When you think distance learning, you probably think e-learning, as it's the most popular way of transmitting instruction to remote learners. But, what you may have forgotten is e-learning is not the only way.
Available for more than two decades, satellite technology also can be a viable option, especially when the employees you need to educate lack computer, online access, or both. If your company happens to already have a satellite network in place, it can be even more economical, and thanks to the latest accompanying response technology, interactive too. Known today as interactive distance learning (IDL)-satellite, some of the country's most well-known companies are still putting satellite to good use.
Plano, Texas-based retailer JCPenney Co. has been using IDL since 1996, first with an interactive keypad from San Jose, Calif.-based OneTouch Systems, and, beginning in 2006, with support from Lindon, Utah-based IP broadcast solutions provider Helius, says vice president and director of associate development Deborah Masten. The company, she explains, is able to use Helius' technology as a medium for both synchronous and asynchronous classes. "Helius is kind of a digital recording device for us," says Masten. "It allows us to [record] a series of training classes and make them available to associates who may not be able to participate in the live, synchronous class."
A key advantage of the technology is its video-based format. The company uses e-learning, too, but it's primarily text-based, and limited in its capacity. "Although we can run short video files, our IT department won’t let us transfer big files through our pipeline," she says of the IT transmission space that e-learning shares with JCPenney's sales and credit transactions. "Our video files have to be less than 15K, so you're talking about a 30-second video that's compressed and digitized." Instead of using one technology over the other, the two are used in concert. IDL is used to deliver the initial training of new concepts, with on-demand e-learning then—for those with computer access—offered as a follow-up. "They go online using the collaborative software to practice, to do research, or to look up something," Masten notes. "But the formal training is done through IDL."
Among other programs, the company uses satellite to broadcast its bi-weekly store manager "News You Can Use" training sessions highlighting upcoming marketing initiatives, retail operations, new system rollouts, and any other changes that may affect managers. "If there's a video to support whatever it is we're talking about, we can roll-in a video," says Masten of an advantage of using IDL. Along with video, shows include questions for learners to respond to using keypads. Each store has a training room where as many as 12 employees sign on to the satellite program via a keypad, watching the "news" on an approximately 32-inch TV screen. There's just one screen in the room, but participants each have their own keypad in order to interact. Managers are able to watch the broadcast live with other employees, or later, via a tape of the show.
Even though it's not live, they're still able to respond to the questions that were included in the broadcast. "They can answer the very same questions through the keypad and we capture their information back," says Masten of the system's ability to record the answers of both those who watch it live and those who opt for the taped show. "We may ask them a critical business question, 'How much square footage does your store have for lingerie?' " she explains, "and at the end of the program, we can pull a report on how every store answered."
The ability to reach every worker in the company, whether or not they have a computer, makes IDL a valuable tool. "The very fact we can reach every associate in the Penney company with training speaks for itself as being a great result," she says of IDL-satellite. "No matter what your position is in a Penney store, you get training." In 2006, when the retailer, which produces more than 200 unique IDL programs a year, surveyed every worker in the company, one of the statements they were asked to respond to was: "I have the training I need to do my job effectively." Eighty-eight percent of store associates, says Masten, agreed they do.
Since Penney's already had a satellite network in place, IDL also has proven cost-effective. "For us, it's much cheaper than any other solution because we already have a satellite system for communication," she says. With non-stop access to the satellite, it's easy for Masten to "piggy-back" her training onto the technology. "I don’t have to pay for it," she says.
Without satellite, many of its store employees would not have the opportunity for visually rich training, notes Masten. "You can’t just send people a newsletter and get across the behaviors and words you want them to say," she points out. "Training for a retail company, because it is so behavioral, you really want to show them how things are done."
IDL For New Hires
Atlanta-based exterminator services provider Orkin started exploring satellite technology in 1997, launching its network in January 2006, says director of training Craig Goodwin. Its eight-year exploration included a needs assessment to determine which distance learning technologies—including, but not limited to IDL—would best serve its employees. "We were at the point where the demand for our learning services exceeded our budget and capacity to satisfy it. We recognized we needed to leverage some learning technologies in order to be able to expand our capacity within the budget we had," says Goodwin. "Our delivery model prior to the launch of our satellite network was primarily the traditional, instructor-led training, which is very effective, but also very expensive."
The answer the company arrived at is a blended solution that makes use of instructor-led training in the classroom along with e-learning and IDL broadcasts. Its pest control technicians receive instruction delivered via satellite as part of their new employee training, says vice president of learning and media services David Lamb. Divided into two programs—one for residential homes, the other for commercial facilities—each class lasts two weeks with roughly 50 employees at any given time watching the broadcast from nearly any one of its 350 branch offices.
About 99 percent of Orkin locations have the equipment necessary to view the IDL broadcasts, says director of media services Ramiro Banderas. These offices each have a 27-inch TV screen to view the "shows," a technical box containing the satellite receiver, and an interactive system that comes with keypads, which Banderas says look like calculators. The company has decided to provide just three keypads at each location because, on average, an office can expect at least one new pest control hire at any given time. Learners use the keypads to answer questions asked by the instructor, or pose their own, by pressing a call button.
Orkin implemented an IDL pilot program in February 2004 before making a full-scale investment in the technology. When Orkin compared training via satellite with those taught in a live classroom, it found the two mediums equally effective at delivering training, says Goodwin. "We actually feel that as we get experience with satellite technology, and the satellite delivery of training, that the evaluation results will be superior for satellite delivery. We can now touch employees almost on their first day of employment, and we can integrate the satellite delivery of training with their self-directed and on-the-job training, and it really gives us a chance to have some visibility into the progress they’re making," he explains. "If we find that somebody isn't making the progress we expect, we can take corrective action much earlier than we could with our old model."
Sidebar: Is IDL-satellite For You?
The higher quality video you can transmit via satellite compared to the Internet, with learners absorbing training through a medium they're already familiar with—a TV screen—may make IDL-satellite seem like just what you need. If it sounds too easy, it's not your imagination. Despite the advantages of this technology, it's not for all companies. San Francisco-based learning consultant Lance Dublin notes a few points to consider before taking the plunge.
You need to train workers who lack computer and/or Internet connection. Dublin says in the 1980s, before the World Wide Web, satellite was a good alternative for companies seeking to transmit video to workers at other offices, but when the Internet became available, it displaced satellite. It became more economical and efficient to get the learning to employees via the Web. "I think you're seeing a much more selective use," he says of IDL as it is implemented today.
Your learning doesn’t require a high level of interaction. Response technology in the form of keypads has improved since satellite was first used to broadcast training decades ago, but it's still highly limited. "It's interactive using the low 'I' for interactive. Asking people to select from a test—a, b, or c—to me is low-level interactivity," he says of the typical IDL-response technology, which allows for nothing more than the selection of multiple choice answers. "If you have that video image coming to a PC, you can embed it in a much more advanced e-learning course because you can do branching, you can do testing. You have the whole power of the PC sitting there."
You're looking for yet another way to reach distance learners. "It's one more arrow in somebody's quiver. It's one more choice," says Dublin. "Companies realize learning is valuable, and they have to find ways of getting learning to the work site. The Internet is one way to do it, and satellite is another."
Sidebar: IDL-satellite "Dos and Don'ts"
JCPenney Co. is happy with its IDL-satellite-transmitted training. The Plano, Texas-based retailer had a satellite network in place already, so it didn't affect the bottom line, and just as important, it works. Learners don't need a computer to partake, and it delivers video-rich content that can be followed-up with online e-learning whenever possible. But, there are some "dos and don'ts" to remember when designing IDL-based instruction.
Make it modular. Think of your IDL-delivered classes as modules or chapters, so each comes across as a different lesson or organized set of instruction, says Deborah Masten, vice president and director of associate development, JCPenney.
Stay topic-specific. Be sure each module has focus, or is created around a central, coherent theme, Masten points out.
Make sure an administrator is there. Unlike e-learning via the Web, satellite requires learners gathered in a physical space. Besides the most important function of alerting course organizers to any technical glitches that occur during the delivery of the training, an on-site administrator can set up the classroom to suit the learners' comfort, says Saul Carliner, an assistant professor in the graduate program in technical education at Montreal-based Concordia University. Even though the employees aren't live, you're still responsible for creating the kind of training environment they're used to. "The hospitality program you might have with a classroom course, you should have with IDL," he says. "You take a course at your own desk, you're responsible for your own coffee; as soon as you come to my classroom, I've got to be nice to you."
Keep it interesting. "It's not just a talking-head," says Masten of IDL done right. "We've always had a standard of at least two people on air." The company also finds ways to liven things up, including visits to stores with a hidden camera to capture the work of model employees in action. Those employees are then taken aside, told they have been videotaped by the company, commended for their work style, and asked questions so others can learn from them by watching the footage and interviews on video, courtesy of IDL.