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Mon 2 Oct 2006 04:00 AM

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Lifelong eLearning

Businesses are learning that technology can be used not only to deliver new training, but to monitor the level of skills development within a company. This is becoming increasingly important to firms building for the future, as ACN finds out.

|~|batelco-E-Learning200.jpg|~|BATELCO: Peter Kaliaropolous, chief executive Batelco (3rd from left), Sheikh Ahmed Al-Khalifa, human resource and services unit general manager (4th from left), training officer Catriona Shaw (5th from left).|~|Anyone who wants to add value to their business cannot afford to neglect their investment in human capital. Increasingly, companies are using new technology to deliver training to their staff, both to refresh their existing skills and develop new ones.

Shameema Parveen, knowledge officer, Edutech, says that businesses are starting to realise the added benefits they can receive when they deliver their training through eLearning. "Companies now want to be able to manage their learning and link it to performance management and the talent management of the company itself, so they're not just providing learning for the current need but they're building their workforce for their business needs of tomorrow," she says.

"They're providing them with those skills and the competence that they require so that the business can be successful three or four years from now, not just providing them with the top courses that meet the needs of today."

Parveen also points out that eLearning need not be the solitary activity some perceive it to be. "When eLearning first started it was said that you can save on travel costs and on lodging costs," she says.

"That's why content was provided online, just as static content, you can go in and browse and learn by yourself. But using that same concept, you can have something like live eLearning where a trainer is situated in one country and the learner is situated in another part of the world, and they can come together at one particular time online to collaborate and learn with each other.

"So learning from a static eLearning programme is just one thing. You cannot interact enough with it. You need to have the additional support of a trainer to respond to those interactions, if you have questions, or want to be able to provide a comment or provide an input to someone else's question. That is how we really learn."

The collaboration aspect is also useful when many users need to learn the same thing at the same time. "These tools have actually expanded that capability from just chatting to include other capabilities like application sharing," says Parveen.

"Let's say a company wants to roll out a new application and they want to be able to train all of these people at the same time. They can share that application, so a learner in Saudi Arabia, for example, can take control of an application that is being run from a PC in Dubai, and learn with it, and be able to ask questions and interact." Countries where voice over IP is in use can also utilise it as a means for users to interact.

Businesses can take measures to ensure that the shared learning experience stays focused and does not become entirely social. "All of this is also able to be controlled by the trainer so it doesn't become too much of a social collaboration, but just a learning collaboration," says Parveen. "The trainer still has a controlling capability so if it goes off learning they're able to bring them all back."

She believes that technology is now accepted as a delivery medium for learning and that learners are happy to use it. "IT skills development is beginning to decline because people now come with very good IT skills," Parveen says. "That's taken for granted. You don't really need to be trained in any of these applications - unless of course there's a major change in an application like with Windows Vista, then there might be a new training need that develops."

Ali Gohar is head business analyst at Abu Dhabi Gas Liquefaction Company (Adgas), which introduced eLearning for its staff more than 10 years ago.

"It has replaced our manual learning process," says Gohar. "We use it for health and safety, some technical courses, industrial courses, courses related to plant operations, and management courses."

Some of the courses Adgas runs, which are provided by Edutech, can be conducted online, something which the company is keen to increase. "Some [programmes] can be accessed from anywhere," says Gohar. "People living on site can access from their room. Some courses are not web-based so they have to be in the training room. We are planning to upgrade to all web-based. It's much easier to maintain the courses."

Having been an early adopter of eLearning, Adgas has seen its training delivery models change over the years, as new technology has become available.||**|||~|EasyLearning-Card-Designs20.jpg|~|EasyLearning: Etisalat hopes to simplify learning delivery for the home user.|~|"Before, we used videos, then we digitised the videos and put them on the web," says Gohar. "Now this is another way forward. It improved a lot, and interest increased. Now the user can leave a course at a certain point and come back."

He says that eLearning does not require special technical skills from its users. "They should not necessarily be a computer user, but our staff are all computer literate," he says.

It is hard to calculate return on investment, but Adgas has made a major commitment to eLearning and Gohar believes the company has seen benefits. "We hope we'll save time and money. We are spending a lot in this area. We're increasing efficiency."

The next step for Adgas is to unify its standards for eLearning. It will also be looking to prepare staff for changes in the business, and the industry, before they happen.
Changes have also been occurring in technology, and local solution provider Universal Learning Solutions (UKS) has been quick to adapt its material for new platforms. "The PC is just another mode to deliver content," says Hadi Shaheen, head of corporate and professional development,

"However, our solutions can work on any mobile device - PDAs, laptops, TVs. We have already created several courses such as ICDL to be delivered on mobile devices. This is part of the on-the-field training where mobile, wearable devices can be used to deliver the right learning content at the right time and right place."

Shaheen believes that eLearning needs are similar across different nations. "Other than language requirements, there are no different requirements," he says. "The need for such solutions is not bounded by countries but by organisational visions and their drive to become leaders in their industries."
Colleges themselves also need to consider whether the technology they use is suited to the task.

Dr Narimane Hadjhamou is dean for learning and technology at e-TQM (Total Quality Management) college in the UAE.
The college uses a range of eLearning technology to deliver training in quality management to corporate customers, including open access courses, certified programmes like Six Sigma, and its executive club programme.

"E-TQM college uses a blended learning approach," says Hadjhamou. "It's a blend of physical and online. Most of the open access courses would be remotely online. It's through the web, they can access the course online and then they could collaborate with their fellow learners and faculty members through an online platform called a virtual learning environment. It's the place through which the student will access his course, check the status of his progress in the course."

Online learning happens in two modes: synchronous and asynchronous. Synchronous sessions require all users to log on at the same time for a shared learning experience. "The lecturer could share his presentation with the students and explain the presentation through audio-video conferencing tools," says Hadjhamou.

"The students might have a question so they have a kind of box where they can raise their hand to pose the question. The question could be posed verbally through audio-conferencing or it could be asked through chat in order not to interrupt the class. The faculty can allow students to gain access to their own desktop, so it's a very powerful tool."

However, executive training uses a different approach. "They don't have time to log in to a portal on the internet and spend hours on that, so we tried to find different ways to deliver learning," says Hadjhamou.

"So we would deliver learning on a PDA for instance, or we would deliver it on CDs that are easy to use. They are more into corporate training so we don't require assessments like exams, it's mainly documenting case studies, publishing in journals, rather than the conventional learning approach you would use."

Executives in the scheme are guided by mentors, experts in quality management, who can be contacted in an online environment called the quality hub. "The quality hub is like a rich encyclopaedia of knowledge and best practices," says Hadjhamou. "They have their communication tools so they can talk with the expert of the month. The aim of this portal is for the exchange of information."

Although some institutions have implemented new technology such as satellite TV channels to deliver learning to their customers, Hadjhamou believes that eLearning providers need to think carefully before they make an investment. "People say that eLearning is less expensive than conventional learning," she says.

"From a student point of view it is less expensive, but from an institutional point of view the start-up costs for establishing eLearning are very high and the return on investment doesn't start appearing for three to five years. So this is why institutions have to carefully select what they want to integrate. Unless you have a clear direction you might bankrupt your institution."||**|||~|edutech200.jpg|~|Parveen: eLearning can help businesses build the workforce they need for tomorrow.|~|Etisalat, the UAE telco, recently came up with a way to deliver eLearning, through its new EasyLearning service. Users purchase a scratch card for AED 30 (US$8), in much the same way as they would buy credit for their mobile phone. They enter the special number at the Etisalat Academy website and can then download their course content, which is accessible offline for three months.

Users have the convenience of consulting the material in their own home and at times convenient for them. When they have studied the course content, they can take a final examination, either online or at a local test centre. On passing the exam, users receive a certificate accredited by the UN, Serebra, University of Virginia, UAE University and Etisalat Academy. If an employer wishes to check the authenticity of a certificate, they can check it at a website address using a printed verification code.

Ahmad Bin Ali, manager of corporate communications, Etisalat, says: "Adopting this one-of-a-kind initiative reflects Etisalat's dynamic role in the society, along with its concern for developing the knowledge mechanisms that assist in developing the human capital within the UAE."

EasyLearning offers a wide range of courses in subjects including administration, software programming, IT, e-government, accounting & finance, human resources, as well as Cisco, Oracle and Microsoft training courses. Etisalat believes it is the only initiative in the region to focus on continuing professional development. The scheme will also offer a large number of courses in Arabic soon.

"We strive to contribute to the development and qualification of candidates in private and governmental corporations, both regionally and internationally,” says Dr Doaa Fares, general manager, Etisalat Academy. “This programme aims to close the gap between the requirements of the labour market with the different educational institutes and training companies."

Another regional telco has also made an investment in eLearning and professional development. Batelco, the incumbent operator in Bahrain, last month announced the first 21 graduates of its supported eLearning course in Time Management. Supported eLearning was launched in June to offer Batelco staff the opportunity to develop both personal and professional skills in a wide range of subject areas.

Time Management is the first course to be offered, but 26 other subjects will be available to study later this year. The courses combine eLearning with traditional classroom sessions at the Batelco Training Centre to give staff support and a flexible way to learn.

"ELearning lets us have information at our fingertips and provides the opportunity to apply that knowledge interactively at our own pace," says Batelco chief executive Peter Kaliaropolous. "Our strategy is to develop an organisation with a culture where self-learning is encouraged. Human capital is the most competitive advantage a company has and by supporting the development of staff the company will reap the benefits long-term."

It seems that demand for corporate eLearning is still on the increase, according to local providers. New Horizons operates more than 40 computer learning centres in the Middle East and was recently awarded the EC-Council's prestigious Middle East Authorised Training Centre (ATC) of the year award. It used to be the case that only the largest IT houses in the region were able to invest in eLearning applications, but New Horizons has seen the market mature with demand from smaller companies growing.

"Our customised enterprise solutions allow corporate training managers the ability to easily administer their learning programs and track the progress of all participating employees," says Wassim Hamadah, marketing manager of New Horizons.

"Maximising the investment in training is important for all companies, and New Horizons assists each client with the management and measurement of their training activities. The variety of learning options from New Horizons allows students to learn in the manner that best suits their schedule, budget, learning style and expertise."

Hani Al Shazly is vice president, business development and sales, for Integrated Solutions for Business (ISB), which provides content management systems for eLearning. ISB counts government and military customers among its client list, and says that demand has definitely been growing in the region.

"Saudi Arabia, believe it or not, is becoming one of the top markets for us right now, especially with the e-government project," he says. "After that, it's between the UAE, Lebanon and Egypt." Although learning is usually conducted in English, ISB offers an Arabic option, which Al Shazly says is essential in many countries.

Although content will always be the key to developing and maintaining skills in one's staff, service providers are coming up with an increasing number of methods to ensure that the channel of delivery enhances the message, rather than complicating it.

Analysts have often complained of an IT skills shortage in the Middle East, but perhaps IT itself can provide the solution.||**||

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