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E-learning synergy extends across IBM and Lotus

Synergy is the key word inside IBM these days, and that certainly holds true within the company's Mindspan Solutions e-learning division. The company's March release of its Web-based, enterprise e-learning system LearningSpace 5.01 further integrates IBM's existing platform with the collaboration capabilities of Lotus Domino and Sametime. SearchDomino spoke to Margaret Driscoll, Ph.D., director of strategy and ventures for IBM Mindspan, about e-learning and the company's evolving strategy.

Are there common misconceptions about e-learning or about the LearningSpace product?
There are a couple of big ones. LearningSpace has asynchronous learning, or the ability for people to get online and learn on their own. It's having classes where rather than work by yourself on a page turner or simulation, and it's the ability to work in a collaborative environment and not have to all be there at the same time. An example is my management course in which I'm working on some exercises on how to deliver feedback to employees, and we have to put together a presentation. And we don't meet in real time, but we still work together on solving these case studies because some of my classmates are on the west coast, some are in Europe.

It also has a live virtual classroom built in, where teachers and students get together at the same time and have a live class sharing an application, whiteboard, work on case studies, or go into breakout rooms. What kinds of companies are best suited for e-learning initiatives?
Clearly not every company is suited for e-learning. First, you have to be technologically ready. You need to have a network with some level of connectivity, and if you want to have a virtual classroom you have to not only have better bandwidth, but also end users who have PCs that are sound-enabled and video-enabled. That's the easy part. The hard part is your company needs to be organizationally ready. It can seem snobby, but it's not meant to. If the training is valuable enough, a company needs to find time to carve it into the workday. The ones who are successful are the ones who go slowly. Is there any one feature or aspect that could be considered most beneficial about LearningSpace?
One of the things that 99.9% of e-learning products, live or asynchronous, are missing is collaboration. That's what sets Lotus apart. It's fought through collaboration tool development and pulled those tools into the learning environment like a sharing a whiteboard, breaking out into a virtual space, collaborating with your peers and participating in a threaded discussion. We find that the collaboration technology lets people not only share knowledge but also create knowledge. For the folks out there who may not be familiar with Mindspan or LearningSpace, how can Notes and Domino shops take advantage of those systems in conjunction with an e-learning initiative?
Within the LearningSpace family, we have two technology streams. One is called Forum, and that runs on Notes and Domino. If a company wants to deliver an asynchronous learning experience by itself or collaboratively and use the Notes and Domino environment, the Forum product would be the way to go. If it's interested in a live, virtual classroom, they'll want LearningSpace 5, and that runs on Windows NT and IIS. Can you tell me a little bit about the typical company that uses e-learning?
Typically, you have a very specific problem that has fast ROI. For instance, one might be a company that needs to roll out some kind of safety training by the end of the quarter. Or if I know that I've got a new product being released in August, but my sales people are on vacation for most of the summer. I need to get them all trained quickly so they can hit the streets quickly. How easy or difficult is an IBM/Lotus e-learning initiative to learn or implement? Is integration an issue?
We have a Quickstart Service Offering that helps people get up and running. LearningSpace can be installed in a week, and you can do it yourself or get some help. If you're just getting into e-learning, you can buy LearningSpace, and it becomes the platform where everything you've scattered across the company gets put on the server. Or, it can be used as a way to catalog and find all those courses and use it to perform registration, tracking and reporting.

Once people get comfortable with that, the next step is to move up to a learning management system. We have a [yet to be named] product for that coming up [for release] in Q4. Then, customers who are writing a lot of their own courseware, meaning 60-80 hours per year of courseware, they're ready to get our learning content management system. It's a lot like a regular content management system, but it's layered with a lot of meta tags and hooks back into the other systems. It has the ability to create reusable learning objects, say an intro video for a sales course for selling Notes could be a reusable for several courses. How is pricing determined for a Lotus e-learning initiative?
We have one customer -- who won't let us name who they are -- that's a large telecom company. Most of our customers justify their first foray into this on cost reduction, not strict ROI. We were able to cut this company's training class from 11 weeks to 9 weeks. We were able to cut the course time by telling it that if I already know certain things it lets me skip material, or if I need to drill down on stuff it lets me work on it on my own time. Just that savings paid for the system, plus left extra money.

Editor's note: Generally, LearningSpace pricing varies but is determined by IBM's contractual relationship with customers, the volume of purchases, subscription, and service levels. However, analysts report the list prices of LearningSpace 5.0 as $36 per seat for the self-paced application and $50 for the collaborative live virtual classroom application.


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CLICK for our Featured Topic on e-learning In what direction do you see e-learning or Lotus' e-learning products going in the future?
We're seeing a demand for integration with back end systems, so employees' training records are tied to HR records. We see the ability for the next generation of products to take advantage of APIs and Web services to really integrate e-learning. We see e-learning as less of a stand-alone event and part of a worker's regular environment.

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