Although Internet training and educational programs have received high marks from other industries, the concept remains an uncharted course for many carriers that question the authenticity and effectiveness of the programs.An insurance executive who works within his company's special investigative unit enters the rotunda of a local university and proceeds to a classroom to participate in a course on how to detect and prevent insurance-related fraud.However, when the student arrives at the classroom, an instructor won't be present. Instead, the executive will receive instructions from a computer.

Identified as a new and revolutionary way to train and educate employees, carriers have begun implementing Web-based learning to either augment-or replace-traditional brick-and-mortar programs. Targeted to insurance carriers, agents and brokers who want to strengthen their professional base of knowledge to better serve customers, Web-based learning is earning high marks from companies seeking alternatives to traditional professional training programs.

Participants say convenience is a motivation for their participation in e-learning programs. The format's flexibility enables them to complete a session any time of the day or night. Moreover, they can avoid transportation headaches that occur as they attempt to get to a class on time.

Companies that sponsor-and pay for-Web-based training cite lower overhead costs as a rationale for adoption. With e-learning, an insurance association or a carrier can centralize their training programs and eliminate the costs associated with building training facilities across the country.

But the most compelling advantage of e-learning is that despite the lack of a live instructor, students often retain and repeatedly use more of what's presented through an online program than they ever could in a brick-and-mortar classroom setting.

Executives familiar with both learning models-live and virtual-say there is a greater level of distraction connected to traditional training. Web-based training promotes a higher degree of interest, which means trainees grasp more-and what they learn and retain is better gauged. "Having the program on the Web enables the delivery of measurable results," says John Eager, head of the fraud subcommittee for Des Plaines, Ill.-based National Association of Independent Insurers (NAII), which has 635 member companies. "Under traditional training, there is always a struggle to define the results."

The one possible drawback is the fact that a Web-based learning regimen is just plain different. As such, something in the process may get lost in the translation, observers warn. "I don't dispute the need for training; many agents and brokers have a tendency to force-feed products to customers whether they need them or not," says Todd Eyler, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. "But many old-school financial advisors may resist this type of training-they like to network with people. This may be something best targeted to the new breed of financial advisors."

Schooled on the Web

Insurance groups familiar with e-learning look at matters through an entirely different prism than the skeptics do. In a traditional education environment delivered by a live instructor, students often find lesson plans can be fleeting-once a topic is discussed, it's not often revisited. Web-based learning provides an opposite dynamic.

The Internet has helped corporate education become more personalized. "Internet training is an electronic microcosm of one-on-one tutoring," explains Jay Gregory, vice president and COO for Life Instructors Inc., a New Providence, N.J.-based learning technology firm that offers a curriculum of more than 100 courses to insurance carriers. "When an individual is tutored, the tutor can often review past material to go over an area of deficiency. The same thing can occur on the Web."

For example, InsuranceStudy.com launched in October a continuing education program for agents and brokers, which is broken down into various modules. The program enables users to either complete all modules at one sitting or take the test on a module-by-module basis.

For users who only want to complete part of a test, the Web site automatically bookmarks their last position so they can pick up the exam where they left off, says Dean Jones, founder and CEO of the Wheaton, Ill.-based company, which is certified to offer courses in 15 states covering property/casualty and life/health categories.

"On the Internet, self-pacing is the nucleus of the program. Students can go back and review a lesson, so the dynamic is that they can continually learn and refresh, learn and refresh," says NAII's Eager.

After several months of putting the pieces in place, NAII is expected to help launch a program dubbed NICTA-the National Insurance Crime Training Academy. Slated to go live in early 2001, the program targets carriers determined to fight insurance fraud.

Consisting of a public-private partnership of insurers, trade associations, law enforcement, the FBI and consumers, NICTA will offer an eight- to 10-week fraud training program that will cost about $750 per individual.

Tied in with the University of Virginia and University of South Connecticut, students are expected to devote an average of 15 hours a week to earn a training certificate. The universities will provide administrative services such as distribution of earned credits and establishment of the actual curriculum.

Developed by Mindware Inc., a technology provider based in Arlington Heights, Ill., NICTA will feature three-dimensional, multimedia text and visual content, with interactive animation and Flash-plug technology. Activated by a Web browser, NICTA will reside on the Internet where students can access training modules from a corporate intranet, extranet site or home computer-all linked back to NICTA's Web site, www.nicta.com.

Licensed to sell

The NAII's fraud-prevention program is just one example of the breadth and depth of e-training programs tailored for financial services organizations.

As carriers begin to market a greater degree of complex products, such as variable annuities and employee benefits packages, "the onus is placed on financial advisors to take these products and be able to explain them to a consumer in simple English," Eyler states.

Brokers and agents are prime targets for such Web-based programs. The reason is simple-many brokers and agents work long hours and can't afford to run an errand, much less travel across town to attend a training session.

Web-based learning would appeal to brokers because "brokers have been viewed as a fragmented layer of the insurance value chain, and are often exposed to insufficient training standards for the procurement and distribution of employee benefits," says James Clarke, chief operating officer for Employee Benefits Service (EBS), a national benefits management and technology firm based in Irvine, Calif.

As a potential solution to this problem and to reduce its own training-related costs, San Francisco-based BenefitPoint Inc., an Internet-based employee benefits manager and distributor of group insurance and financial products, is using Centra99 software to deliver live, Web-based training for brokers, carriers, employees and consulting firms.

The e-learning application, developed by Boston-based Centra Software Inc., enables brokers to connect into a virtual classroom setting. Any concerns that Web-based training may possess deficiencies in the transference of data from instructor to pupil have been allayed by BenefitPoint executives. "We found this type of training can be accomplished without sacrificing the effectiveness of traditional face-to-face training," says Ceil Tilney, BenefitPoint's director of education services.

E-learning courses also are helping a handful of carriers improve product marketing. In August, Travelers Insurance Group, Hartford, Conn., introduced an online insurance education program that the company calls Travelers Online University.

Available to its 7,000 agents and brokers, the program was developed by Los Angeles-based eMind.com Inc., a Web-based educational services provider. Offering a library of more than 700 courses in insurance, securities, accounting, information technology and personal development, eMind.com tracks course work, reports grades and monitors learner progress.

In September, Los Angeles-based Farmers Insurance Group also formed an alliance with eMind.com to provide a comprehensive online continuing education program to its more than 15,000 agents.

Hosted by e-Mind's Web servers, agents of both Travelers and Farmer's can access eMind.com's learning program through the Internet and receive customized insurance courses covering life and health, and property/casualty products.

"So far, we've had 122 agents register for eMind.com's continuing education courses, and about another 400 have made inquiries," says John Schulz, a project manager specializing in agency management for Travelers. "Continuing education is usually a necessary evil for an agent because either they or one of their customer service representatives have to take time out to attend training."

With this program, Schulz says, "they can log on to www.eMind.com 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most importantly, the program is an intuitive point-and-click interface with a modular course design, and a variety of interactive questions and feedback. At Travelers, we're not making or saving any money on this program. But we are passing on operating efficiencies to agents."

Keep it simple

As e-Learning programs begin to build a following, the training process-whether it be coaching agents and brokers on better ways to sell complicated products or preventing insurance fraud-must not only be customized to the individual learner, but must be practical, program developers say.

"As a technology developer, you have to find the lowest common denominator of the audience," says Gregory of Life Instructors, which has received endorsements from the Life Underwriting Training Counsel and Atlanta-based Life Office Management Association. "If you have an agent taking a course on the Web and all he's equipped with is a 28K dial-up modem, you have to offer a program that's less sophisticated than someone who has a digital Internet connection."

"Training and education on the Web must be practical and user-centric, or there will be a drag on enrollment," notes Allan Butler, president of Mindware, the developer of the NICTA program.

A program such as NICTA-which is expected to take about three months to complete-can cost between $40,000 to $200,000, depending on the level of technology, Butler says. NICTA's costs were held in check, he says, because the sponsoring groups de-emphasized "flash and dash" to concentrate on practicality, with "instruction strategies based on real-life scenarios-we call them 'near examples.'"

To accommodate users who have basic PCs, NICTA is not equipped with elaborate sound-card technology, and the multimedia text and graphics are spartan. "We stressed course ownership, and for this to occur you don't want there to be any hand-holding when a user logs on," Butler says.

By the time it's launched, NICTA enrollment is expected to be brisk. An NAII study indicated that 83% of its 635 member companies would implement or participate in a Web-based program for either training or learning if given the opportunity.

The course is expected to be spread over eight to 10 weeks and will encompass seven to 10 learning modules per course. Once someone enrolls in a course, they are assigned a password and user name to tap into the program.

Participants will have access to a library of course materials, where they devote time to studying before taking an exam. The program will also have interactive technology so that a participant can conduct communication with fellow students or instructors through an electronic bulletin board messaging service. Participants can post a message detailing the areas they wish to discuss with the instructor. Eventually, the instructor retrieves the message and sends a response.

One feature of the NICTA program is a virtual "burn detection" room that enables students to detect irregularities and uncover arson-level fraud. "They can toggle up and down and sideways to view the room," says Butler. "There may be a dozen scenarios that lead to one outcome. While they're in the process of investigation, they may answer a question posed about the investigation. A virtual 'coach' will be engaged during the lesson to provide critical feedback."

Attention class

When a trainee logs onto a typical Web-based learning program to start a session, they may first see an introductory Web screen displaying images and graphics of a university -including an exterior visual of a campus building followed by a virtual tour inside a school.

Through Life Instructors, which is working with such carriers as New York Life Insurance Co. and State Farm Insurance Cos., participants gain access to the www.lifeinstructors.com Web site through a corporate intranet site, using an identical password and user name assigned by their employer. By clicking on a "Study" hyperlink, participants can draw from a litany of insurance-related curricula.

"The courses can be as basic as a 30-minute session on how to write a business letter, or it can be a 15-week course on selling variable annuities," says Gregory. "The key is that we parcel out the sessions in manageable bites-no more than 40 minutes-to sustain a student's attention level."

Although Web-based training to a certain degree simulates the traditional learning environment, questions still loom over its authenticity. For instance, students are largely unable to take cues from an instructor. That gets to the heart of what skeptics are asking: How much knowledge do participants absorb outside of a traditional classroom environment?

Advocates of Web-based training argue that students can indeed learn a lot. "On the Internet, there's no place to hide-the computer won't allow it," Gregory says.

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