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The Rise of "i-Learning?"

Some executives are using iPods and podcasting as part of progressive training programs.

Sunday, January 1, 2006
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Mark Twain famously observed that "everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it." At the last few learning and training conferences I've attended, I've paraphrased him by noting, to anybody who would listen, that "everybody talks about iPods and podcasting as the next big learning technology, but nobody does anything about it."

That's not true anymore. McLean, Va.-based financial services giant Capital One can honestly say they are doing something about it, and their progress is being watched by many in the training space. In 2004, the company's "Capital One University" began a pilot audio learning program based on the technology behind Apple Corp.'s mega-successful portable audio player, the iPod, as part of its training and development activities, and has since expanded the effort.

Ted Forbes, the company's chief learning officer and director of Capital One University, says the idea for the Audio Learning program "actually began with our executive vice president of human resources, Matt Schuyler. He had read about a program at Duke University in which iPods were given to incoming freshmen. He approached the senior leadership team and asked, 'If it's being used in the academic world for learning, is there a way we can leverage audio learning at Capital One for business learning?' "

Forbes says in the "Proof of Concept" pilot program, 100 associates from across the company were provided with three different types of MP3 players, including the iPod. All were provided with relevant learning content, in an audio format. That was followed by an "Early Adopter" program, where Forbes's team identified about 250 company thought leaders and asked them to try it.

"This 'test and learn' approach is part of our DNA," he says. "Our hope was that they would try it, like it, and spread the word. And that is exactly what happened. We felt like our experience in managing large-scale change really helped us out with this whole effort."

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By the end of last year, there were more than 20 audio-learning courses available to Capital One staffers, as well as company-specific content including speeches by company executives and presentations given as part of the company's diversity forum.

The company took the pulse of the employees using the program and 95 percent of participants said it offers insights beyond the classroom experience, and the same number called it a worthwhile investment.

Forbes also notes that Apple's iPod was chosen as the project's learning tool of choice for a few reasons. "Out of all the MP3 players, it was the most user friendly, it was the most cost-effective and it also had that "fun" factor," he says. "It was, for lack of a better word, a cool thing."

That said, for those considering jumping into MP3 learning, Forbes advises: "Don't do it because it is cool. Do it because it directly connects into your overall learning strategy. Audio is one more tool in the blended learning toolkit."

Christopher Cornell can be e-mailed at ccornell@lrp.com.

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