Learning portals tackle some of today’s top learning challenges — with varying results.
The buzz surrounding informal learning technologies is getting louder, specifically about learning portals — Web sites that offer learners consolidated access to resources from multiple sources. But it may be time to quiet the noise and think critically about how this technology is playing a role within the learning community. Do learning leaders have a standard definition of a learning portal? Do they know what a learning portal actually can do? And do learning portals truly address all the challenges they propose to solve?
Recent research indicates that there are some discrepancies surrounding these questions. In 2009, Training Industry Inc. and Expertus partnered to conduct a study on learning portals and informal learning technologies. In the study, “Learning Portals and Informal Learning Technologies,” they asked training professionals whether they have a learning portal, what benefits they’ve experienced, how they’re using the portal and how they track and enable informal learning.
For the purpose of the research, portals were defined as Web sites where learners find, buy or simply get access to training. This broad definition helped to conduct the research across different industries and business sizes, but it also garnered an interesting response. While almost all businesses think they have a portal, its uses and benefits vary drastically.
Ninety-three percent of respondents reported that they have a learning portal. Meanwhile, 45 percent of respondents say they will upgrade their existing learning portal within the next two years, and 14 percent plan to launch a new learning portal. Eighty-nine percent of respondents thought it was either critically important or somewhat important to include informal learning technologies in their training programs.
Because so many businesses are using and investigating learning portals, it’s beneficial to outline some of the learning and development challenges that executives face and consult with both researchers and practitioners to determine whether this technology assists in meeting those challenges.
Do Learning Portals Integrate Informal, Social and Collaborative Learning?
According to a report by research firm Aberdeen Group on learning and development for front-line and midlevel managers, corporate online learning portals are one of the top technologies currently in use by best-in-class organizations, with 56 percent of these top companies using a learning portal for manager development.
“Portals or other resources that bring together all of these learning channels in a way that makes learners more aware of the options available to them will become increasingly necessary as organizations adopt new modalities,” said Mollie Lombardi, research analyst in human capital management at Aberdeen Group.
According to research firm Bersin & Associates’ research studies “Learning Management Systems 2009” and “High-Impact Learning Practices: An Operating Guide for the Modern Training Function,” learning portals can be a platform for both formal and informal learning. They also can provide a single point of access to the LMS and many other applications, and they give the company one place to publish new information quickly.
Tom Kelly has more than 25 years of experience in the education and training industry and has held positions at organizations such as NetApp, Cisco and Oracle Corp. He said portals can offer a solution for a variety of learning initiatives only if “the learning group is committed to doing more than our industry has done in the past; if they are willing to acknowledge that training is only one small part of learning and [that] an individual needs information, communication, collaboration and training.”
Do Learning Portals Make It Easy for Learners to Find and Access On-Demand Learning?
According to David Mallon, senior analyst with Bersin & Associates, this ease of use has been proven. “A well-designed portal connects the user to information — quickly, efficiently and in context,” Mallon said.
Portals give people the specific information they need within the context of their jobs. Rather than leave the work environment to learn a new process, procedure or technique, they can retrieve useful information from wherever they are working.
While formal training programs are still required to develop basic skills, the portal environment lets the learner decide when a problem warrants formal education, information or a small module of instructional content. More advanced portals can provide highly personalized content and information as well as enable collaboration among peers and experts to help with job performance.
“While learning portals can sometimes intelligently push information to the user, based on what the system knows about the user’s role, interests and demographics, they are — by nature — on-demand solutions,” Mallon said. “A good learning portal is architected to best facilitate learner self-service, providing access to many learning sources and using a variety of modalities.”
Do Learning Portals Increase Partner and Customer Training Purchases and Employee Training Consumption?
This is a key question for someone who works with partners and customers on a daily basis. Tom Clancy, vice president of education services and productivity for EMC, a provider of information infrastructure systems, software and services, has to make sure his learning organization runs as a business to support EMC’s product sales growth. To accomplish this, he has to provide his external learners — 30,000 active EMC customers, channel partners and guests from a variety of industries — an easy-to-navigate learning portal that is a one-stop shop for all their needs.
In 2007, Clancy began to research how to provide a more user-friendly interface that increased learner satisfaction and use and leveraged more sales. He knew that if training could have a powerful impact on customers and channel partners, he would increase product sales and improve customer retention.
Clancy and his team found the answer in the form of Web 2.0 learning portal technology. Their current learning portal allows them to bring the core functionality of their LMS to customers rather than requiring customers to navigate their way through the LMS.
In fact, during the first quarter of implementation, EMC witnessed significant improvements, including a 51 percent increase in visitor traffic, 15 percent higher training revenue and a 54 percent reduction in help desk calls.
“A learning portal channels the educational resources that customers, partners and employees tap to acquire skills and remain productive,” Clancy said. “Condensing all of this information so that the appropriate content can be accessed in a timely fashion is key to creating and maintaining a positive user experience. Streamlining search tasks and enabling the system, over time, to become intuitive and tailor responses based on historical use will make the learning portals easier to use, resulting in more visits, greater consumption and improved satisfaction.”
Sixty-eight percent of respondents to the Training Industry Inc. and Expertus study reported they felt that the top benefit of learning portals is improving learner or customer satisfaction. Other important benefits include help in integrating learning technology, selected by 54 percent of respondents; tracking and enabling learning technology at 48 percent; and increasing training adoption at 40 percent. Interestingly, only 9 percent of respondents thought that increasing training sales was a top benefit.
Do Learning Portals Improve the Learner Experience?
In a recent survey of roughly 300 CLOs, analysts at research firm IDC found that about 60 percent of CLOs believed learning portals had a positive impact on their organizations, compared with 4 percent who believed they had a negative impact. The remaining 35 percent felt they had no impact.
According to Kelly, learning portals allow for greater success during searches and provide a more accurate way to find relevant content. Being able to shorten the time and increase success during the search process is inevitably better for the learner and the enterprise.
“Positive experiences mean people use the system more often,” Kelly said. “More use creates better results and experiences.”
Do Learning Portals Lower the Cost of Training?
In the Training Industry Inc. and Expertus study, when asked, “What was the primary factor supporting funding for the launch of your learning portal(s)?” respondents listed several factors that played a role in the approval process.
Anticipated cost reduction was among the most frequent responses. Other responses included:
- Centralized and consistent training repository.
- Customer or learner demand.
- Easy access to self-paced e-learning.
- On-demand and just-in-time training.
- Ability to reach a large global workforce and partners.
- Ability to track learning usage and the status of compliance training.
Respondents to the survey also indicated that informal learning technologies save money versus formal learning. Learning portals reduce costs by delivering more e-learning to global audiences and the larger marketplace, thus reducing the need for expensive instructor-led training.
Are Learning Portals Ready For Prime Time?
Yes and no. A portal that truly makes an impact in an organization is more than just a training Web site. It requires thoughtful structure and commitment to results. It’s unlikely that the 93 percent of learning organizations that say they utilize a learning portal have achieved one that addresses all of the challenges outlined above.
However, if built and maintained properly, research and expert testimony indicate that portal technology will have a welcome home in many organizations. In an age when informal, social and collaborative learning are critical to success; training adoption and accessibility are always of utmost importance; costs continue to be an issue; and a less disruptive learning experience is demanded by learners, portals just may deliver.
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