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Interview of the month: Donald Clark, CEO, Epic Group Plc


Formed 17 years ago, Epic Group Plc is the largest producer of bespoke interactive learning programmes in the UK, providing integrated learning and business solutions through digital technology and instructional design. Recent clients have included Vision Express, British Airways and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Epic also provide advice and technology for e-business and government, including internet and intranet developments, design and management of major portal sites and delivery of online learning.

TrainingZONE (TZ):Epic are well established in the online learning market, with some big name clients, but the market is becoming increasingly crowded. What do you think is key to Epic's success?

Donald Clark (DC): There are two aspects. Firstly, we were first in there, and the first to be able to reposition companies and take big clients into the market quickly.

Secondly, our size is a factor. Actually, the market at present is not that crowded in the UK, and Epic have market capitalisation of £100 million. Few companies have the ability to work with the big organisations as we do.

There are three areas of the market; content, services and technology, and we are involved in the content and services area. We also provide advice on strategy, content and testing.

TZ:What are your views on delivering soft skills training online?

DC:We're actually working on what is probably the biggest soft skills project at the moment, working on content for Video Arts. It's an interesting topic, actually, and it's a myth that soft skills can't be taught online. The work with Video Arts is not just a straight pull from the existing videos - we're working on CD-ROMs, fat intranet and thin intranet versions by taking stills from videos (this will be available later this year). It's all driven by theory of learning objects (the idea is that users construct courses for themselves according to their learning styles, using different multimedia).

TZ:There's been a lot of talk about the changing role of the trainer and an increasing need for mentors and facilitators to support online learning.

DC:Actually, what we've seen from what's happening in the USA is that there's not a lot of evidence that mentoring is so important.

What will happen is that some trainers will adapt and will become designers of online learning. Interestingly, though, we recently advertised for experienced trainers to do just this, and didn't receive a huge response. It's almost as though the industry is in a bit of denial. We have noticed that a lot of training departments have shed staff, though, and there's a definite swing towards out-sourcing. Some of these people, especially more experienced trainers, will find good alternative careers. Of course, there's still a huge amount of classroom-based training still out there.

TZ:What's the biggest challenge in e-learning at the moment?

DC:We're now coming out of the initial phase of technology, and the market has now flipped towards an emphasis on content.

TZ:There's been a lot of talk about the variation in quality of content for online learning, though.

DC:Yes, I've seen that, but you have to bear in mind that a lot of content is designed specifically for individual companies, and so most people won't have seen it. Most people haven't seen our content, but we get 65% repeat business, and at the end of the day, people don't come back if the content is bad. I think people are over-critical of content - a lot of it works, although it may not be best. You could say the same of classroom courses. Any medium has a range of quality - we still watch Big Brother, after all! People forget that the TQM definition of quality is 'fit for purpose'.

TZ:Is there a danger that technology has overtaken what people can actually cope with?

DC:Yes, probably. A lot of people are cautious about complex software such as videoconferencing - there may be a problem culturally within an organisation. The success stories (in e-learning) have been where things have been kept simple, easy to access and easy to do.

TZ:There's a lot of hype around WAP phones at the moment, isn't there?

DC:Well, WAP phones are becoming standard. People who are critical of WAP are mostly those who don't really know anything about it. People like Nokia and Orange who are actually involved with WAP people it's not hype, it's for real.

TZ:There are more and more methods of supporting e-learning being introduced - e.g. chat rooms, e-mail support - do you think these effectively back up delivery methods?

DC:With e-mail, absolutely - it's already there being used, and is ideal for submission of assessments and contact with tutors. However, chat rooms can tend to be anarchic, because they're unstructured.

Asynchronous elements (i.e. where there is a delay between the learning message and response) of online learning have been successful because it's compulsory for people to attend at a certain time, but it can be expensive and difficult to administer.

TZ:If we could talk a bit more about instructional design, then, what are the key considerations?

DC:It's a mistake to see e-learning as a radically different way of looking at things. However, you have to think less about traditional course structures and have to build the e-learning world around the users.

The Internet is the biggest learning resource on the planet - it's growing all the time. The problem is that a lot of the information is straightforward text for research, which is fine for, for example, academic research, but not for the corporate market.

In the corporate market people understand that interactive content works best. The market is maturing and content design is becoming more sophisticated - some of the people here have been working in the field of instructional design for 15 years, myself included.

In an academic context, we're seeing a shift away from course notes - using the text then exam route.

TZ:What are your views on the importance of digital TV? It seems like an exciting prospect.

DC:You can think of it as a way of taking the Internet to the masses. At the moment, the Internet is still a back bedroom phenomenon. Epic have been involved in digital delivery for a while - our policy has been to invest in kiosk companies and mobile telephony. Epic took a stake in a mobile telephony company last year (Digital Bridges) which has just raised £10 million. We are already using this technology in the learning market - content delivery on mobiles (nomadic learning) has been happening for four years now.

People may ask how you can deliver learning through mobiles, but it works well for things like learning languages (which requires both speech and text) to sustain interest using a drip-feed approach, and in sales and marketing to motivate and support salespeople in the field. We haven't yet thought through all of the opportunities it presents.

Interactive TV will change the way in which students and adults will approach learning. There's a long tradition in this country of learning through broadcasting, from radio through to the Open University and now services like the BBC Knowledge Channel.

Digital TV will have a big impact on the consumer rather than the corporate market, but it will feed into the academic market. It's important to remember that all learners are ultimately consumers. Students are now treated as consumers, and the academic market is becoming more flexible.

TZ:We've seen that you've been doing a lot of work with the DfEE and University for Industry (UFI).

DC:It's a good initiative. As it's Gordon Brown's vision, funding has come through for the project. Of course there have been teething problems, but the UfI will boost e-learning industry in the UK. There has already been support for production and content suppliers, and if it continues it will be a good thing. The plan to reach those who wouldn't normally be involved in this type of learning.

TZ:I have here some copies of the Online Learning Guides Epic produced. They look really useful, what was the thinking behind them?

DC:We produced the books because some of the basic concepts in online learning have been unclear. They've mostly given to clients, for them to pass around the company to get people up to speed. We kept them short - chunks of knowledge, if you like - to make them easy for people to carry around and read on the train. There's also a new series to be produced, which is being written at the moment, and a book on e-learning will be available by Christmas - there's not a lot of literature out there at the moment on this topic.

We also produced one of the DfEE best practice guides, called "the market and e-learning", a survey of e-learning in the UK - it's one of a number of surveys we've been involved in.

TZ:Donald, thanks for your time.

For further information, Epic Group can be contacted on 01273 728686, or [email protected].


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