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E-learning world has lessons left to learn Add to ...


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Dec. 07 2006, 12:00 AM EST

Last updated Tuesday, Mar. 17 2009, 1:33 PM EDT

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For 17 years, Serebra Learning Corp. focused on supplying Fortune 500 companies with distance learning courses through technology such as CDs and, eventually, the Web. But three years ago, president Ted Moorhouse explains, the Vancouver-based company switched its focus to the Third World. The reason? So they could grow.

"There just is not enough business in North America for all the companies using traditional Web-based learning models," Mr. Moorhouse says.

And Serebra is not alone.

For the companies that create and provide online training courses, the changing needs of their corporate clients have them scrambling for a new and effective business model. The problem is that existing methods of corporate distance learning are expensive and difficult to manage.

Gary Woodill, director of research and analysis for Brandon Hall Research Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., says businesses have a tough time assessing whether there's any lasting value in e-learning. "We started out knowing how to bore students in classrooms and now all we have done is learned to bore them online," he says.

Serebra's answer was to diversify its client base. It now sells their courses to major sponsors in places such as the United Arab Emirates and Uganda.

The sponsors distribute cards tickets to locals who want to improve their skills through any of the 600 Web-based courses Serebra offers. The students then have 90 days to complete a course before taking an online exam. If they pass, the participant gets a certificate, which is often accepted as a course credit at a local college or university.

The next step is to forge a link between the education and finding a job, something Mr. Moorhouse says he is close to figuring out.

Nexient Learning Inc. of Toronto has chosen a different tack.

Company president Colleen Moorehead still sees growth left in supplying big companies with online and other forms of high-tech training, and has been expanding her company through acquisitions.

"There are a few factors driving our continued growth," she says. "The first is cost. It is still less expensive to train through the Web and through things like CD-ROMs than through trying to assemble people in classrooms with a live teacher. Second is a continuing reduction in the size of the work force because of the aging of baby boomers."

Granted, the pressure is on from clients to make courses cheaper, easier to manage and effective.

Mary Sist, manager of organizational development at Mr. Lube Canada Inc., says her company is a case in point. Mr. Lube provides a range of courses to its 1,300 salaried employees across Canada through a combination of online and classroom programs created by Nexient.

"It saves money from the old paper-based way of doing things but it is still expensive and requires considerable management," she says.

Corporate costs come in three forms: Businesses can buy off-the-shelf programs, have them custom made or create them in-house.

Perth, Ont.-based dominKnow Inc. supplies developer tools, dedicated courses and management software to businesses. Chris Van Wingerden, vice-president of learning systems, admits the market is restricted to organizations with large staff and deep pockets.

"It is not cheap," he says. "Custom courses can start at $20 a head for organizations with a minimum of 2,500 employees. Creating an hour-long program can run anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000.

"On balance though, corporations find this approach to training to be less expensive, more uniform and easier to manage than previous in-class models."

Yet no matter what the result may be, some clients feel they must stick with traditional approaches.

Nav Canada, the private sector company that runs Canada's air navigation system, needs to deliver regular refresher and training courses to its 2,300 air traffic controllers, as well as its maintenance and repair technicians. But public safety needs demand that classroom courses with a live instructor continue to play the dominant role.

"We spend $55-million a year on refresher courses for air traffic controllers alone," says Marc Lacroix, national manager of training design, development and e-learning. "We would love to make it cheaper, but right now Web-based instruction just is not suited to our needs."

"What you are seeing now is what usually happens with new technology," says Mr. Woodill of Brandon Hall. "Somebody creates a new way of using technology to deliver a service; others jump in; many find they have a tough time competing.

"They either drop out or start experimenting with new business models. If one of those proves successful, then others jump on that bandwagon and the whole process starts all over again."



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