Are (W)eLearning Yet?
he world of Building
Automation is full of mounting pressure. Exploding growth and
change in technology has turned the traditional thinking about controls and
automation on its head. The cost of once exotic technologies is falling and causing
dramatic change in how we approach automation, and where we think the boundaries
are. Thanks to standards and an expanding global market view, we are seeing more and
more integration of once disparate automation systems, and more real
interoperability between competitors. Yet these advances come with the cost of ever
increasing complexity that always accompanies "flexibility." At the same time, the
costs of energy and human talent are relentlessly increasing so there is continuous
pressure to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
at any time in the past, professionals are seeking training and education
to help them deal with these pressures. As we all struggle to keep pace, finding the
time and money to attend face-to-face training or educational courses is becoming
rarer and rarer. And yet, as things get more complex and we are pressed to learn
more and do more, how can we keep up (let alone get ahead) without the knowledge
gained through formalized learning? Even if time and funding is available, for many
specialized technical areas the problem may simply be logistics. How do you train
800 people when the only course available has 20 seats per month?
The need for education is equally pressing for manufacturers. Faced with mounting
competition and complexity, they are keen to educate their customers, sales people
and distribution about products and technology. But even large companies have
limited resources for training and potentially a very large audience.
Luckily, ours is not the only industry faced with these issues. The same forces of
growth and change have spawned many new technologies that have literally redefined
computing, communications, automation and even marketing and selling. In the same
sense that word processing, email and the internet have reshaped our view of
documents and printing - multimedia, CD-ROMs and the internet have also changed our
concept of how to approach learning, teaching and knowledge.
Regardless of the subject, traditionally there have been two approaches to
courseware: face-to-face presentation and self-directed study. While there are many
kinds of instructor-lead courses, the bottom line is that instructor(s) engage
students using a presentation or lecture backed-up with printed collateral
materials, possibly interactive Q&A and quizzes/tests. Self-directed study is very
similar except that it is up to the student to read the lecture instead of listening
to it. Of course, excellent execution of writing, diagrams or pictures and engaging
delivery has a big impact on the effectiveness of any course. Most of us have
personal experiences that represent a wide continuum of success or failure in
achieving these goals. Ignoring quality of execution for the moment, the key
differences between instructor-lead and self-directed learning models are immediacy
With an instructor, students can (usually) ask questions when they are
confused, listen to the questions that others raise and get the benefit of some
flexibility in deviating from a narrow path as the need arises. With self-directed
learning, you can spend as much time as you need to, going back over a confusing
section, reviewing a previous point, or considering particular statements or
Over time, as improvements in technology have emerged, teachers, educators and
trainers have made significant advances in the quality of information that can be
presented. Even a modest PowerPoint presentation can be a major improvement over
blackboards and viewgraphs. An explosion of technologies over the past decade have
allowed sophisticated multimedia techniques such as animation, video and
interactivity to be applied to courseware. The ideas behind multimedia presentation
are not new. After all, the cinema has been a powerful communication medium for
nearly a century. But the cost in terms of expertise, tools and human effort has
made many of these approaches prohibitively expensive in educational venues. Today,
that has changed dramatically, allowing sophisticated ideas to be presented in
engaging and intuitive ways.
So the great news is that the tools and technology for learning and presenting
information have never been better, or more accessible. This creates terrific
opportunities for presenters of information to create and author courseware that is
simply much better than it has ever been before. The benefits to potential students
or professionals seeking that knowledge are obvious. Happily, these capabilities
have arrived at a time when they are desperately needed. Companies and professionals
who can leverage these new technologies to serve their needs will continue to have a
Examples of best-practices in multimedia courseware abound. Three specific examples,
of how interactive multimedia technology has been used successfully in practice,
serve to illustrate the fundamental sea change that has already occurred. Each of
these examples is possible because of a shift to electronically delivered course
material, and the integration of multiple types of media into a small number of
electronic delivery methods. We call the creation and delivery of learning material
by electronic means "eLearning."
While there are many good things to say about traditional printed collateral,
overwhelmingly courseware is prepared and delivered today on CD-ROM. Besides the
obvious reduction in weight, shipping cost and manufacturing/distribution costs,
CD-ROMs have the added advantage of allowing electronically structured and delivered
courseware to be distributed with sophisticated and extensive functionality. Instead
of simply reading and turning pages, students can truly interact with course
materials, take multiple paths through courses, dynamically query Q&A databases and
see a rich presentation of material that engages multiple senses and learning modes.
Example of Flash Animation
These capabilities bring many of the rich and immediate experiences of animated
Flash examples, sounds and video into the realm of self-directed learning. The extensive
storage capacity of CD-ROM allows very sophisticated material to be distributed
compactly. This translates into a much lower cost-per-head for every type of
training, education or promotional program that employs these technologies.
The Internet and related technologies have had a tremendous impact on learning. For
the most part, the same kinds of technology (or at least capabilities) that can be
delivered on CD-ROM can also be delivered through the Internet (or a corporate
intranet). It's easy to imagine course materials that are accessed via the Internet
since how a course looks and operates as far as the student is concerned can appear
nearly identical to CD-ROM delivery. So the second example is the delivery of
courses using a network resource, rather than a physical CD-ROM. Of course there are
differences and issues. Multimedia material that makes use of high bandwidth media
such as video, is still best delivered from CD-ROM except in those cases when a high
bandwidth network infrastructure is available.
The third example is the concept of instructor-lead courseware that is delivered
remotely. The most common example of this idea today are multi-student courses
delivered over the Internet with realtime instructors. Typically these courses
use a team of instructors to deliver the course lecture, answer student questions
interactively and operate the presentation or webcast. Most of the advantages of
both types of course delivery are available using this method. Some excellent
examples of this kind of distance learning are KnowledgeNet.com
One thing is certain: there's eLearning in your future. Research firm International
Data Corporation (IDC) predicts that U.S. sales of eLearning technology alone will
top $11.4 billion by 2003, while Legg Mason is predicting eLearning market growth
will reach $40 billion by 2004. An interesting, but not surprising, trend is a
marked shift away from static content instruction, toward interactive, dynamic and
collaborative learning models.
Organizations that take advantage of eLearning approaches can reap significant
benefits. Whether your organization has training and education needs for technical
subjects, human resource issues or internal training in sales and marketing areas,
an electronically delivered learning solution is well worth the investment. The same
rapid payback is even more significant for manufacturers and distributors wanting to
educate their customers as the benefits increase with scale.
Regrettably, buying a piano (even a great one) does not make you a concert pianist.
To take advantage of the many benefits of interactive multimedia technology and
maximize the payback, eLearning courseware must be carefully designed and deployed.
To be successful in this requires a mastery of a dizzying number of increasingly
complex technologies. So while extolling the virtues of today's eLearning
possibilities, we need to keep in mind that creating this kind of engaging material
is still very difficult. It comes as no surprise that a significant and growing
percentage of eLearning content creation and delivery is being outsourced to
companies that specialize in these technologies.
So are we eLearning yet? If you aren't, you need to be real soon. The technology and
expertise is available to help you learn more, faster and better than ever. If
you're responsible for internal or external corporate training and education of any
kind, you should be using one or more of these eLearning solutions and developing
a long term eLearning strategy. You should also seriously consider outsourcing the
development of courseware and form a relationship with an eLearning strategic
David Fisher is President of PolarSoft Inc.
a Pittsburgh-based Interactive Multimedia and eLearning design company.
Mr. Fisher has been very active in the development of the ANSI/ASHRAE standard
BACnet, and many BACnet related projects including teaching all of the leading
seminars on BACnet. He is currently working on "The BACnet PrimerTM" a
comprehensive interactive multimedia BACnet eLearning course.