In the ever-changing cabling industry, increased access to training is essential for updating basic skills and maintaining job performance. A past article (see "Using technology to learn technology," Cabling Installation & Maintenance, November 1998, page 27) predicted an increase in online learning "fueled by network bandwidth and multimedia capabilities" and a "shift from off-line, self-paced training to instructor-led virtual classrooms."
Telcordia offers a range of live online and computer-based courses, covering everything from broadband networking and installation to quality assurance, switching, wireless systems, and intelligent networks.
Companies at that time were beginning to step up efforts to provide computer-based training (CBT) and Web-based training (WBT) in addition to traditional classroom instruction. Although instructor-led classroom training is still the method of choice for teaching hands-on skill, recent years have seen an increase in CBT/WBT, and vast improvements in their design and delivery. Today, "e-learning" is the buzzword that refers to these alternative educational products—and training providers, industry organizations, and manufacturers are jumping on board. (See table, page 48.)
Light Brigade recently launched Passive Optical Networks (PON) computer-based training, which covers terminology, components, use, and integration.
Training as a core business
Many industry manufacturers outsource training to third-party providers who have the expertise and means to provide several topics and training methods. "Training by manufacturers focuses on the products they sell, and some training providers specialize in a certain technology or delivery technique," explains Susan Ross, marketing communications manager, Telcordia Learning Services (www.800teachme.com). According to Ross, a comprehensive training provider like Telcordia delivers unbiased material and possesses overall industry knowledge, enabling them to instruct students on how equipment, systems, and services fit in with all the components of a network.
Telcordia offers a range of On-line Live and CBT courses, covering everything from broadband networking and installation to quality assurance, switching, wireless systems, and intelligent networks. "Four years ago, e-learning was mostly self-paced CBT, but now we're supplementing that with On-Line Live training where students have the benefit of participating in a virtual classroom with other students, and real-time interaction with a live instructor over the Internet," says Ross.
According to Ross, interest in e-learning has increased due to budget, travel, and workforce reductions and because new delivery technologies enable higher quality training products. "It's important to deliver e-learning that's content-rich, designed with the learner in mind, has relevance to the job or learning objectives, and is engaginggoing beyond the page-turner approach," says Ross. "Bringing the training lab as close to our customers as possible gives them a learning experience they like and content that's relevant to their jobs."
Light Brigade (www.lightbrigade.com) recently launched a Passive Optical Networks (PON) CBT—the first in a series of optical-fiber CBTs. Available for $250, the PON CBT covers terminology, components, use, and integration. According to Larry Johnson, president, Light Brigade, the PON CBT also lets designers plug in maps and splitting locations, and calculate loss to help build their network. "In developing CBT, it's important to remember that people learn differently and to consider the role of the audience," says Johnson. Digital graphics and animation, he says, are excellent tools for demonstrating optical theory. Light Brigade also offers an online how-to series covering cleaving, polishing, inspecting, and testing for optical-fiber networks, and a technology series on connectors, testing, applications, and system design.
Having provided training for more than 40 years, AVO International Training Institute (www.avointl.com) recently got its feet wet with e-learning by adding online courses as a precursor to its classroom training. "After feeling the effects of 9-11 through a decrease in enrollment, we decided to take advantage of advances in online technology and explore e-learning," says Mack McGuire, AVO's director of sales and marketing.
Available free via the Web or CD-ROM, AVO's first phase of e-learning includes six knowledge assessment tests. The second phase consists of $295 online courses, aimed at getting students up to speed on the specific technologies. "After completing the assessment and online course, users can enroll in our instructor-led classes and receive a $150 rebate," explains McGuire. "The purpose behind the online courses is to get students to a certain skill level before they attend our classroom training."
BICSI (www.bicsi.org) offers several online standards-based courses specifically designed to help students understand ANSI/TIA/EIA guidelines. According to Kimberly Yoshihara, BICSI instructional designer, a grounding and bonding WBT is planned for the last quarter of this year. In January, BICSI plans to release four online courses geared towards understanding Division 25 as it applies to the telecommunications industry. "Although we believe that some hands-on applications are better suited for the classroom, e-learning provides students with another means of receiving training while eliminating the expenses associated with time and travel to classroom training," says Yoshihara.
E-learning with manufacturers
Although most industry manufacturers provide instructor-led classroom training, a few offer e-learning to assist customers in the use of products. Fluke Networks (www.flukenetworks.com) has provided e-learning for more than five years, but according to Nichelle Williams, Fluke's training development manager, changes in technology and bandwidth have created a greater reaction to WBT. "It used to be difficult to download or go through WBT, but with increased bandwidth and computer capabilities, we've seen 90% of our customers choose WBT over CBT," says Williams. "Interactivity has also improved. E-learning used to be a glorified PowerPoint presentation, but now customers can use a simulated version of a product."
In addition to e-learning courses for their testers and analyzers, Fluke provides an online Basic Ethernet technology course. Purchasing a Gold SuperVision Support Membership lets Fluke customers receive warranties, discounts, and free access to the e-learning courses—usually available for $395, or $95 for Fluke's smaller tools.
Hubbell Premise Wiring (www.hubbell-premise.com) offers free CBT for its fiber and copper connectivity solutions, and in September launched its first "webinar" (Web-based seminar) to train users on a labeling system. Through Present Online, a Web-based conferencing service, users can log on and view the presentation, hear the presenter via telephone, and type in questions as needed. "E-learning is an exciting avenue for us to communicate with our customers," says Rob Baxter, director of datacom marketing. "Although classroom training will always be a large part of our repertoire, we're hoping to reach more people and provide a forum for discussing products and installation issues." Hubbell is planning frequent "webinars," including one on wall-mount solutions that will be available soon.
A long-time supporter of e-learning, Cisco Systems (www.cisco.com) uses third-party training providers (accessible from Cisco's Web site) to deliver product training. Don Field, senior manager of certifications, says that by working with learning partners, Cisco is better able to provide broader solutions. "Our approach is to stick to what we do best and let the training experts deliver the training," says Field. Through Cisco's learning partners, students can access several e-learning options, including the ability to practice on real equipment at remote labs via the Internet. According to Field, Cisco views e-learning as a powerful Internet business solution that will drive productivity in the cabling industry.
Although most industry manufacturers provide instructor-led classroom training, a few, such as Fluke Networks, offer e-learning to assist customers in the use of its products.
Several manufacturers disseminate product-oriented CD-ROMs, and many include access to guides and installation instructions on their websites. Corning Cable Systems (www.corningcablesystems.com) offers online tutorials covering the principles of optical fiber and fusion splicing. But according to Scott Stevens, manager training services, the on-line tutorials are merely informational. "E-learning is a great alternative, but we believe the true hands-on classroom experience to be best for teaching the installation of our products," says Stevens.
E-learning for the future
Four years ago, the consensus among cabling-industry professionals was that e-learning would never replace traditional classroom training. Today, while that consensus still holds true, many believe that as e-learning continues to improve, it will blend with traditional classroom training and provide a greater degree of learner control. "Blending e-learning and classroom training may include online courses that serve as a suggested pre-course tool to classroom training, or as refreshers and overviews for students in pursuit of instructor-led certificate programs," says Ross, of Telcordia. "We can also teach a traditional class at a customer location and dial in remotely to access lab equipment for demo purposes."
Cisco's Field believes the future is bright for e-learning and expects to see more personalization capabilities in e-learning products. "Adult learners know what they want to accomplish, and personalization will provide students control over their own learning paths," says Field.
According to Fluke's Williams, as the cost-efficiency and flexibility of e-learning increases, more companies will jump on board. "Our first e-learning module cost over $100,000 to develop, but now we're getting them done for as little as $8,000," says Williams. "There are so many tools and services available to easily develop cost-effective e-learning programs."
Betsy Ziobron is a freelance writer covering the cabling industry.