Con Edison Adopts eLearning as Workforce Evolves

By James Mueller, Con Edison

Imagine a school that has to develop training methods for three generations, ranging in age from 20-somethings to 50-somethings—from people born before color TV and raised on typewriters and the Cold War to those who grew up on video games, the Internet and Coldplay. Consider the challenge of trying to customize a course for someone born when Harry S. Truman was in the White House vs. a course for someone born when Ronald Reagan was president.

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Con Edison Inc. is meeting that challenge with its 21st century Learning Center on the banks of the East River in Queens, northeast of the United Nations.

The 15-year-old Learning Center was the brainchild of former Con Edison chairman Eugene R. McGrath. Today its directors, managers and instructors are capitalizing on eLearning programs to train and offer continuing education and basic courses to the electric, gas and steam workforce at two regulated utilities—Consolidated Edison Company of New York Inc. and Orange and Rockland Utilities.

Background and Benefits

The need for training and developing employees’ skills in the classroom and via the Internet has risen dramatically in the 21st century. It’s been driven by both utilities’ increased hiring since 2003 to replace a veteran, experienced workforce that is retiring at the rate of approximately 1,000 men and women a year.

One way that Con Edison has addressed these increased training requirements is by investing in a robust eLearning curriculum. eLearning is one of the company’s training initiatives and evolved as the workforce is bursting with younger employees. It is not replacing classroom training but has become an additional educational tool in a rich curriculum: One cannot learn splicing or high-voltage construction and maintenance in front of a computer monitor. So, not everything can be taught online. But, for example, finance, safety programs and the basics on electric, gas or steam systems are the perfect fit for eLearning.


A screen shot of the eLearning system.Click here to enlarge image

One of the best examples of Con Edison’s recent application of eLearning was the training for the storm overview process. A consultant commissioned by the New York State Public Service Commission audited the company’s response to storm emergencies. That audit resulted in a mandate to train more than 5,000 employees on the company’s storm response process in a short period of time.

Learning Center staff created and launched an eLearning course on this process and three months after the release of this course, all of the employees required to take the course had completed it.


An employee works through an eLearning task.Click here to enlarge image

Through this method, the company avoided instructor labor costs, reduced scheduling activities, eliminated costs associated with material for the course and reduced costs associated with tracking completions.

The benefits of eLearning include the following:

  • A self-paced and self-directed approach which allows students to choose content and tools appropriate to their differing interests, needs and skill levels;
  • Accommodation of multiple learning styles using a variety of delivery methods geared to different learners;
  • Content that is designed around the learner;
  • 24/7 accessibility that makes scheduling easier and allows a greater number of people to attend classes;
  • On-demand access where learning can happen precisely when needed;
  • Reduction or elimination of travel time and associated costs (parking, fuel, vehicle maintenance);
  • Instruction cost avoidance;
  • Content that is standard and lessons that do not deviate from the stated objectives; and
  • Elimination of material costs associated with student books and instructors’ guides.

These advantages are critical to a field force that works around the clock, nights, weekends and holidays.

Developments at Con Edison

From 2006 to 2007, Con Edison’s eLearning sessions more than doubled to nearly 70,000. The company’s commitment to eLearning and advanced teaching techniques is moving into other areas as well. For example, by next year, Con Edison plans to give all of its written tests via electronics. It will allow instructors to evaluate their teaching methods by tracking answers that are correct and incorrect. Electronic testing also has the added environmental benefit of saving trees by eliminating paper.

Also by the end of this year, Con Edison’s Learning Center will install a video game/3-D simulator for electric operations. It’s designed for the men and women who work on underground electrical structures as splicers, mechanics and general utility workers (GUWs or laborers). They are the skilled workers, who build and maintain Con Edison’s more than 90,000 miles of underground cables and structures.


Con Edison’s Learning Center goes beyond eLearning to full simulations, in some cases.Click here to enlarge image

The game has a “do it right or die” theme, emphasizing what traditional or video courses stress for every Con Edison and Orange and Rockland employee: Work safely.

Con Edison R&D director Fred Coppersmith commented on the new video game, “It shows the consequences of your actions. For example, if you don’t do a set up right (with cones and barriers around a manhole), you’re hit by a car. If you don’t test for stray voltage, you’re lying in the street shocked. This course is designed to appeal to the current generation of workers doing video games.”

He characterized the game, developed by a Calgary, Alberta, Canada, training group, as “definitely state of the art. It does more than a dry lecture on safety.”


A view of the exterior of Con Edison’s Learning Center.Click here to enlarge image

Coppersmith added that the payback comes not only by reinforcing safety but also by its frequent use.

In the tradition of Thomas A. Edison, the company’s commitment to adapting the latest educational techniques is evolving every year. As baby boomers yield to Gens X and Y in the utility workforce, Con Edison’s priority of working safely for nine million New Yorkers is taking shape through pursuing the next generation of high-tech education and updating traditional classroom techniques.

Mueller is director of Con Edison’s Learning Center.

Going “˜Digital Native’: Putting eLearning to Practice with an Emerging Workforce

 

By Marisa Hemingway, SEL University, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, Inc.

Corporate training professionals strive to deliver training to the right person, in the right place and at the right time. Traditionally, organizations have trained their workforce with primarily classroom-based or in-person, direct training. However, modern workplaces are less centralized than they used to be, and the emerging workforce increasingly finds information informally, using digital-based technologies. eLearning can round out a complete corporate training solution to meet these needs.

eLearning isn’t a new concept, but many organizations are implementing it in new ways. Innovative eLearning applications build on studies in cognitive science and workplace learning behavior to create training products that effectively and efficiently transfer skills. As the variety of electronic media grows, so do the opportunities for eLearning.

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Labor released a study that indicated up to 75 percent of workplace learning is informal rather than formal. Informal learning is any unstructured and unscheduled student-controlled learning event. According to the study, professionals learn via peer interactions, email, the Internet, intranets, wikis, chat forums and blogs. However, leveraging these informal learning channels to meet performance objectives presents a challenge.

The American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) recently conducted a study on informal learning practices in the workplace. Over half of interviewees, including mostly top- and mid-level managers, said they considered informal learning an important part of their employee development program. Many reported best practices use new technologies for information exchange—such as employee-driven podcasting, wikis and social networking sites—to facilitate learning. “Workers are often encouraged to compile information through any technological platform that proves useful,” writes Andrew Paradise in “Informal Learning: Overlooked or Overhyped?” (See http://www.astd.org/TD/Archives/2008/July/Free/July2008ExecSum.htm)

Podcasting and wikis haven’t traditionally been considered eLearning technologies because of the absence of structure and instructional design in their current form. However, the challenge faced by corporate training professionals is to parlay informal learning events into skill acquisition, and eLearning as a platform is well suited for this challenge because of its flexibility and portability. Applying information-exchange technologies and other informal channels to facilitate performance development will be an exciting and evolving trend for e-learning in coming years.

Digital technologies are a familiar format for an emerging labor force called “digital natives”—the generation that grew up with computers, the Internet and mobile devices. Like many industries, electric power utilities are scrambling to replace much of their baby-boomer workforce. Often, part of the solution is recruiting new graduates who must quickly reach required performance objectives. Knowing your audience is a critical part of any successful training program, and when that audience is largely composed of digital natives, eLearning is a natural choice.

For many managers, eLearning is popular because it can easily be distributed to a dispersed workforce via the Internet and mobile devices. It also provides flexibility to companies cutting travel budgets, developing succession and knowledge-transfer strategies to manage the baby-boomer migration to retirement, or wanting a blended training solution that uses e-learning to teach basic knowledge and classroom-based courses to develop complex skill sets.

It is important for training departments to put eLearning in the context of a complete training solution. eLearning cannot replace certain instructor-led formats that develop high-level, technical skill sets and require trainer feedback, evaluation and mentoring. Classroom training is also well suited for any skill that should be developed using social learning methods. It’s difficult to learn effective teamwork strategies without practicing on an actual team! However, organizations can save time and money by creating training programs that blend different learning formats based on the strengths of each.

The dynamics of contemporary workplaces present challenges to creating effective training curricula. However, eLearning technologies are more effective than ever in assisting organizations to develop employee performance and meet workplace-learning initiatives.

For further details on implementing an eLearning program at your company, consult your local ASTD chapter.

Marisa Hemingway is an instructional designer for SEL University, where she specializes in eLearning design. In 2003, she received her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining SEL in 2003, she was a Web application analyst for Lane Powell Spears Lubersky LLP.

SEL University has one clear mission—to provide the education and training needed to make electric power safer, more reliable and more economical. SELU develops programs that help power systems engineers meet the technical challenges and complexities of integrating digitally based technologies into expanding power system infrastructures.

SEL serves the electric power industry worldwide through the design, manufacture, supply and support of products and services for power system protection, monitoring, control, automation and metering.

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The Clarion Energy Content Team is made up of editors from various publications, including POWERGRID International, Power Engineering, Renewable Energy World, Hydro Review, Smart Energy International, and Power Engineering International. Contact the content lead for this publication at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com.

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