A recent survey by IDC shows that computer-based training (CBT) is one of the fastest-expanding sectors in IT, with the European market growing from $320m in 2000 to an estimated $3.9bn in 2004. Worldwide the figure will be $23bn.
E-learning provision is built primarily on partnerships, as few companies have all the necessary skills. Organisations with the expertise to build courses need firms to provide the relevant software platforms or portals, and many seek partners to provide the installation expertise.
This job frequently falls to resellers as it is known that they already have established relationships with employers in niche markets.
Resellers should choose partners with care to ensure their customers receive services that are flexible, expandable and efficient. It must be possible for end users to access a range of quality generic courses, and for corporates to communicate globally.
A learning management system (LMS) manages all aspects of course administration including monitoring students' progress. There is also a course delivery server with further analytical capabilities, and usually software to provide remote access for users not directly connected to the network.
Customers may also want a management mix, allowing their resellers to host course learning while managing sensitive internal information within their own firewalls, including updating employee records with their learning progress.
All e-learning infrastructures originated in the US, but many content providers are UK-based. These are mainly commercial trainers, but they can also be textbook publishers, tertiary educators and professional bodies.
These have the advantage of established accuracy, but it is essential to view sample courses as some colleges have simply collated lecture notes.
Professor Jim Norton, head of ebusiness policy for the Institute of Directors, said: "Good packages are not cheap. These are the ones that make the most tedious subjects interesting, making training less stressful and more absorbing."
The Scottish University for Industry has launched a one-stop shop enabling students to find online courses from various content providers, and it is now building its own LMS. The university already provides 18 courses, including recruitment, leadership and cash flow techniques.
No organisation appears to have formally compared courses, but some evaluation bodies are emerging. The eLearning Network is a group of users and providers that meets to discuss best practices, and the Association of Learning Technology at Oxford Brookes University is evaluating options for tertiary education.
Video Arts has published a guide to "help identify the world's best training resources", and is an e-learning provider of 25 business titles.
There are several charging options. Most licences are per user or per site, while some charge a fixed monthly or annual fee. Licences can also be in perpetuity, although upgrades will be charged for.
The larger the corporate, the less the unit cost. Small to medium sized enterprises or large corporates requiring subjects to be studied by only a few people could find it more economical to chose CDRoms or open internet sites, but this takes away the ability for employers to monitor progress online.
Even trainers who have long traditions of providing classroom-based courses appreciate the potential of CBT. Ade McCormack, Auridian Consulting's managing director, admitted: "There's no doubt that some employees benefit little from traditional courses as a quarter are above the level and a quarter below."
Mike Cannell, training and development adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said: "Research indicates that only about 14 per cent [of information] is retained."
John Ivinson, vice president of the British Computer Society, sees e-learning as a way of overcoming the problem of cancelled course bookings, which are often attributable to the pressures of work. "It's costing employers millions of pounds a year. Employees also lose out," he said.
Some vendors deal only with end users, including SmartCertify Direct, QA, Manchester City College and Absolutely Training. New Horizons uses resellers, but not for e-learning, as it claims licensing issues are too complex.
Vendors that operate mainly through resellers frequently offer two options. Seamus Coogan, at Educational Multimedia, said: "It's their choice whether they want commission or to provide ongoing support. Some think e-learning has so much potential that they are putting dedicated reps on the road."
Jonothan Sultan, marketing director at Educational Multimedia (EM), explained that CBT can help resellers persuade customers to upgrade software more readily.
"It's expensive to send people off-site to train, and wasteful if early learners have to wait so long for upgrades to be installed that they have forgotten most of it," he said.
EM has just bought a range of business titles from Brian Tracey, a management guru who normally charges people up to £500 to attend his seminars. Because its CDRoms are now being sold at under £50, a great many more people can take advantage of the courses, which also avoids the risk of people who did attend misinforming those who did not.
Employers can slash training costs by about two thirds through no longer having to pay for staff to travel to classes. Some US companies have reported a 400 per cent return on their investment in the first year.
The concept is for employees to learn at their desks, but some companies are equipping their training rooms with computers, so students can study in a more relaxed environment.
Self-paced courses enable the slowest learners to go back over any sections they do not understand, while fast learners can progress faster or log off earlier. Most courses are divided into modules, making it easier for students to find the time to study. Many are interactive, providing 24-hour access to chat rooms for discussions, which helps to stop them feeling isolated.
Content presentation is increasingly stimulating as providers take advantage of all the visual and audio tools available. However, online scope will remain limited in the UK, compared with CDRoms, until broadband becomes available.
E-learning can help users study for formal qualifications, accreditation and continuing professional development. Some vendors, boards and professional bodies will accept proof of progress through modules, even though final examinations still need to be supervised.
Bloom Training, for instance, has partnered with Learningstore.co.uk, the UK's first educational ecommerce site, to provide courses for certification and accreditation by all major software houses.
BlueU, the first UK firm dedicated to e-learning, provides both structure and courseware with 250 IT courses from word processing to advanced technologies, plus about 600 business subjects.
Ian Clague, BlueU's chief executive, said: "E-learning is particularly valuable for overcoming the shortage of IT personnel as it enables employers to build on basic skills."
GlobalLearning-Systems has taken a range of generic material into its infrastructure, also mostly for IT and business skills, but is prepared to form new partnerships to provide the material its clients specify.
It will also handle international communications for e-learning providers whose capabilities do not extend beyond their own shores, because it networks through 70 partners in 60 countries.
Rob Clarke, vice president of marketing and communications at GlobalLearning, said: "We like to keep a hands-on approach, hosting our system either on the internet or intranet, but this does not preclude working with resellers."
Click2learn.com, which operates in six countries, divides resellers into two categories. Stephen Bennett, vice president for Europe, said: "We train platinum resellers to develop e-learning content through our Tool Book software, and to train their end users on how to move their internal courses online. Companies unable to cope with this can become golden resellers and earn commission by passing work on to platinums."
Academy Internet, the world's largest content provider, also considers resellers a useful, although not exclusive, route to market. Richard Tripp, business development director, admitted that those with established reputations with employers stand an improved chance of overcoming trainers' reluctance to change. "[Trainers] are essentially face-to-face communicators, and many don't like the idea of losing this aspect of their jobs," he explained.
The company's roots are in classroom-based training, so Tripp maintains it is in a good position to help companies transfer their own training to the intranet.
It is currently training 200 people for the Scottish Tourist Board to ensure that its website operates efficiently, and has set up templates so that personnel can introduce new messages and services quickly without risk of creating pages which are so complicated that they are slow to upload.
E-learning is invaluable for any subject to be imparted quickly to many people, such as new legislation for lawyers and for dipping into modules on a 'just-in-time' basis - known as tactical learning - rather than studying aspects of subjects they may never need.
Car-hire company Avis chose e-learning to train operators for new call centres in Barcelona and Manchester. The provider is Key Knowledge. Joe Quilter, marketing manager, said: "Both centres were functional far faster than would have otherwise been possible."
Key Knowledge has also set up systems for the Royal Bank of Scotland to meet requirements of the Institute of Bankers. Eversheds, the world's largest law firm, has been provided with a staff induction programme for its London headquarters.
Many colleges now regard e-learning as complementary to campus-based courses. It is also being used in secondary education in the US, and could help the UK to overcome its shortage of teachers.
E-learning is invaluable for induction training, covering a range of subjects from health and safety to product knowledge.
It is also evident that, when state-of-the-art technologies are used for recruitment, companies attract applications of higher quality and in larger numbers. Some recruitment firms and staffing agencies now provide links to e-learning sites, so that applicants can brush up on the skills indicated.
It has to be said that 'e-learning' is a description that is about as adequate as 'reseller'. A good portal can act as a front-line business driver to impart information worldwide efficiently.
The technical term is 'asynchronous learning networks' but, as the system can also be used for people to access synchronously (at specified times for events such as conferences), 'e-communication' is surely more succinct.
For instance, when a company is ready to manufacture a new product or introduce new machinery, it can train operational personnel on a one-to-one basis, avoiding the disruption of halting production lines for mass tuition, and by video, which can be far more absorbing than trainers just talking and gesticulating.
Then, when the product is ready for launch, it can train sales forces, distributors, resellers and retailers across the world virtually instantaneously with a programme that is accurate and designed to achieve a high level of concentration. People can then dip into that information whenever they need to be reminded of specifications or selling points.
Dealership mechanics can be alerted to new servicing requirements, instead of having to be called in for refresher courses. Factory maintenance engineers can cope with any sort of breakdown, guided by interactive video, and new employees can be taken on virtual fire-safety tours of oil rigs before actually going on board. When two companies merge, each can study online to develop a quick understanding of each other's activities and cultures.
There are many potential uses for e-learning, and enough vendors are willing to work with resellers to make it an excellent new market for the channel.
CASE STUDY: PRIME LEARNING
Prime Learning.com is trawling for partners - both resellers and content providers - to promote and add value to its e-learning structure.
The company is well established in the US, where its content providers include the American Management Association. The UK operation is still in its infancy, although about 220 e-learning hours are currently available following licensing agreements with the UK's Gower Publishing and others.
Jonathan Norman, Gower's publisher of training resources, said that he welcomes the vendor's intention of broadening its portfolio. "A reseller which sells its customers learning management software with insufficient content isn't doing any favours," he said.
Barrie Farrow, Prime Learning's vice president for international sales, explained that his company mainly hosts websites, but is prepared to install its LMS on corporate intranets if preferred.
"When customers realise how closely they can stay in control, they frequently agree we should host the site. It can sit seamlessly alongside their intranets so does not prevent them from running their internal communications. There's also a powerful administration package which enables delivery to reflect employers' own culture," he said.
CASE STUDY: INTERWISE
InterWise works exclusively through resellers, according to Andrew Esposito, its UK channel manager, but it offers several types of deals.
"They can simply install our Millennium Licence for us to host, or we will sell bulk volumes of student hours for them to break down into small packages for resale. This means they must be capable of managing installation and ongoing support.
"It's an ideal channel-based programme, very services-rich; but if they are unable to cope alone, we can easily introduce them to other partners, forming a consortium.
"We did not approach distributors as we don't see the route to be two-tier. But we are keen to attract resellers as we appreciate they have a great deal of contact and expertise in their niche markets, so are better able to customise e-learning to meet their customers' precise requirements.
"Resellers could also record courses within their expertise and sell them commercially. We will help them to assess the potential return on their investment," he explained.
- E-learning is potentially a very lucrative source of income
- Resellers need to partner with versatile and reliable content providers
- Customers will expect to gain comprehensive communication packages
- Resellers will gain most by hosting sites for customers
- Resellers could consider becoming ASPs for serving SMEs
APPEARING IN THIS ARTICLE:
Academy Internet 01273 712 300
Association of Learning Technology 01865 484 125
Auridian Consulting 01494 723 777
BlueU 01225 483 100
British Computer Society 01793 417 417
Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development 020 8971 9000
Click2learn.com 020 7517 4200
Educational Multimedia 01784 898 211
Futuremedia 01932 761 889
Gower 01252 331 551
Institute of Directors 020 7839 1233
InterWise 0118 965 3863
Key Knowledge 020 7845 0700
Learningstore.co.uk 0118 970 8703
Prime Learning.com 01372 371 023
The eLearning Network 0192 385 3432
The Scottish University for Industry 0141 285 6000
Video Arts 020 7637 7288
Outsourcer says the size of the operation should be considered before criticising the error that affected 43,000 women
Vendor says a range of its products will be made SD-WAN compatible, with traditional networking 'completely under disruption'
With just a day to go until the 25th annual Channel Awards, we catch up with the SMB Reseller of the Year category sponsor Exertis, to find out why the sector is such a vital part of its business strategy
Analyst predicts spending on Robotic Process Automation will rise XX per cent next year, driven by price decreases