Rod Roehnelt, distance-learning coordinator in the Unit for Continuous Systems Improvement for the state of Oregon, says he wasn’t out looking for a cheap way to conduct online training for Oregon’s Department of Human Services. “We just fell into it,” he says. It happened when a group of employees in Eastern Oregon needed a half-day computer training class. It’s an eight-hour drive from Salem, which meant trainees would spend three days off the job and 16 hours driving to take a three hour course.
“It was ridiculous,” Roehnelt says. “They didn’t want to drive to Salem but they needed the training.” Instead Roehnelt and David Walker, the multimedia consultant and training specialist, downloaded a copy of Microsoft NetMeeting, the free Internet conferencing software, and gathered students together via phone conference.
“Most of the presentation for the class was on a computer anyway so it seemed like a good idea,” Walker says. The first test class had 12 people in the room and two on the phone. Because the in-class students didn’t have mics, repeating their questions over the phone was awkward, Walker says. But the rest of the class went well, and the cost savings were remarkable. “We were able to train the entire staff, roughly 700 people, on how to use the new computer system in eight weeks.” It would have taken more than three months for three trainers traveling all over the state to complete the same amount of training in the classroom.
"The savings in travel and time off the job is significant, but the real difference has been accessibility."
Because the new Web-based training system was so popular, Walker and Roehnelt decided to add to its capabilities, cobbling together a low-cost multimedia studio for about $2,000 that would allow them to offer more robust presentations with multiple trainers, more elaborate graphics, and better support. They already had a video projector and four older computers. They added a $400 mixing board to manage the audio, a $600 audio bridge to manage the phone signals, wall speakers, and three microphones.
Now the presenter, subject matter expert, and program manager each has microphones during presentations. The instructor uses the first computer to run the presentation. The program manager uses the second computer to troubleshoot, help students with technical difficulties, and to add content to the white board—an interactive electronic drawing board—if necessary. They use the third computer as an audience monitor, making sure the presentation is running smoothly on the receiving end, and the fourth computer is used as a backup in case of problems.
Today Walker and Roehnelt deliver 150 courses per year using the set-up, which they named NetCast.They teach versions of all of their classroom courses using NetCast, including computer skills classes, how to implement child care programs, customer service, and a series on helping victims of domestic violence. Students from several sites around the state view the presentations online at the same time, share thoughts on the white board, and interact via telephone.
“It works for anything that is taught in a classroom,” Roehnelt says.
Because NetCast is so convenient and has eliminated travel time for trainers, Walker and Roehnelt have been able to expand their course offerings 40 percent. If they’d delivered the same number of courses in on-site classrooms, he estimates that the training would have cost Oregon $4 million more. The system has been such a success that they are planning to invest in a higher-tech version of the software, such as Symposium or LearnLinc, which include options for quizzing, hand raising, classroom management, and break-out sessions.
Walker says they expect to spend about $300,000 for the new software and hardware in the next five years, which will easily pay for itself. “The savings in travel and time off the job is significant, but the real difference has been accessibility. We are seeing people in training that we haven’t seen in a long time because for the first time attending training is convenient.”
Workforce, August 2002, pp. 74-77 -- Subscribe Now!