Many Canadian businesses are opting for online training as a way to equip employees with necessary skills, while cutting back on travel costs.
With economic challenges forcing firms here to adopt new cost-cutting strategies, e-learning has become a very attractive option.
The Canadian e-learning industry was worth around $880 million in 2005, according to QualitE-Learning Assurance Inc., a Vancouver-based outfit that assesses and evaluates e-learning products and services for both consumers and providers.
“E-learning is the growth industry of the future,” says Kathryn Chang Barker, founder-president of FuturEd Consulting Education Futurists Inc. a research and consulting services firm.
Another expert echoes this view.
At a corporate level, e-learning is definitely growing due to a tough economy and the need to do more training with less cash, says Cushing Anderson, vice-president of learning services research at tech analyst firm, IDC in Framingham, Mass.
“It’s an inexpensive way to deliver content to more people and removes the need for costly travel.”
Anderson says general availability of the technology has made it easier for organizations to build courses online.
Taking advantage of the market demand, vendors are introducing new online training tools.
One example is Microsoft RoundTable – a video-conferencing device that features 360-degree panoramic camera and can serve as a collaboration or online training tool.
The technology is being used by the Child Life Interactive Computers for Kids (CLICK) program – that’s running at hospitals across the country and enables kids to access a virtual classroom from their beds.
E-learning is being adopted more for corporate training than as an educational method by schools or colleges, Anderson says.
“There’s a mentality in education that learning is place-specific and it’s [difficult] to change the mindset that there can be learning without coming to school.”
But those mindset changes are more likely to happen today – given the financial challenges triggered by the faltering economy.
It’s convincing parents they need not pay for costly tutoring services – such as Oxford or Sylvan – when there are equally good options online.
One such online service is TutorJam, an e-learning portal for K to 12 students that allows them to connect with a tutor anytime.
The service – offered by a Waterloo, Ont.-based company of the same name – was created by Ajit Singh, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, who is founder and CEO of TuturJam, and Nathan Arora, the firm’s vice-president of sales and marketing.
Singh and Arora launched the company more than a year ago realizing the need for online educational services and believing they could offer something far better than what was currently available.
At the time, most online coaching programs offered whiteboard and chat, but that wasn’t adequate, Arora said.
He said TutorJam sought to introduce Web 2.0 tools and greater interactivity into e-learning – through tools such as two-way audio, as well as video to improve the tutor-student relationship.
By the end of January, the portal will also include a multiple-video set up for group sessions.
The biggest initial challenge was convincing parents they don’t need to drive across town to take their kids to tutoring and the online service is as high quality as advertised, Arora said.
He said the economic downturn has actually fuelled business growth. “Parents are looking for a more affordable alternative to traditional tutoring services, which charge hundreds of dollars a month for a few sessions. Our business is proving to be recession proof.”
Most sales have come from word of mouth and marketing on social media sites, he said.
The company plans to expand into the English as a second language market next. They have already started investing in marketing campaigns abroad and hiring sales associates in China. “There’s a large market overseas – about a billion people who want to practice conversational English and are willing to pay for the service.”
Another Web site already designed to meet the increasing international demand for e-learning is LearnHub created by Savvica Inc. which has offices in Toronto and Haryana, India.
LearnHub is a free social networking site with online communities that provide test prep, career advice and university recommendations. The target audience is students in India who want to study abroad. The site helps students study for standardized tests, such as the GMAT or SATs, and provides exam banks of questions for assistance.
Co-founder Malgosia Green said she and her husband, who both worked in education, were approached by an investor from India two years ago to develop the site. It launched last March and already has 50,000 registered users.
Green says the biggest challenge with e-learning is creating a community that’s engaging enough to get students to return and stay focused while on the Internet.
She says the fact her site is free, is a big draw to many students – especially those looking to enter the costly post-secondary field.
A big growth area is online graduate degrees, she says.
“Even in the recession education is fairing very well because people are going back to school and taking degrees to re-certify themselves. She said online learning is also becoming more widely accepted.
Many Canadian educators are also responding to this surge of interest in e-learning, and incorporating online instruction in their courses.
One of them is Gord Preston, associate professor of commerce and management at King’s University College in Edmonton, Alb. Preston uses online discussion forums and has a virtual office with video chat capabilities.
Today institutes such as Athabasca University in Alberta use a range of distance learning tools – Web, e-mail, Internet, CD-Rom, computer software, audio/video conferencing, audio/video tapes and even TV or radio – to enable students complete courses and programs from anywhere and at their own pace.
Most students who use e-learning at the university level do so because they can’t take the course at their own institution, Preston said.
“Students are looking for flexibility and growth. The efficiencies of the market place dictate it as well – if a university is having a seminar on Shakespearean philosophy and is only teaching six students, they can use real-time video and co-deliver courses with other institutions that previously would’ve had to cancel a course because of poor enrollment.”
Preston said universities also use distance learning to enhance or supplement in-class courses. For instance, he said, Ottawa’s Carleton University puts all first year chemistry lectures on iTunes so students can listen to them at from home.
At a corporate level, IDC’s Anderson says companies will introduce several new tools and technologies to enhance online training programs.
The first main trend he predicts will be with sending high-quality video and lessons to mobile phones. The first wave will probably be “stupid and improperly done,” he says. “But companies will eventually get it right.”
Another trend he foresees is the blending of online learning with social media, such as a user rating system, blogs, collaboration tools and more. This technique is already being taken advantage of on many sites, such as TutorJam, which allows users to rank tutors.
He also predicts it will be easier to locate people who are learning about the same issues and contact experts through sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook.