. Turner expects to start licensing its system to other companies starting this month. The construction company now has a complex system of related online communities, replete with a search engine, virtual classes, blogs, message boards, and interaction with subject-matter experts. A simple interface allows for quick access to anything employees might need to know, such as building regulations in Pennsylvania or different ways to lay concrete.

"If you've got a business strategy, you've got to align your learning strategy with [that] strategy," Mitnick says. "It's all about how you get the right information in the right hands at the right time." The number of employees at Turner has doubled in the last four years to nearly 5,000, and Mitnick says E-learning technology has helped train new workers.

Companies like Turner demonstrate that E-learning has come a long way from the early days when businesses simply put classroom material online and used learning-management software to track users. Many companies are taking advantage of advances in E-learning technology and making it an integral part of their businesses.

E-learning products can be put into several categories. Infrastructure pieces include learning-management sys- tems that act as frameworks to support the management, tracking, and delivery of online and classroom training. Content-management tools help users develop and organize content and then deliver it to the students. Authoring tools such as Macromedia's products, Microsoft's PowerPoint, and OutStart Inc.'s Trainersoft help trainers design content.

Another category of E-learning products is content-generation tools. Companies can develop content in-house or get it from content providers. The category includes simulations, which can teach people how to use systems, perform complicated tasks, and even develop interpersonal skills.

Finally, companies, like Accenture and IBM, provide extensive E-learning services that include consulting, content development, planning, and management. Some vendors also provide live courses that teachers conduct over the Internet.

Many companies that have embarked on E-learning efforts simply want to cut their training costs and do a better job of tracking who gets what training. E-learning also has been viewed as a way to cut the time it takes to train employees. "Most thought they could shortcut what had traditionally been learning," says consultant Jay Cross, who coined the phrase E-learning in 1998.

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