Getting smart about e-learning

Feds now use the technology as communications, management tool

E-learning is moving beyond training to become a tool for performance, collaboration and management, according to federal managers and contractors. In the process, some agency officials are finding that e-learning, already known for cost savings, has value for workforce productivity.

At the Internal Revenue Service, for example, an evolving e-learning strategy is focusing on performance support, said Gordon Rice, e-learning technology adviser at the IRS Center for Advanced Learning Technologies. Rice spoke at a recent FCW Events

E-Learning Conference.

IRS officials turned to enterprisewide e-learning after discovering that $65 million of the $100 million training budget was spent on travel in 2001.

Since then, agency officials have saved millions of dollars and moved their e-learning strategy beyond classroom and online training toward performance support.

Under an A-76 competitive sourcing study, Rice said, IRS officials are aligning e-learning with government goals to improve business results. E-learning, he said, is becoming "workflow-based learning."

"We're seeing the evolution of e-learning from a conversion of classroom content to an interactive environment that lets employees quickly access what they need to do their job," said Rice, a 28-year IRS employee. "We are embedding learning in work as a performance support rather than making it a separate place you have to go to for training."

As an example, Rice cited the IRS Wage and Investment Division, which now has an online tool, or e-guide, that examiners can use to calculate a taxpayer's penalties for late filings and other infractions. Previously, examiners had to go to classes to learn how to calculate penalties and relied on manuals. Now, they follow the prompts of the online guide and calculator at their desktop computer to perform the work.

Rice is hoping that a future version of the Shareable Content Object Reference Model, the standard that enables the sharing and reuse of online educational content, will provide the specification for sharable performance support so that tools such as the e-guide can be replicated.

IRS officials have used e-learning tools from Plateau Systems and Centra Software. "Federal agencies are getting smarter about how to use e-learning and, in the past year, have embraced it as a communication and management tool," said Ed Cohen, chief technology officer at Plateau.

Deployments are also quicker. "Agencies like the [Transportation Security Administration] are able to show it doesn't take years, often less than a single year, to get real value," he said. "TSA's Online Learning Center was up and going in nine months at 450 airports for training of 50,000 screeners."

Looking ahead

E-learning technology will incorporate the next generation of Web-based capabilities, which will allow people to simulate situations for collaboration, Cohen said. There will also be more embedded training, a technique used by some companies to teach customers about the use and care of products.

"For government, that can mean pushing training out to the public for guidance on forms or other requirements," he said.

Mitch Chazan, chief of e-learning services in the IRS Web Services group, said his role is changing, too. His team is going beyond e-learning with some of the same principles to establish a collaborative environment in which employees can quickly access the services needed to do their jobs.

"We are looking at ways to help people do their work, improve their skills and, in the process, change the culture of the workplace," he said.

He leads a team of education and IT professionals who added Centra's secure collaboration tool to the IRS' e-learning system. They extended the approach that they started in 1995 throughout the Treasury Department, and now more than 2,600 courses are offered to 110,000 employees.

Chazan, who has seen e-learning save money and provide fast and flexible learning opportunities, has worked to keep the system secure.

"The IRS must keep employees up-to-date on current tax law, case law and internal procedures for tax collection and examination, taxpayer education, audits and assessments. As a result, security is a huge issue," Chazan said. "We need to be able to communicate through firewalls while keeping information secure."

"Security and cost savings are the two priorities where e-learning systems can be important for government agencies," said Jim Freeze, Centra's chief marketing officer. Because the company's tools can be installed behind agency firewalls, he said, Justice Department officials use the software to provide virtual university classes for both classified and nonclassified employees without compromising security.

The effort to reduce IRS training costs has also had other benefits for collaboration. "We're able to hold meetings and conferences we could [not] hold before. Now, we can get the same message to all employees at the same time," Chazan said.

Welles is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.

Sharing content

The Labor Department's Workforce Connections is a set of Web-based tools for workforce productivity, said William Peratino, director of the agency's 21st Century Workforce Tools program. The initiative began as a joint effort between Labor and the Defense Department's Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory.

The Web site, www.workforceconnections., provides open-source software using Linux or Microsoft Windows that can be downloaded for free and enables individuals in organizations to share content in a secure environment.

"Workforce Connections simplifies the way you create, distribute and manage knowledge through an enterprise using communities of practice, online coaching and Web site development," Peratino said. "It allows you to create content once and let it be used in many forms across an organization."

Workforce Connections is the first tool to be licensed by the federal government free to private- and public-sector organizations. It has been incorporated into Labor's enterprise architecture, and the agency's training and e-learning are now provided through the Web site.

Other federal agencies are also using it, including the Federal Aviation Administration, Justice Department and Army Corps of Engineers.

"If you invest in a system, it's a liability," Peratino said. "If you invest in your content, it's an asset."

— Judy Welles