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States consolidate on learning management

Like you were reinventing the wheel. That’s what it sometimes felt like to work in training for the Commonwealth of Virginia five years ago, according to Brooke Schepker, Virginia’s Knowledge Center systems administrator.

When the governor would put out a new executive order on a topic such as business continuity or cybersecurity, agencies would occasionally share CDs they had created. But more often each agency would spend the time and resources to create its own training materials, which it would host on its own learning management system (LMS). Often those systems were not compatible and couldn’t share content.

"We used to spend time and money in many duplications of effort," Schepker says.

But those days are over. An LMS consolidation project instigated by eight of the largest state agencies led to the development of the Commonwealth of Virginia Knowledge Center, which Schepker says has increased efficiency, saved the Commonwealth money and allowed trainers to focus on creating better content.

The Knowledge Center Web site presents a visual metaphor of a Campus Map, with buildings that house online functions such as administration and a lecture hall. Schepker calls it a hub-and-spoke system, in which agency training staffers retain control over look and feel, and learning modules are appropriate for their employees, but the system uses one centralized database, and the online content and employee training records are easily sharable.

"We call it a knowledge center rather than an LMS because we like to stress that we have the ability to house content for agencies in their own libraries in the system," Schepker explains. "They can upload internal documentation or presentations in their own agency knowledge center."

Virginia also encourages city and county governments to utilize the site, and now has 300,000 people using it.

Government follows corporate trendThe consolidation of learning management systems is an ongoing trend in the corporate landscape, and as with other IT movements, state and local government enterprises are following private-sector entities in seeking improved content integration and the centralization of learner data.

A late 2006 survey by consulting firms Expertus and TrainingOutsourcing.com found that more than 25 percent of 249 corporate respondents used multiple learning management systems within their organizations, and more than 75 percent of those organizations planned to consolidate. Perhaps surprisingly, only 40 percent said reducing costs was a key driver, while centralizing data about learners, integrating content and improving integration with other applications such as enterprise resource planning all were top factors.

Roy Haythorn, VP of operations for Meridian Knowledge Solutions, says most large government organizations have plenty of inefficiencies to address. "Many state governments have 40 different learning management systems in place, with individual maintenance contracts on each, and they’re not able to share content. So they are creating good online content, but other agencies can’t easily share it."

LMS vendor Meridian has worked with many state governments, including Virginia, on consolidations. "The challenge is to find a champion to take the lead to make it happen," Haythorn says. "It works best if you can get the CIO of a state to herd the cats and convince agency leaders to agree to work together."

Cost savings in VirginiaAlthough the Virginia Knowledge Center started in 2005 with a steering committee from eight large agencies, other department leaders soon jumped on the bandwagon. It has since grown to 74 agencies, and 20 more are considering it.

Some agencies were paying $20,000 for annual hosting fees for their own LMS, which provided no communication with those of other agencies. Now they pay as little as $800 a year in hosting fees for access to the centralized LMS, Schepker says. In fact, the state social services agency was paying $140,000 a year for its own LMS, and now pays only $1,000 in hosting fees, she adds.

"Whenever agencies work together on a purchase, the result is going to be cost savings," Schepker says. "We can have one of me instead of 70."

The system has had other benefits, according to Schepker, including automating reporting. Each state agency has to file quarterly training metrics figures with the Department of Human Resource Management. In the past, that might have been sent as a spreadsheet file or hard-copy printouts. Now most of the data is already in the Knowledge Center system. A feature called "learning events" allows administrators to enter information about training events that take place outside the Knowledge Center, such as a certification an employee has earned through classroom training.

Schepker says that training staff members now have more time to create compelling content. She remembers an old conflict-of-interest training module that was just a video of a talking head. "It was awful and people dreaded having to go sit in a room and watch it," she recalls. With time freed up from administrative tasks, trainers have converted the video into an interactive e-learning piece. "Now people can complete it at their leisure," Schepker says, "and users like it much better."

‘Virtual LMS’ in public healthMany states are finding it valuable to share public health training materials across agencies and state boundaries, and now state governments are expanding their outreach to county public health workers. For instance, the New York State Department of Health’s Office of Public Health Practice has launched NY Learns Public Health, an LMS designed to facilitate the tracking of learners, courses and competencies for state and local public health workers.

"We do not manage all the public health training in the state by any means," says Thomas Reizes, learning management system global administrator, "but we can help take training efforts that were sometimes disjointed, isolated and separate, and unite some of them with a common platform."

Reizes describes the project as allowing local health agencies to set up their own ‘virtual LMS’ to manage and coordinate the training their staffs receive. New York state is offering free access to the system to local public health agencies. Designed by the Center for Advancement of Distance Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, the LMS allows users to search a database of online and classroom courses, register for sections, complete quizzes and track course completion. It also includes a self-assessment tool to help users find training opportunities relevant to their job roles.

Last year, a pilot project with 29 agencies, including local public health departments, helped develop a catalog of almost 300 courses. "Now we are training those administrators who want to use it to start tracking their own employees’ training," Reizes says.

New York also has worked with the South Central Partnership, a public health learning gateway developed at Tulane and University of Alabama on a solution that allows New York’s users to pass through the South Central registration gateway and register for coursework. Then the completion data is automatically passed back to the New York system.

Learning community for teachersA centralized learning management solution holds out promise for efficiency gains in education as well. Since 2003, school districts in Michigan have been able to take advantage of a Web-based system called LearnPort that provides access to online continuing education courses and administrative functions.

The system was re-launched in 2007 with a more intuitive user interface and several new features. For instance, besides allowing teachers to take continuing education classes online, the portal also gives them access to a full collaboration center, explains David Myers, executive director.

"Any of our 40,000 users can create a learning community that can be private, moderated or public, as they choose," he says. "We now have 250 professional learning communities." Some are associated with the online courses, while others are regional. Chat is available, but users tend to gravitate toward threaded discussion forums. They can register and get e-mails telling them of updates in their community room.

The LearnPort’s record-keeping functions help administrators track and report teachers’ continuing education efforts.

In Michigan, teachers are required to recertify every five years by taking 18 continuing education units, from up to six different organizations. "Previously, there was no easy way to consolidate all that information into one record," Meyers says. Now units taken through LearnPort are automatically entered; others are entered manually, and the consolidated record for each teacher can be submitted to state officials.

LearnPort also offers compliance courses on topics such as Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the proper handling of chemicals. There are more than 5,000 enrollments a year in those courses, but more than 150,000 people in the state are eligible to take them. "If everybody did it," Meyers says, "it would lead to considerable cost savings."

Training executives say that the vendor selection process is central to consolidating learning management systems. When shopping for one, users should make sure the system is: 

  • scalable enough to handle thousands of concurrent users without performance degradation,
  • configurable enough to allow individual agencies to control the look and feel, and
  • able to handle integration with other enterprise applications.

But more important than system evaluation, they say, is getting buy-in from stakeholders. For instance, the main challenge facing NY Learns Public Health has been to develop a sense of ownership among local health agencies.

"It has to be a collaborative effort," Reizes says. "Any time the state government offers an IT-based solution, there are going to be some trust issues."

He is convinced that the fact that there is no cost to local agencies will help prove the value of NY Learns Public Health during difficult financial times. "People can reuse content and promote availability," he adds, "even if they are facing decreasing budgets for training."

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