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Hosting the e-learning party

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by Clive Shepherd
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With the economic downturn hitting IT particularly hard, it has become increasingly difficult to get enterprise-wide software strategies off the ground. When learning needs won’t wait, more and more companies are looking to quick-start ASP (application service provider) solutions, where e-learning content, services and management systems are externally hosted, easing the pressure on internal resources and capital budgets. In this article, Clive Shepherd looks at the potential of hosted solutions for training departments who want to get going with e-learning but don’t want to hold back on the risks and the headaches.

Contents
It's got to be ASP
A host of good reasons
Avoiding the pitfalls
What makes a good host?
Case study: ASP gets Delta flying
Resources

It's got to be ASP

Times are tough for training managers looking to launch e-learning on a top-down basis, across their whole enterprise. Long-term strategic plans for e-learning are gathering dust as organisations cut back on capital spending and trim their IT budgets. It’s not that the plans no longer make sense, it’s just that they’re not making it to the top of the priority list, crowded out by what are seen as more mission-critical issues.

In the meantime, training needs continue to pile up and traditional methods cannot keep pace. Trainers know that e-learning – whether that’s self-paced learning, virtual classrooms or streaming media – can relieve the pressure and improve efficiencies; they just aren’t being given the chance to prove their point.

Trainers have two choices – either put e-learning on hold and wait for a more favourable climate, or take a look at new ways of getting e-learning going, which place less of a strain on internal resources. One way of achieving this is by applying the application service provider (ASP) model to the provision of e-learning content, services and management systems.

According to CompTIA, ‘an ASP provides applications – and all the IT infrastructure and support services necessary to deliver them – to customers on a subscription basis. ASPs typically host applications at a remote data centre and deliver them to customers via the Internet or a private network’. Using an ASP contrasts with the traditional solution, where applications are loaded on to an organisation’s own servers and maintained by the internal IT department. Research by CompTIA indicates that a sizeable proportion of organisations expect ASP services to allow them to adopt new applications they could not have previously cost-justified. When asked, 45% said ‘yes’, 40% said ‘no’ and 15% did not know.

So what benefits can trainers expect from applying the ASP model to e-learning? And what benefits will they have to forego by allowing e-learning to go outside the firewall? Let’s find out.

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A host of good reasons
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One reason for using an ASP solution is that you can get results without the wait. John Martin is VP Global Operations for LMS provider Pathlore: ‘ASP makes sense when the organisation can not react quickly enough any other way. Large organisations can find it hard to respond to new opportunities – sometimes it’s like turning a battleship. The most successful e-learning projects are driven by a critical business problem, and they can not wait two years while you get the system up and running. It’s simply more cost-effective to outsource. Using an ASP solution for e-learning is like running a line for electricity – why set up your own power plant when you can just flick a switch?’

Ascot Systems has seen an increase in demand for a hosted version of its virtual classroom software, NetTutor. According to Ascot’s Bob Eades: ‘Hosting could well be the future, particularly for organisations where staff are widely dispersed, rather than based in a single location. Hosting allows you to have as big or as small a solution as you want, without the need for long-term contracts.’

Bob likens renting a virtual classroom by the day to hiring out real, bricks and mortar conference facilities: ‘The price for NetTutor, of £250 a day, compares favourably with the costs of hiring a “real” training room, paying travel and subsistence costs for the tutor and trainees and so on. It also enables organisations to try out virtual classroom technology for a minimal cost rather than having to commit to capital expenditure before this learning delivery technology has proved its worth.’ Clients like BT Broadband are already taking advantage of this technology to train customer service staff throughout the UK in weekly online training courses.

Karina Ward is Marketing Communications Manager for leading e-learning content publisher, NETg: ‘The primary reason people outsource their e-learning is because of the impact on internal IT systems. This could be because they have a limited infrastructure or don't want to clog up bandwidth that is used for mission critical applications. Using an e-learning solution that is hosted externally also saves time and money as there is no need to buy the necessary hardware or to recruit IT staff for maintenance, both of content and site performance.’

‘But another factor training managers need to consider is that learners need to have constant access to the latest skills - using a hosted e-learning solution, the courses can be updated for the company as and when the course provider develops new courses or modifies existing ones. From the perspective of increasing business performance, if the e-learning solution is hosted outside your corporate domain, this also allows for learners from different organisations to interact with each other and, like a new employee, can provide your employees with fresh ideas and encourage knowledge-sharing across businesses.’

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Avoiding the pitfalls
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Cynics amongst you will no doubt be asking, ‘so if ASP’s such a good option, why isn’t everyone using it?’ A good question indeed. The fact is that the early days of ASP were dogged by concerns about security, reliability and performance, concerns that are gradually becoming resolved. One company that has been able to overcome the concerns is virtual classroom provider Centra, who have more than 180 active ASP customers, including, in the UK, Cadbury-Schweppes, Exel Logistics and Axa.

Lawrence Whittle is VP for Europe, Middle East and Africa: ‘Security issues are now much less of a problem. All ASP traffic through the firewall can be virus checked in the normal way and proprietary information can be SSL encrypted if need be. As long as the ASP uses the very best hosting facilities – and Centra uses Sprint and Cable & Wireless – then the security arrangements are likely to be as good as they can be, probably better than any internal network.’

Another concern is that ASP traffic will place too heavy a burden on the organisation’s Internet pipeline. Says Whittle: ‘Any customer needs to make sure they have adequate bandwidth available, given the amount that the ASP facility is going to be used, although there is no reason why this should be a problem. In fact some regional offices can have better direct connections to the Internet than they can obtain on their intranet running on their wide area network.’

Peter McLintock is e-Learning Director for Global Knowledge. He admits that ASP solutions can meet with firewall constraints or Internet volume restrictions, although these barriers are clearly being overcome, as some 60% of their sales of self-paced e-learning content to enterprises is now hosted. ‘Hosting content internally can increase performance but a lot depends on the technology put in place by the service provider. We have a contract with Akamie, an expert in content distribution who provide facilities for major media players such as CNN. Akamie cache media-rich content, such as audio, video and Flash on their network of 13000 ‘edge servers’ placed all around the Internet, thus ensuring the best possible performance at any time of day.’

McLintock believes that the ASP customer gets as good a deal as one who is hosting their own content: ‘With our hosted system, which is based on our Knowledge Pathways LCMS, each customer has their own work space on the system and can set up any number of user groups or locations, which allows us to provide detailed reports. It costs our customers no more if we host the content than if they do, and they can choose from a variety of payment models, including a simple ‘pay as you go’.

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What makes a good host?
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All ASPs are not equal, so trainers need to take some care in selecting a suitable supplier. Top of the list is making sure that the application provided – whether that’s an LMS, authoring tool, streaming media service, e-learning content or virtual classroom – meets your needs in terms of cost and performance. Next, with major consolidation taking place in the e-learning marketplace, you’ll want to make sure that your ASP has a sound financial position and is likely to be around long enough to deliver (although its much easier to change an ASP than a provider who is installing inside the firewall).

You’ll also need to be sure that the ASP can deliver high performance, using the best hosting services available, that is scalable to meet your growing needs. Performance needs to be delivered alongside the highest levels of security and top-level customer service. To ensure you get what you need, you’ll almost definitely want to negotiate a service level agreement (SLA) which is quite specific in terms of the quality of service to be provided.
Clearly expectations are being met. A recent study measuring usage of ASPs in general, has identified that internal IT staff within larger organisations show a high propensity to consider renting desktop applications from ASPs, enabling them to confine their activities to developing core systems of strategic importance to the business. The computer and high technology businesses (20%) are proving to be the greatest users of ASP services, followed by retail organizations (16%) and the public sector (12%).

Sheila McGovern, an e-learning senior research analyst at IDC, a division of International Data Group, believes that it is the high cost of becoming involved in e-learning in-house that is making e-learning ASPs so popular. ‘E-learning is actually not so different to other types of IT solutions. The key driver to adopting the ASP model for e-learning is cost savings in the short term – because doing it in-house involves a big initial outlay.’ Implications for the market are not trivial as IDC predicts spending on ASP services to soar to nearly $8 billion by 2004, up from $296 million in 1999.

Early reactions to the ASP model muted, as IT departments questioned the risks involved in extending responsibility for business applications beyond the firewall. Cynics may have questioned whether they saw ASP as a way of diminishing their power and responsibility, the thin end of the outsourcing wedge. However, as Whittle happily reports: ‘The issues are simply not getting raised anymore. Our customers want ASP solutions, particularly the first time users. It seems the emotion is out of ASP now.’

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Case study:  ASP gets Delta flying
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By implementing an ASP solution with leading learning management system (LMS) provider Pathlore, Delta Air Lines was up and running with its e-learning programme in an amazing six weeks. By selecting Pathlore's hosted LMS offering, Delta were able to leave Pathlore to handle all tasks related to the management and administration of their e-learning environments, making it possible for them to deploy e-learning programmes quickly and effectively.

‘Offloading the management of the LMS to Pathlore allowed us to focus our attention on our employees and further develop the content and strategy behind our e-learning programme,’ said Don Bolen, general manager, training technology/video services for Delta Air Lines. ‘In today's competitive business environment, organisations need scalable, flexible learning solutions that can be implemented and managed with minimal effort.’

The initial phase of Delta's program included the use of the Pathlore LMS registration, scheduling and tracking features to facilitate an enterprise-wide course on business literacy. This instructor-led simulation workshop was designed to enhance the business acumen of Delta employees by detailing the company's business processes and the ways in which employees can make an impact on the company's future success.

Delta also will use Pathlore LMS to deploy blended-learning programs consisting of online and instructor-led courses, many of which meet US federal regulatory requirements. Future training initiatives include skills management, corporate compliance courseware, a content repository and a variety of professional development opportunities.

With Pathlore's hosting services, the LMS is installed and maintained on secure, high-availability servers in a full-service hosted environment that includes data backup and recovery capabilities. Customers have a variety of access options, including Internet VPN and T-1 connectivity. Customers can use the full range of LMS features to manage their e-learning initiatives efficiently, including web-based training administration and management, self-service registration, and delivery of standard Crystal Enterprise LMS reports. Pathlore's hosted solution also provides customers with the option to move their LMS in-house seamlessly at any time.

‘Pathlore LMS supports our decentralised training environment, which enables pilots, airport customer service staff, ticket agents and other employee groups to receive specialised training unique to their job responsibilities,’ said Bill Kline, chief learning officer at Delta Air Lines. ‘With its scalability, flexibility and quick installation time, Pathlore LMS was the best selection, and we expect the rollout to generate enthusiasm from all involved.’
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Resources
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CompTIA: www.comptia.com 
ASPnews:
www.aspnews.com
The ASP Consortium: http://www.allaboutasp.com/
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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