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Fast moving developments in online learning


The past few days have seen some very significant new developments in the world of online learning. Already industry reports are suggesting that around 40% of all staff development will be delivered online by 2002, and these new product launches go a long way to making this a reality.

At the end of October, Harcourt General (owners of Churchill and other print publishing houses here in the UK) launched Xtreme Learning which has been developed by their NETg multimedia subsidiary. NETg are initially publishing and distributing online a library of more than 600 courses, each taking around seven hours to complete. These cover three subject areas of information technology, desktop applications and a range of soft skills. NETg has made content available in a range of formats in the past, including via CD and local area networks. Xtreme Learning adds a strong web delivery dimension to this delivery, and all the platforms offer a strong and consistent feel.

NETg are making a strong play about two aspects of their new service. Firstly, the enabling architectural technology which they have developed is claimed to be unique. All the content is ordered in a cascading system of courses, modules, lessons and topics - with topics being the smallest learning object. However, it is possible for purchasers, managers and learners to pick-and-mix from individual lessons and topics in order to create uniquely tailored packages to meet individual learning needs. This makes for a highly flexible delivery content and system. Secondly, a feature of Extreme Learning is that all the content and information is held on NETg servers even though the system is integrated into company internets and intranets; this enables the client company to focus on the delivery of the content without having to worry about any of the technology aspects of the material.

NETg state that all the main online learning technology partners have approved their learning object approach and that they are confident this will become accepted as the industry standard. They also recognise the critical importance of providing coaching and support to individual learners in order to deal with problems either in motivation or in learning. To overcome these issues, they have teamed up with KnowledgePool to provide access to 24 hour individual support. TrainingZone regards personal support of this nature to be crucial to the ultimate success of online learning so it will be interesting to see how this works out.

Xtreme Learning is primarily intended as an online learning delivery platform for large companies who can afford to place the feature across their company intranet. Initial access subscription charges start from £5,000 and access to individual learning courses is chargeable thereafter on a per unit basis.

For more information about the launch of this new service, see

Just five days later, out rolls another heavyweight player in the online learning business with a big new product. SmartForce is the new name for the company previously known as CBT Systems. With live satellite launches in several capitals around the world, this was designed as a global showcase opportunity.

One of the difficulties with the Xtreme Learning site is that without a password for access, it's difficult to see what's really available. There are fewer exploration limitations at SmartForce. This site integrates a wide range of learning resources - case studies, mentoring, articles, forums and assessment facilities all of which are created and sourced by SmartForce in their own development centre. Targetted again at mainly corporate customers, SmartForce presents all new users with a Personal SmartForce page. Here, the new student completes their personal profile and is then presented with a fully-customised series of options for their career pathways and the range of development opportunities open to them. Purchasing companies can select or pre-determine the range of options to be made available in line with company plans. At this point, the student completes self assessment instruments which are used for report generation both before and during the learning.

As learning takes place, a series of optional extras enable students to participate in discussion forums, have access to daily mentoring from SmartForce staff on a personal basis, be notified of online events. Another features allows students to keep abreast in the technology courses of changes and updates to the software applications which they are learning about.

The present range of courses still focuses heavily on IT topics, but there is a growing catalogue of software skills, business development and management titles. The course level ranges as high as a full MBA programme.

You can check out the SmartForce product at

Taken together, both sites reflect the huge investment which is being made in this technology. Whilst Xtreme Learning and SmartForce are primarily directed at the larger corporation, smaller companies and individual learners should not feel left out in this bonanza of access to online learning. Four other Internet services have attracted our attention in recent months. is likely to become the most widely known. Using technology developed by the original company, Asymetrix, and now widely used in the industry, the click2learn portal site already offers several hundred learning facilities for individuals to use. You can cruise the site to find resource material or courses which can be made available for a cost. It's a well developed site with plenty of smooth and fast features covering some well-developed background architecture. Few people are likely to fail to find something useful to their learning needs here.

click2learn, like the next two sites, also invites trainers and courseware designers to build course for inclusion on the site. In the case of click2learn, you need to download some of the authoring software and the final course will be examined by an editorial group, presumably as part of a quality control system.

Fewer such restrictions apply at which has attracted considerable publicity across the Atlantic. A very simple interface presents you on the front page with the simple choice - study a course, or author a course. Make your choice and off you go. The last time I looked, more than 9,000 courses had been loaded onto the site, many obviously provided by happy authors. Authors can choose to make their courses available for free or for a charge. Enter 'cats' into the search engine and 27 courses concerned with cats are listed. This may not be a site with high quality control over content, but it sure has variety.

A similar approach, but on a smaller scale, is adopted by the site which also offers a considerable range of courses, primarily in the IT and related fields. It's worth a good browse as it does what it says - makes courses available for free. Following user demand, TrainingZone will be carrying out a full review of this service and the findings will be published in our Reviews area shortly.

Finally, you might want to look at which launched at the IPD national exhibition last month. Frankly, I found this site frustrating. It promised lots but failed to deliver. A free course area asked to to use the login and password supplied - and failed to accept them. A demo hyperlink led to a Page Not Found. The blurb says there are hundreds of courses, but the catalogue only listed around 30. The site is promoting itself as an easy way to run an online learning service, hosted on their equipment, and run across your intranet. The promotional price is £15 per learner per month for access. There's also an introductory offer of £9,000 to build your own learning resource centre online. I'm not (yet) impressed.

What's your experience of this technology? Do you have another site to recommend?
Please add your thoughts to the Comments feature below.


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