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E-learning: options for delivery

Learning doesn’t stop when people graduate from college, and, in fact, an individual’s most relevant knowledge acquisition often begins when he or she enters the work force. Knowledge developed on the job or in preparation for a job change can give a worker a competitive edge and can benefit the employer through increased performance levels. One of the most convenient delivery formats for adult learners is e-learning, which is usually available "anytime, anywhere."

The e-learning market in 2007 was in the $13 billion to $17 billion range, based on estimates from several market research firms. Corporate demand is expected to grow at a rate of nearly 20 percent per year, according to Ambient Insight . Although the academic market—especially the pre-K to 12th grade—is growing faster, corporate purchases will still account for the largest share of revenues.

Ambient Insight also predicts that hosted services will be the fastest growing product category, at nearly 50 percent per year, with custom content services following at over 30 percent per year. The largest growth for pre-packaged content will be in non-IT content, growing over 20 percent per year (including both hosted and on-site content). So, although e-learning is an established and mature market in some respects, it is still growing at a healthy pace. Robert Half International (RHI) is a leader in professional staffing, covering such diverse fields as accounting, technical and creative staff placement. The company has about 15,000 employees in 350 offices, as well as a global clientele. Because its offices and clients are so widely dispersed, e-learning has been a valuable element of RHI’s educational program, which also includes classroom training and blended learning. The courses are available to candidates who sign on with the firm, and to its employees.

Initially, RHI purchased courseware from CBT Systems and managed it in-house. In 2000, RHI switched to the hosted model when CBT Systems became SmartForce and rebranded its offerings for delivery over the Web. The subsequent merger of SmartForce with SkillSoft in 2002 provided a wider range of courseware and learning assets, including additional business and technical content that augments the instructional material.

The availability of e-learning courses is a major benefit for both employees and candidates, who can acquire skills and Continuing Professional Education (CPEs) for professional re-certification directed at certified public accountants. Credit courses for the Project Management Institute (PMI) are also offered, which provide professional development units (PDUs).

"Once a client signs up, he or she has access to all our course content while looking for a job," says Joan Leighty, e-learning program manager in the Department of Staff Development at RHI. "This allows people to develop new areas of expertise or hone their current skills during their job search." A credentialing module can be added to the SkillPort learning portal to help manage the credential process and track learners’ progress.

Several years ago, RHI added another component from SkillSoft, Books 24x7, which is offered to employees who can benefit from its high-level content. Books 24x7 consists of high-value business, technical and desktop content, including full text of nearly 13,000 digitized books (out of a total of 18,000 available from SkillSoft). Expert summaries of leading business books are provided, which present the latest insights from top authorities in their fields. Special collections offer material geared toward individuals in particular fields such as IT and business, as well as ExecBlueprints containing best practices and pragmatic guidance. RHI collects many statistics on usage of those resources for reporting purposes, to help determine which ones have been most valuable.

RHI is now moving forward to align its learning more closely with specific job functions. "We have been very pleased with both the course content and the hosted model we are using," says Leighty, "and the customer service from SkillSoft has been excellent. Now, we want to work to build more specific learning paths for our users, so they have a clear roadmap for the knowledge they need to acquire for their job roles."

SkillSoft can be used for formal and informal learning because of its diversity of resources. "Some of our users need ‘instant learning’ to solve a quick question or meet a particular need," says John Ambrose, senior VP of corporate development and strategy at SkillSoft. "If they ask a question about project management, for example, they will see a list of all the assets, which could include books, skill briefs, leadership videos or an upcoming class via SkillSoft Live Learning [a capability that became available when SkillSoft acquired NETg from Thomson in 2007]."  SkillSoft’s proprietary search engine uses the structure of the content to rank results for relevancy, so that a user can go right to the specific content of interest. For example, the user would not have to go through an entire course if a particular segment provided the answer.

Some customers of SkillSoft have integrated the content into their own portals, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint or IBM’s WebSphere, using portlets that provide an easy integration. "Content can be dynamically delivered to those portals when new books or RSS feeds in selected areas become available," Ambrose says. "The information we provide is well vetted, which is important, since 70 percent of learning takes place outside of structured learning events."

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