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Go slow with e-learning: are you kidding?
a case study with a dozen tips to avoid e-learning terror

By Joan Flynn Fee / May 2001

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You've probably heard that the e-scene shifts every 90 days. Jumping into e-learning feels like boarding a roller coaster about to enter a corkscrew spiral. Do you leap quickly on the thrill ride or go slower, taking a jaunt on the kiddy coaster? At Hewitt Associates, LLC, a human resources consulting firm of 12,000 people, we discovered that even a more cautious approach can offer unexpected thrills.

In the mid '90s e-learning sprouted in patches at Hewitt—as CBTs and EPSS. Changing business conditions upped the ante. From 1997 to 1999, Hewitt doubled in size. The firm not only had more associates to train, there were other factors that pulled us to e-learning. The learners worked in 35 countries. More began to telecommute. Also, we were moving much of our business online and were helping our clients develop e-solutions to HR issues—everything from choosing retirement plans over the intranet to constructing HR portals. And we wanted to capture the e-interest of new youthful hires.

With a computer on every desk, Hewitt seemed ideal for e-learning, except for the firm's strong people-oriented culture. Hewitt's advertisements—orchestras of empty chairs, football fields of empty uniforms—emphasized the philosophy, "Never Underestimate the Importance of People." The average associate relished face-to-face encounters. The firm offered over 800 classroom courses. Since e-learning forced us against the grain of Hewitt's culture, we resisted jumping quickly onto a wild ride, choosing a more gradual tack. Sharing our experience might save you the white-knuckled grip of an unexpected 80 degree drop.

Survey and Strategize. Our slow ride began with a 1998 survey concerning Hewitt's learning needs. The survey revealed that something was missing. On one side, we had solo CBT learning and EPSS support. On the other, we had the instructor-led classroom. We needed a medium-touch solution, where students could learn at their desks but with the support of an instructor and classmates. As a Lotus Notes shop, we chose Lotus/IBM LearningSpace 3 as our virtual classroom tool. LearningSpace offered both synchronous and asynchronous modes.

Define Your e-Mission. Our e-learning mission, "Bring learning closer to the work," supported Hewitt's larger strategies of working as a trusted partner with our clients and linking associates' work to their interests and developmental requirements.

Recruit Sponsors. Joe Tria, Hewitt's CLO notes, "Sponsors set the tone, the tenor, and the appetite for distributed learning. They provide the resources, the excitement, and the means of making sure people are accountable for learning." Without sponsorship, you will find it difficult to stay with the e-ride as you get tossed around.

Hire expertise. Finding a consultant who had managed two LearningSpace implementations helped define the right project management steps.

Market the Concept. Hewitt has a good-sized community of learning professionals who design and facilitate for the classroom. If our learning colleagues resisted e-learning, even our gentle e-coaster ride would derail. To win the learning community, we marketed the e-learning concept. First, we educated the audience with a day of e-learning. Under a travel theme, participants received electronic postcards inviting them to cruise the e-learning scene.

Prework took them to internet sites on CBT, EPSS, simulations, the virtual classroom and knowledge management. At the Day of Learning, the travelers visited hands-on breakout sessions with different electronic media. In teams, they designed a follow-up Day of Learning on a topic of their choice, using at least one electronic medium. Four months later, a team applied their design to Global Day of Learning, using video conferencing and meeting software to include remote offices.

Anticipate Resistance. To blunt the resistance of classroom designers to electronic competition, we expanded electronic design to these groups. In support, we provided design templates, training on all phases of Web-oriented design, weekly sharing, and mentoring.

Woo Facilitators. Instructional designers are one portion of the population with an interest in perpetuating classroom courses. Classroom facilitators are another. At Hewitt, there was a cohort of facilitators skeptical of teaching their course online. First, we asked these facilitators to incorporate a CBT into their classroom course to accustom them to answering questions about an electronic medium. Next, the facilitators became students in the online course they would later teach. This was where conversion took place. As students, facilitators saw the value in online instruction. Finally, they moved to facilitating and teaching the course in a combination of synchronous and asynchronous modes. They shared war stories in monthly calls. To a person, skeptics became supporters.

Snag Leaders. With the learning community receptive to online learning, we marketed the concept to potential internal clients. To snag leaders, we took demos and a slide show on the road, jointly presenting with the learning leader from each area. We tailored the presentation to the audience, for example using financial examples with the accounting group. The show emphasized the business impact of e-learning and the fit with Hewitt's firm-wide goals. Leaders asked practical questions but accepted e-learning as a logical extension of Hewitt's e-business.

Reach Multiple Niches. We viewed the virtual-classroom pilot courses as product samples. Only top-quality courses would entice learners. For maximum exposure, we piloted courses to diverse niches—new hires, Excel aficionados, and those polishing business skills. The courses varied in format—a blended course combining e-prework with traditional classroom instruction, an asynchronous-synchronous mix, and a learning-lab multimedia combo.

Humanize the Experience. Students enter classrooms hoping to find lively, sympathetic instructors, interesting classmates, and stimulating material. Over the next three pointers, our Advanced Excel example shows how we tried to retain the best of the classroom when we moved the course online. We kicked the class off with a synchronous session where students met each other and the instructor over the phone. The instructor and technical facilitator announced office hours, assigned the students to two-person teams, outlined the class, and accustomed students to the technology. The course had a rhythm of two-hour synchronous sessions interspersed with two-hour asynchronous sessions. Students completed assignments with a partner and presented in the synchronous sessions. A supportive partner, plus easy access to an instructor humanized the experience.

Make It Fun. Loretta LaRoche, PBS's anti-stress queen, reminds us that we learn more when we are laughing. For fun, the Advanced Excel course had a camping theme. Learners received their assignments in snappy Flash movies. Before an arduous assignment, they found energy bars in their inter-office mail. When assignments lagged, learners received e-mails, "There will be no freeswim this afternoon until all the assignments are in."

Each session, the team with the best solution earned wacky camp-oriented prizes—clicking crickets, fish flashlights, sticky window-crawling spiders. Teams enjoyed these incentives so much that they called instructors when they arrived a day late.

Form Communities. Most learning occurs outside the classroom. With the instructor availability, the humor of Advanced Excel, and the extended relationship created over the six weeks of the course, learners formed a community. They still confer by e-mail or phone when they have an Excel question. Our classroom courses have rarely created such a strong bond between learners.

Where Were the Unexpected Plunges?

Even on the slow coaster, we took unexpected dips. There were communication misses. E-learning pulled new groups together. Lacking familiarity, we missed connections. Who knew that the learning folks defined "pilot" differently than the IS folks?

We hit technical glitches. It took weeks, not days, to resolve sticky technical problems. Some courseware files were corrupting. Was it the software? Inexperienced developers? Improper installation? (We discovered an incompatibility between our versions of LearningSpace and Notes.)

Even with experienced online designers, it's challenging to produce well-tested engaging courses. Former classroom designers were tempted to call page-turners "courses." And classroom designers lacked experience with a software-oriented quality assurance process: prototyping with feedback, and alpha and beta testing.

We neglected to prepare for success. After our pilot courses ran successfully, we faced business pressure to support thousands of students—a quick leap from the slow coaster to the Screaming Eagle.

Bottom line? Developing a strong online learning program is hard, complicated work. While even our gradual approach took unexpected twists, it gave us time to prepare for the faster terror ride. Next round, we haven't shrieked, and mid-ride, we've just lifted our hands from the safety bar.


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