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Thoughts and Perspectives on Interactive Distance Learning

This is a reprint of an interview I did with Enliten Management Group back in 2004, as originally printed in the July/August 2004 issue of Page of Enlitenment.

As SVP of Product and Business Strategy, Shawn Butler drives all product planning and strategy at OneTouch. Mr. Butler has over 12 years of management experience in public, private and technology companies, including extensive experience with online training and communication. Prior to joining OneTouch, Mr. Butler held executive positions at Digital Lava, Akamai, INTERVU and Wavefunction. Before that, he worked as a financial consultant for the US Attorney and a Legislative Aide in the California State Senate. Shawn has a joint MBA/IR masters from IR/PS, and a dual Bachelors in pure mathematics and US history from UCSD.

Enliten: What is your perspective of where the industry is today? Synchronous versus asynchronous training?

Shawn: Historically, synchronous (“Live”) and asynchronous (“On Demand”) training have been seen as alternative or competitive solutions rather than as complimentary learning options. Those who had broadband via BTV1, VSAT2 or other fat-pipe networks chose live as the best way to reach their internal audience, while those with traditional LAN/WAN3 environments and lower-bandwidth capacity used On Demand forms of Computer Based Training (CBT) or Web Based Training (WBT). While both CBT and WBT have been criticized for their lack of social interactivity, learning decisions were and continue to be made based on infrastructure capacity rather than best practices. Technology and market awareness has advanced so quickly in recent years, however, that more organizations are now able to pick best-of-breed options from Live, On Demand, collaborative and other modalities (“Blended Learning”). Paired with ongoing decreases in the cost of per-student and per-event training, organizations can incorporate ongoing synchronous and asynchronous training (and general communication) as a necessary and invaluable part of everyday business—where efficacy and return on investment (ROI) mean more than means or modality.

Enliten: What impact is the domestic economy having on interactive distance learning? What about internationally?

Shawn: As with every industry in the era of the “new” economy, Interactive Distance Learning (IDL) companies like to think that their offerings are recession proof. By driving down hard-dollar training costs such as travel and lodging in bad times, and increasing efficiency and reach in good times, the logic is that it is always rational to invest in IDL. And as with every industry, this apparently unassailable “new” logic has proven utterly flawed. In the past, and especially when IDL meant large capital investments to recognized future ROI, IDL could be shown as an important and positive investment regardless of the economy, but it wasn’t necessarily the most important and positive investment. Capital budgets went, logically, to improved supply chains, customer management, process improvement and so on.

However, just as IDL and general training budgets have increased and loosened in recent months, the costs of investing in IDL changed structurally and decreased overall. OneTouch and other vendors are offering more flexible pricing models, lower pricing in many areas, and are able to work far better with customers on specific financing and licensing issues. The domestic economy is therefore having a very strong impact on IDL, but it’s not all bad—it is driving the very innovation that will result in phenomenal nextgeneration IDL solutions over the next three years.

Internationally, and by this I mean the developing world rather than Canada or Europe, downward price pressure has always been an enormous issue—especially when combined with the additional disadvantages of poor infrastructure and miniscule capital budgets. Fortunately, the same innovation and flexibility that was driven by the US recession is creating solutions that are viable in perennially depressed overseas markets. In other words, pain in the US is creating gain for everyone. Couple this with increasing developing-world government focus on training as an investment, and the international outlook is also very positive for IDL solutions over the next few years.

Enliten: What is the most significant development regarding Interactive Distance Learning (IDL) for the enterprise in the past year to eighteen months?

Shawn: What would the Renaissance have been without Leonardo, Michelangelo or Raphael? What would Michelangelo have been without the sponsorship of the Medici family? Major events in history, as in business, are usually driven by the confluence of multiple interrelated changes rather than the miracle of immaculate innovation. The classical Renaissance required both great artists and great patrons. The renaissance of learning that has begun over the past year requires great content, technology, networks, financing and far more. It’s all (almost) here, and this is precisely why the last year has been pretty boring. Plans have been made. Foundations are being laid. But there have been few “big” announcements.

Still, the last year was not without notable changes. OneTouch moved quickly toward an IP-based, open architecture supporting open servers and third-party systems. We’ve also come out with new On Demand products that enable asynchronous classroom learning for the first time. And the market in general is starting to see some of the consolidation that will be vital to simplification of the market in general. Microsoft’s acquisition of PlaceWare, while probably troubling for Real Time Conferencing (RTC) providers such as Centra and WebEx, is a great market validation for all of us. This acquisition will also drive others as smaller players vie for leverage and competitive positioning. And the result will be more comprehensive solutions, rationalized pricing, and a smaller number of vendors who can actually generate serious profits for the first time. That’s good for all of us.

Enliten: What are your impressions of how learning environments are evolving? Has the social learning model changed over the past couple of years?

Shawn: The learning process enabled by Interactive Distance Learning is basically an attempt to emulate and improve on the natural, group-based interactive learning process. The idealized social learning model itself has not changed, but our ability to emulate this social interactivity across the barriers of space and time has improved dramatically. OneTouch, for example, now has offerings that support on demand and live training, unicast or multicast delivery, and many other options that can be used individually or as part of a blended solution. This means that a given learning environment can combine the most beneficial features of traditional face-to-face, classroom, CBT, WBT, collaboration, conferencing and other learning tools and a truly effective hybrid offering. In the due course of time, and this is sooner that people tend to think, learning can be delivered in a far more personalized, responsive and targeted manner—at lower costs— than ever before.

Enliten: What impact has the Internet had on the enterprise and educational markets regarding training and learning respectively?

Shawn: Beyond the obvious benefits of the Internet—access to information on new technologies and learning models, just-in-time research, worldwide sharing of ideas and best practices, a wide and broadening array of content, interaction with colleagues and peers, and better communication between teachers and students—the web’s greatest impact on the enterprise is in driving vendors toward common standards. Now that there is a single, almost universally accessible (for a price) network over which almost any type of information or content can be delivered, the hunt is on for more common, standardized way to share information. This impacts everything from simple text transactions to legal documents to video. In the training space, this includes standards such as AICC4 and its successor, SCORM5 for learning content and data; various MPEG flavors for video; VoIP (Voice over IP) for audio; H.323 for conferencing; and more. In many cases, the “best” format has yet to be fully determined, but as with Beta vs. VHS, there will eventually be a winner in these areas—and IDL, along with IT in general, will be better for it.

Enliten: Your thoughts about satellite-based business television networks versus delivery via the Internet? Do you provide both terrestrial and satellite solutions?

Shawn: OneTouch supports social learning over both terrestrial and satellite networks and in various modalities. Both satellite and web-based delivery have their advantages, but broadband multicast video to multiple distributed sites is still far, far cheaper over satellite than over the web—especially in the developing world, where Internet access is rarely available and of low quality when it is. With the introduction of VSAT and IP over satellite, you’re also seeing a lot of the functionality that was previously web-only now available over enterprise VSAT systems (or via one-way BTV systems with terrestrial backhaul). We’re seeing a lot more hybrid deployments now, where customers use satellite where appropriate, the web or private networks in other areas, and both where necessary. IDL can be delivered effectively over any such network; the question for us is just what’s most cost effective for the customer—and the answer is often satellite. In many cases, however, the answer is “both”; our customers have to reach employees on the LAN/WAN, in distributed franchises, in SOHOs6 and beyond. Even when a large portion of these employees can be reached by satellite, others have to be served over the net. This has meant an increasingly blended infrastructure along with blended learning models.

Enliten: What is your company doing to address distance-learning needs for the approachable market: companies, government organizations and associations?

Shawn: At some point, every successful technology company seems to go through the masochistic should-I-build-everything-myself-or-partner-with-someone-doing-it-already (SIBEMOPWSDIA) struggle. OneTouch has long since stepped back from the proprietary, build-it-here abyss and is actively partnering with best-of-breed solutions in adjacent markets. We’ve recently begun active integrations of our solutions into thirdparty Receiver and Integrated Receiver-Decoder (IRD) platforms, such as those offered by HNS and Helius; are in the process of integrating with MPEG-4 offerings from VBrick and Envivio. Our long-term goal is to be the interactive training core at the heart of a broad-spectrum of offerings. The resulting lower cost, standards-based offerings will be broadly applicable across verticals and markets. And this is where other partners come in; partners who work with government, or non-profits, or schools, or multinational corporations. OneTouch has neither the ability nor desire to sell direct to everyone worldwide, but thanks to a diverse family of VARs, we’re reaching this global market today.

Enliten: Who do you see leading the use of IDL today? What vertical industries? What user communities in the corporate, government, sectors?

Shawn: This is the flip side of the question that IDL and other IT companies ask themselves every day in the search for new and better markets: What industries, organizations or groups have “forcing factors” that drive an investment decision? For training, forcing factors can be loosely categorized as external (e.g., regulatory compliance with HIPAA7), internal (e.g., management drive to decrease costs), offensive (e.g., shorter product release cycles), and defensive (e.g., fatal product failure messaging). The answer to both questions lies with who has the greatest pain. Who is (or was) suffering most currently for lack of adequate, appropriate or cost-effective training? The most obvious answer is, any organization with a large, distributed employee base in a rapidly changing market. Vague as that sounds, it leads you quickly to retail, automotive, banking and finance, education and teacher training, and service-based government agencies—the very places where you find the largest initial investments and ongoing innovation in IDL.

Enliten: What are your thoughts on Learning Management Systems?

Shawn: Someone once said that if you give man a nail, he’ll treat everything like a hammer. This is a great comment on IT vendors in recent years, many of which treat every customer like a board waiting to get nailed. Look, they say, it’s a magic nail. It’ll solve all your problems. So what if it costs a million and takes two years to implement—it’ll be worth it. Except, often, it isn’t. As with CRM8, CMS9, DAM10 and, yes, IDL, Learning Management System (LMS) offerings come with tremendous promise but also very real risk. An LMS decision is a serious decision and organizations should take care to find what they want and pay for that (only), rather than focusing on all the bells and whistles. I’ve used probably 0.5% of MS Word’s functionality in writing this response, and will probably never use more than 10%. So why pay for the other 90% if you don’t need it? You can’t break Word into functional chunks, but more and more you can with LMSs via ASP offerings and modular pricing models. There is also great research out there from Brandon Hall and other analysts on buying an LMS.

It’s also worth noting that many LMS companies offer some form of IDL-Lite that is, of course, nicely bundled with the LMS. Our experience is that while these are sometimes compelling offerings, it’s best to find best-of-breed IDL, LMS, etc., and then integrate these solutions in a way that best serves your enterprise.

Enliten: Your thoughts on tracking, measurement of distance learning?

Shawn: Back in the good ol’ streaming days, I worked with companies that sold great, scalable streaming solutions. We’d talk endlessly about our enormous pipes, our failover capacity, our ecumenical delivery of any and all video, our great event broadcasts, but for some reason reporting—proving that all that video actually got there—was always given short shrift. Reporting, tracking and measurement are absolutely VITAL to any learning deployment or project. This may seem obvious, but learning solutions are notoriously bad at telling you if your learning is actually working. I think OneTouch does a decent job at this, of course, but we could all improve.

My personal opinion is that good tracking and evaluation is as specialized an art as good curriculum design, and therefore requires its own specialists and tools. While IDL solutions, including OneTouch, will always bundle reporting, tracking and evaluation tools as part of their core offering, we’re starting to see the emergence of viable third party vendors focused explicitly on tracking, evaluation and report. QuestionMark’s Perception evaluation engine and CrystalDecision’s reporting tools, for instance, now offer the enterprise a far larger range of evaluation, tracking and reporting options than are available within any given IDL, LMS or related package. These systems offer the ability to not only better leverage an IDL investment, but also to tie eLearning metrics to other back office and knowledge systems and databases. This means the convergence of not just applications, but data—and the next decade will be all about how personal and corporate date is better leveraged (and sometimes abused).

Enliten: What obstacles do you see for IDL solutions? For OneTouch, as well as your customer community?

Shawn: The list of obstacles is a collection of clichés ranging from budget to buy-in, but the fact IDL companies are still selling technology instead of solutions is a serious issue. The industry is still far from plug-and-play simplicity and, consequently, ROI and value discussions inevitably become mired in arcane discourses on technical feasibility. OneTouch has done an exceptional job in simplifying implementation and maintenance of its products in recent years, but technical complexity and opacity remains well behind the alliterative marketing mantra of “seamless solution sales”.

Fortunately, the underlying infrastructure is being simplified beneath us—meaning that many problems over which IDL providers have little control, ranging from bandwidth to PC processing power, are being solved by excellent new technologies and standards. This means that all IDL offerings will soon have access to a far simpler environment for implementation of learning solutions. Standards will play a vital role in this. ADL11 “Plug Fests”, for instance, enable e-learning, content, and other companies to come together and demonstrate (or try!) compatibility via SCORM compliance. The SCORM standard, which is being adopted as a requirement for learning solutions for many US government agencies, will help directly eliminate obstacles such as incompatible legacy content, 11 Advanced Distributed Learning (www.adlnet.org), which is charged with promulgating the SCORM standard incompatible user data, and buyer concerns about being “stuck” with a proprietary solution.

Enliten: How are you as a vendor and other industry suppliers helping the (Trainers) video and multimedia users overcome these barriers?

Shawn: IDL is a consultative sale. It is not word processing or a spreadsheet; you can’t walk into a room and say, “We do IDL better” and have everyone know what you’re talking about. You can’t put IDL in a pretty package and hope it’ll fly off shelves even if it’s free—because nothing that requires a change in organizational culture and behavior, as all good IDL does, is free. Every major IDL player realizes this, and every viable player is now actively engaged as a partner with customers and prospective customers. This relationship can’t stop after even the most successful deployment. Ongoing discussions of utilization, improvement, and (ironically) continuing education are vital to continued IDL usage and ROI realization in any organization. Our experience is that only those organizations that make IDL part of the way they do business, (i.e., embrace IDL enterprise-wide and integrated it into their processes)—achieve sustainability in their IDL program and a significant ROI.

Enliten: What can trainers and video managers do to do their part? To meet their learning objectives?

Shawn: The most important thing is to realize that IDL, by which I mean good IDL, changes an organization. It closes information gaps, shortens training cycles, raises organizational questions, drives new and better content development or acquisition, and fundamentally changes the social culture and even how employees interact with people they’ve worked with for years. Getting this to work is not a one-time decision, a magic bullet or managerial arbitrage; it’s a Return On Investment in people and resources. This is why it is vital for trainers and managers to build long-term relationships with your IDL vendor, your integrator, and between your internal champions and users.

Enliten: Looking into a crystal ball, where do you see the industry by the end of the year? Over the next three years?

Shawn: The IDL industry won’t will change much at the visible level in the next six months; there is a lot of inertia to IDL decisions, and six months is less than the average IDL sales cycle. But underlying this is a massive change that will touch IDL, broadcasting, corporate communications, collaboration and many other industries. And that has to do with the much-abused term, convergence. TVs and computers and stereos took longer than expected to converge (and the process is only now gaining real momentum) and IDL is about three years from this tipping point; the moment before which you can’t figure out how all the pieces are going to fit together and after which you can’t figure out why they were ever separate.

MPEG-4, as just one example, has the potential to change how video works over the Internet, over some broadcast channels, but also in data conferencing because MPEG-4 Part 10 is also (in theory) H.264—the next generation conferencing standard already being shown by VTC12 vendors such as Polycom. This alone could be a major driver in the convergence of IDL, VoIP, VTC, Collaboration and related technologies.

MPEG-4 is just one example of some great changes coming down the road, but it’s important not to think of technology as a panacea. Whatever happens, IDL and IT in general must cost less, be easier to understand and implement, and reach a broader audience. Or we’ll be right where we are now, just three years older.

Enliten: Are there any other words of wisdom you can or would like to share with our readers?

Shawn: Everyone knows that old maps of the coast of Africa or Asia often bore marks warning sailors that “Here be dragons”. Sadly, there were no real dragons and there are few if any maps that actually bear these words. What there is is no shortage of are misconceptions. IDL was once thorny, sticky and occasionally fatal, but this is no longer the case. The days of good IDL, meaning quality content, simplified deployment and proven ROI, are here. Call us. We’ll prove it.

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