Companies see the benefits of e-learning

The corporate sector is increasingly switching to e-learning as a cheap and efficient way to educate staff, writes Colm Ward

The corporate sector is increasingly switching to e-learning as a cheap and efficient way to educate staff, writes Colm Ward

If recent developments in the business world are anything to go by, it might not be long before the teacher at the top of the class is replaced by the computer at every desk.

Increased access to the internet and developments in technology mean that more and more people are turning to their computers to meet their education and training needs. The term "e-learning" has been coined to describe this new approach.

Computers have been used as educational tools for almost as long as they have been around. But the corporate sector has been slow to wake up to their potential. This is changing, however, as many organisations come to see that e-learning can, in some cases, offer a cheaper, more efficient alternative to the traditional classroom-based training.

Enterprise Ireland has identified e-learning as a sector that has very strong growth potential. This year e-learning companies in the State generated about €450 million in revenues and international analysts have predicted that the worldwide market would be worth around €33 billion by 2005, according to Mr Michael Cantwell, manager of the digital media and e-learning department with Enterprise Ireland.

He believes the e-learning sector will experience steady growth over the next few years, despite the current downturn. "All the projections are for very steady and very strong growth because e-learning is only scratching the surface," he says.

In a survey in Britain, conducted earlier this year, Enterprise Ireland found that only 3 per cent of employees preferred traditional training methods to e-learning. It also found the majority of British companies already used e-learning courses, while 83 per cent of businesses said they intended to maintain or increase their training budget. This should be good news for Irish companies offering e-learning services.

"We are very confident that we will have a strong industry niche here," says Mr Cantwell.

Companies such as Riverdeep and SmartForce (now SkillSoft) established Ireland as a base for e-learning expertise. Now, several smaller companies are taking up the baton. Galway-based EssentialSkillz specialises in computer-based health and safety training. Its products are available via the internet for companies that want to provide basic health and safety courses for their staff.

According to managing director Mr Tony Dervan, these courses are particularly suitable for smaller companies that might not have access to formal, classroom-based training. Many SMEs, such as shops and restaurants, do not have the resources or the physical space to provide such training for their staff, he says. The flexibility associated with e-learning allows them to train their employees in a time and a place that is convenient and at reduced cost.

One of the advantages of doing these courses online is that the results can be monitored centrally. Business owners can check up on the progress of their staff to confirm that they have completed their training.

Mr Dervan believes online courses complement, rather than compete with, the more traditional instructor-centred training. "We have put together a basic package but we are not going to replace a professional health and safety trainer," he says.

The range of courses offered by e-learning companies is vast - from basic educational aides for primary school students to very complex packages designed for IT professionals or senior management. In the internet era, where computer literacy is essential, courses such as the European Computer Driving Licence have proved extremely popular.

Mr Jonny Parkes, managing director of Electric Paper, based in Blackrock, Co Dublin, says his company specialises in taking customers "from mousing to mailmerge".

"The focus is on identifying the needs of ordinary people," he says.

Electric Paper was ranked sixth in the 2002 Deloitte & Touche Fast 50, a listing of Ireland's fastest-growing technology companies. Between 1999 and 2001, revenues grew by 600 per cent, while staff numbers jumped from 20 to 100 in the same period.

The company was recently selected by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) as automated testing provider for the international computer driving licence in the Arab region. This was a major boost but it also presented a challenge that many e-learning companies face - to translate the products into the customer's native language. The solution, says Mr Parkes, was to form a partnership whereby a university in Egypt undertook to translate the software into Arabic.

Partnerships, particularly with professional tutoring organisations, are important as they allow companies reach markets they otherwise may have difficulty accessing.

"If you get into an organisational context, it is likely that you will need some sort of tutoring," says Mr Parkes. "We tend to partner with our customers or other third-party providers of tutor support."

IBM has been in the e-learning business for as long as the technology has been available to provide learning solutions over the internet, says Ms Anne Carthy, learning services manager with IBM Ireland. Its solutions range from simple CD-ROM-based products to integrated enterprise-wide solutions for large corporations and SMEs. These "blended solutions" combine Web-based learning with computer-based training, instructor or self-study training, or lab workshops.

What is most important is that companies find the solution that best suits their needs. "We deliver Web-based training but we also partner with organisations to give our customers what they want," she says.

The major benefit of e-learning is that it guarantees "cost-effective delivery of learning any time, over any distance", she says. This cost effectiveness is reflected in the fact that IBM's use of e-learning worldwide saves the organisation about €350 million every year.

As e-learning becomes more commonplace, Ms Carthy believes it will converge with e-business development as organisations take advantage of the potential of Web-based technologies to integrate various aspects of their business, from human resources to supply chain management.

"There is an evolution from pure e-learning to e-development. E-learning will become business as usual but it will fuse with e-development," she says.