Using intranet-based training systems to provide a two-way learning arena

Intranet-based training provides a low cost, virtual two-way learning arena with students connected to mentors and teachers...

Intranet-based training provides a low cost, virtual two-way learning arena with students connected to mentors and teachers receiving real-time feedback and support

Managers with employees scattered among sites and locations, particularly if they are so far flung that they are in different countries, need a cheap and effective way to train them. Computer-based training (CBT) is already proven as the way to train without the need for students to travel, but has limitations in the flexibility,...

adaptability and control of the training it delivers. The answer is an intranet-based training system. This is an IT network for delivering images, training course material and training collateral which uses the Internet as a backbone. The most outstanding benefit, apart from the low cost and knock-on savings, is that it can be a virtual two-way system, with students connected to mentors and teachers receiving real-time feedback and support. And these days, there is little need to compromise because of the limitations of technology; web video with streaming media is now a reality, so a tutor can actually demonstrate something in real time to a group of students working in a different time or place.

Nevertheless, the decision to deploy training over an intranet and getting it right are two different things. There are still technical and cultural issues to consider. The course content is not going to be the same as in classroom training or conventional CBT environments. Luckily, there are many experts to help and advise so, although the problems are many and complex, you can fall back on well informed and highly skilled consultants to help you get it right. Predictably though, many of these consultants have axes to grind. Few are completely independent and able to recommend the best solution regardless of their vested interest. So, the first thing to establish is exactly who those advising you represents. You might then, perhaps, also want to discuss your requirements with other consultants too.

But before you get to that point, you should assess your needs and prepare yourself with a list of requirements for an intranet-training system to be built and deployed. If you already have an intranet, you will only need to add the training content. However, you will require authoring tools, if you are going to build your own material; a content management system; hardware to store the data and files of student responses (and hardware requirements can be significant if you are planning real time video streaming); and the skills to deploy, install and run the system. The fact is that to get an intranet-based training system working properly, above all, you need good training.

It is helpful, not least from a budget perspective, if the new system takes advantage of existing desktop technology and does not require significant further investment in hardware and limits further investment in software. VideoCast from DataFleet demonstrates how this can be done, with the training material received on an entry level desktop PC with sophisticated system tools to support the creation and control of video files and broadcasts held on the corporate server. Other products that exploit existing investment include RealNetworks' RealServer G2 and Microsoft's Windows Media Server 3.0. In fact, the limitation on technology may come from the Web rather than your desktop technology, where bandwidth is less likely to be a problem.

Streaming video involves passing lots of images and information smoothly and quickly across a video, and the technical pressures are high to ensure the integrity of the stream. Quality video streaming requires strength and reliability at all points along the delivery network, including Internet connections, server and client connections, and all the connections in between. One problem with web streaming is that the connections between the server and the clients will never fully be under the user's control, and there are many variables which make it impossible to guarantee performance.

For best audio and video quality, the video should be encoded by the server software at the highest optimum speed. The two market leaders for this task are RealNetworks' RealServer G2 and Windows Media Services 3.0, which is a group of products including NetShow Services for Windows NT. The advantage of the latter is the chief advantage of any Microsoft product - the credibility of the brand and the comfort factor to the users, but analysts say that it can't match RealServer G2 for functionality or adaptability.

RealServer G2 offers multi-platform support, streams a wide variety of files and formats, except MPEG-2, and is already widely accepted as a product that works. The Microsoft product, limited to the Windows platform, is still being evaluated by many organisations and the jury is still out on whether it really competes with G2 at all.

Both can be implemented on an existing network and web site, and G2 also offers remote monitoring from any Java compatible browser which makes it more attractive to those setting up intranets for training. A better choice might be Windows Media Technologies 4.0, which is still in beta release stage and is more likely to give G2 a run for its money.

At the client end, there is a battle between RealNetworks' and Microsoft with their Plus G2 and Media Player products respectively. RealNetworks dominates, although Microsoft is working hard to catch up. Another rival is Geo Interactive with its Emblaze VideoPro 2.0, which makes no attempt to provide video capture but concentrates on compressing and receiving video.

You are likely to need more storage and, if the server is going to be occupied for the new training purpose for long periods, then you may need a dedicated one. If you are planning video streaming (real time video over the Internet) then you will need appropriate hardware and software and you may even want to consider other forms of connection than telephone lines.

At the same time as you investigate the technology, you should be considering the internal culture and whether it is currently receptive to web-based training. If it is not, some time spent preparing managers and employees at an early stage can facilitate acceptance later. One way is to point out the benefits. Mats Jahansson, managing director of Futuremedia iLearning ( which has developed a net-based learning and knowledge management system called Solstra, currently being used at Ford and at ( says that there is a dichotomy between the traditional training methods that HR managers instinctively prefer and the new technologies, which they instinctively resist. "Managers have to realise that sophisticated internet-based learning systems, like Solstra, offer much more that simple training delivery mechanisms. Their interactive features allow for online discussion groups to be set up amongst people who normally wouldn't be able to get together." He adds that advanced administrative capabilities mean that a management overview of a training course is always available, both while it is going on and when it is completed. However there is still a wide gulf between what is available and HR managers' knowledge of intranet-based training. "Intranet-based training is cheaper and more flexible than any other system, yet there is still resistance to it," he says.

It is not always necessary to devise, design or create entirely new material for the intranet-based training system but you do have to be careful about the type of media that you use to create the content. Graphics stored using JPEG compression techniques, for example, will take substantially less desk space, bandwidth and network time than images stored as TIFFs. If you are working with an outside agency to convert existing material into intranet-suitable material, you also have to factor in the cost of the agency.

The most difficult area of work (to convert for internet dissemination) is probably the practical work and demonstrations. You may need to make new recordings and consider how the system will stand up to the test of time. Elsbeth Meijje, new business development manager with Sybase Education, which uses an approach called Next Generation Learning (NGL) providing organisations with the technology to compile, manage, store and deploy course content, says: "Managers investing in intranet-based training have to consider the scalability of the system they are buying. Will it, for example, expand to cope with ten times the number of students and a hundred times the number of course modules?" She recommends a thin-client approach where as much material as possible is stored on a central server with a robust application to manage it. "You need to be able to protect your content from changes in web delivery standard such as HTML5, XML or even WebTV. The best way to store course material is as granular chunks which can be reused in different ways to suit different students and courses."

Students expect the same kind of flexibility and control that they are already familiar with in ordinary computer based training. Dr. Nick Lutte, director of Ascot Systems, which has developed products called NetTutor and CourseMaster, says: "Students need to be able to ask questions individually and alert the tutor if they are not understanding the information. We offer a 'too fast' button allowing the tutor to slow down or repeat information as necessary."

A huge, and often unexpected, benefit of intranet-based training is that it can lead to an enhanced sense of community within the organisation. Students and managers, normally separated by miles and workstyles, can find themselves in the same virtual classroom, able to collaborate in real time. Some products are designed to enhance this feeling, such as CBT Campus from CBT Systems, which provides an intranet-based environment within which training materials and people can work. Paul Henry, vice president of CBT Systems, believes that most so-called "web-based training" does not even begin to leverage the true power of the Internet.

He says: "Using Internet technologies to quickly deliver cost effective education software to students is important and something we have been doing for a couple of years. But the objective should be to re-define technology-based education and training with better delivery, more dynamic and topical content and more personalised and relevant training experiences."

Henry says that he has created a new training model with intranet training. He explains: "Traditionally, training was delivered to the business community through instructor-led training. This method had the advantage of allowing for last minute changes to reflect new developments, the ability to customise for specific requirements and interaction and collaboration between experts and students." Henry adds that over the last decade, organisations have been demanding more training, available where the student was located and when they needed it. "This demand has been accelerated by enterprise-wide training strategies and the result has been educational decisions on the business community which are fundamentally trade-offs between the benefits of instructor-led training on the one hand and the benefits of technology-based solutions on the other."

But when an intranet is properly used, with the right technology and software, these requirements are jointly served. Instead of creating differing solutions that do not meet anyone's expectations, says Henry. "We can deliver an Internet-based learning environment which provides students with self-paced interactive training with the benefits of instructor-led training. Managers setting up an intranet-based system should expect interaction, collaboration and support for students, without compromising any of the benefits of technology-based training."

While the technology underpinning the intranet and defining the content quality and speed of information delivery is obviously crucial, so is the content. Some online training material takes a PowerPoint approach, which requires a local trainer to present, interpret and explain. At the other end of the scale are products like VideoCast from Datafleet, which allows video material to be distributed to desktops. Tim Mason, engineering manager of Datafleet explains: "Training material needs to be kept topical, lively and must be flexible. Video over IP is the way to deliver information, demonstrations and other training materials to employees so that they can watch it in their own time and in their own location. There are no travel costs, time away from their jobs is limited to the barest minimum and the students are able to receive feedback from their teachers and colleagues as part of the training program.

"Any number of training videos can be stored digitally on departmental or corporate servers," says Mason. "Systems administrators have complete control over the scheduling and content of the broadcasts and can choose the titles. Staff can use on-line scheduling to plan their own training to coincide with the broadcasts they want to watch." Mason says that the system offers extreme flexibility and accelerates learning curves. "Individuals can identify their training needs in advance and then work through the relevant titles at their own speed without waiting for a special group or one-to-one sessions to be arranged."

The VideoCast system broadcasts one video at a time to limit the bandwidth used and to ensure that the network remains clear for other applications and data streams. Mason says: "Multi-programme scheduling can be achieved by breaking individual videos into short 10 to 15 minute segments. By watching the appropriate segments in sequence as they are broadcast, a user can view the entire programme over any chosen period without taking the whole time out in one go." This helps minimise disruption to daily work, breaking learning into easily digestible segments and ensuring a wide number of titles are available at any time. By allowing staff to work through existing training material at their own speed, VideoCast can free valuable scheduled HR evaluations and one-to-one and group sessions for higher level activities and interpersonal training tailored to an individual's needs.

Annie Gurton

This was last published in July 1999

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