E-Learning at the Department of Labor

Internal Content Development and a New LCMS Saves Time and Tax Dollars

Many federal government agencies offer online training programs to their employees and the public.When the Department of Labor started its e-learning program, it chose a little different approach: an open source content development and management tool called the Workforce Enterprise Knowledge Exchange (WEKE).

An open-source learning content management system(LCMS) saves time and money over traditional class room training while continuing a high level of instructional effectiveness.WEKE enabled the Labor Department’s instructors to take over as online course content developers. This approach resulted in significant cost and time savings, as the course experts were directly empowered to create and edit courses.

LOWER PRICE TAG

The Department of Labor is responsible for delivering training on such topics as safety and health to compliance inspectors, and department-wide mandatory courses across the United States, as well as training to private sector employees and the general public. In the past, safety and health training was primarily conducted in a classroom. Costs for traditional classroom training continued to rise: travel, time away from the job, back filling positions during training. The limits of physical classroom space and the number of instructors on staff set parameters for the availability and frequency of training offered.Yet, literally thousands of compliance inspectors and others needed to be trained each year.WEKE offered a cost-effective and workable alternative.

The Labor Department began developing online training as a collaboration between content experts and a contract staff with online course design and development experience. Staff provided the subject matter expertise, and the contracted instructional design and development team provided expertise in online course development. Initially, the draft and review cycle from inception to evaluation of the finished product took 9 to 12 months to develop and field. The first courses designed ranged from 4 to 40 hours long, with the average course requiring 8 to 10
hours of seat time. However, each hour of seat time actually represented several hours of design and development before the product could ever be posted for viewing and student instruction.

The cost to develop one hour of online courseware varies widely. It takes about $30,000 to $40,000 to develop each instructional hour for online training, equating to millions in course development costs. Maintenance and updates to the course run about 15 percent of initial development costs. Based on these cost factors, the process proved to be too costly and time consuming as the Labor Department determined which of its courses were suitable for online course development. The department had neither time nor money to waste on its e-learning program!

The above table compares the typical development approach that the Department of Labor had been employing using external contractor support to develop courses with the new internal development approach, factoring in the required contractor support to configure and host the LCMS. Even though there are no costs to obtain an open-source LCMS, there are costs to install, configure and manage it, as well as the server hosting and bandwidth requirements.

WEKE SELECTED AS LCMS

As Labor Department staff becamemore familiar with theWEKE course development tool and the overall design and development process, the agencymoved toward a self-contained development process.Department staff was assigned to performtasks formerly provided by contract staff. WEKE served as the tool to transition to real-time design, development and update of online coursematerials. Changes occur instantaneously as authorized staff input revisions or new content.

WEKE is a free, open-source LCMS based on the Zope platform that was developed under contract to the Department of Labor. The LCMS uses a Zope database as the back end for the knowledge-object repository consisting of text, graphics, animation, audio, video and documents that can easily be assembled into a course. This LCMS does not require programming expertise. Its functionality is not necessarily intuitive, but it can be learned relatively easily and quite quickly.

As part of the department’s curriculum update process, courses are evaluated to determine whether they qualify for totally online delivery or a blended approach with part of the instruction remaining as classroom-based.

One of these courses identified early for rapid prototyping was the “Workplace Violence Awareness” course. This course had the interesting aspect that two versions were planned from the outset. One version was to be for compliance inspectors with a second version for public viewing primarily by other federal agencies and their staff. WEKE allowed course designers and developers to use its knowledge-object repository and easily reuse the instructional content in alternate ways to comprise different versions of the course for the two different audiences.

CONTINUING CHANGES

Change is hard. If you have been performing someone suddenly tells you there is a your job a certain way for years and whole new approach, you are likely to wonder what is really going on and if it makes sense to change. Plus, if courses that you teach are being converted to online delivery, what might this mean to your job and tenure?

A big key to the successful implementation was communication. That included making sure to get the word out:

>> No one was losing a job. The same number of instructors would be serving more students at one time. It was a better use of available assets since online classes might accommodate as many as five times the number of students that could attend in person.

>> The goal was to use the technology to optimize instructional methodology. The
introductory material that could easily be taught online was transferred there and would save valuable face-to-face classroom time for more importan tmatters
that could only be handled in person. This change allowed more time for demonstrations or actual practice of demonstrated techniques.

>> Instructors would still be in control of their course content, since they would become the online editors using the LCMS. They would receive training and support in the use of the LCMS so that they would be able to publish their own course online and would be responsible for ongoing course maintenance.

>> All online and blended classes would continue to have an instructor to support students, answer questions, follow up on course completion and track progress.When students had questions, they would continue to interact with their instructor.

>> Instructors would have more flexibility in their schedules as they support online students while continuing to support delivery of classroom instruction.

TRAINING ESSENTIAL

The new approach began with a one week hands-on class in a computer lab with each instructor working at a workstation using the LCMS to create courses. The class presented the capabilities and use of the LCMS. Instructors were encouraged to bring in their own course content rather the LCMS training, the instructors actually than use generic examples. Throughout began to build their own online versions of their courses.

CURRENT PROJECTS

The Labor Department now has more than 100 courses that were developed in WEKE throughout the department. Four new courses are in the design and development stage this year: “Labor Management Relations,” “Performance Management,” “Fair Labor Standards Act” and “Whistleblower.”

The Department of Labor continues to deliver classroom courses. Often there is an online prerequisite for the classroom course. Students with a wide range of background, knowledge, experience and work history now arrive at class with a common background provided by the online training. In addition, when course changes are needed to the online courses, there is no lengthy review cycle. The course manager makes the change and posts the update.What had taken weeks or months is now being done in hours.

The LCMS provides a simple but powerful approach to post courses, documents, multiple-choice questions, matching questions, audio and video. Because the department’s instructors directly manage their own courses, the time frames to post updates and costs are minimal. Labor Department courses are instructionally sound, kept up to date, and interactive.

There are now more than 46,732 text objects, just under 5,000 images. In addition, there are more than 5,000 interactions using multiple-choice and matching questions for knowledge checks. Together, the repository has 56,870 objects that are used across its courses.

NEEDED: SERVER, SUPPORT

Compared to a proprietary LCMS that can require licensing costs, perstudent seat costs, maintenance costs and training costs, the open source approach is free. However, the Labor Department still requires a server and the expertise of a support company to manage the infrastructure. The support includes maintaining the server, handling infrastructure- related technical support, and the ability to develop more sophisticated interactions or animations beyond the capabilities of an instructor.

Overall, the Department of Labor has saved substantial taxpayer dollars using the open-source LCMS approach. It continues to be the foundation for the department’s approach to e-learning.

—Michael Gerwitz serves as program manager for the U.S. Department of Labor’s elearning initiative. He is responsible for implementing an enterprise-wide e-learning solution consisting of learning and content management systems. He has more than 15 years of experience using technology- based solutions to enhance the performance and productivity working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Defense Logistics Agency. Gerwitz is a key liaison between government and the commercial sector and continues to lead technical efforts, which promote the portability and interoperability of systems and applications government and industry-wide. He is a Certified
Distance Learning Educator.

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