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Small and Medium-sized Infrastructure for distance Learning Experiments


SMILE's chief operational objective is to specify, implement and evaluate distance learning pilot experiments addressing the real needs of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs); across a large number of Member States. The pilot experiments will use different technology configurations for delivery and support services, address several target groups, and test a variety of learning situations and different content areas.

In order to conduct the experiments, SMILE will set up a network of training support centers called "Training Technologies Support Units", or TTSUs. The TTSUs will rely heavily on the experience and expertise of existing national training structures for SMEs such as chambers of commerce, national centers for distance education, and national associations for handicraft as well as on the on-going work on improving vocational training opportunities for SMEs by CEDEFOP; COMETT; and DG-XXIII.

The project, with 12 experimentation sites, and covering 8 countries in 1992, will create a permanent networked infrastructure allowing Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises of Europe to improve and develop their access to flexible and distance learning based on telematics technologies.
The project implemented an infrastructure of 15 Training Technology Support Units (TTSUs) operating in 12 European countries and Canada, based on existing local or regional SME support structures, and developed an electronic network delivery system through which programmes for SMEs can be viewed and delivered.

The project also demonstrated the need to adapt training systems and methodologies to the specific needs of SMEs. SMEs tend to be solution oriented - they do not usually request training. Training for SMEs must be in their native language. Their problem-solving needs are usually short-lived and sporadic, and their training involves small numbers of people. The project also found that SMEs are open to flexible distance learning, but do not usually have the equipment to use advanced technology or the ability to invest in it.
Technical approach

The project is subdivided into 3 consecutive phases of activity:

1992: Programme concertation, market studies, definition of methods and plans, TTSU and field test set-up. Two milestones are set at the end of the preparation of the implementation and assessment plans, and at the end of the preparation of the field tests.

1993: Field testing of stable technologies, development of the Network, assessment of both. The milestone of this second phase is at the end of the field tests.

1994: Field testing of innovative technologies, uptake and independence of the TTSU Network, assessment of innovative technologies. The milestone of the third phase is the final report.

The general objectives of the Workplan will be approached by the following project actions:

Development of the networking activities of a group of Training Technologies Support Units (TTSUs); with the purpose of creating a permanent infrastructure beyond the project life time.

Set-up of a code of conduct to define the basic rules of operation of the TTSU network. Exchange of experience, training materials, personnel,.

Experimentation in the TTSUs of the full implementation of existing or slightly adapted advanced learning products or technologies chosen to best fit local constraints and interests.

Creation of a favorable environment to prompt and support the development of concertation and information dissemination with other organisations concerned with distance and flexible training in SMEs.

Provision to the other projects of the DELTA Programme with the evaluation reports on the cost factors, didactic efficiency and applicability of the technologies.

Definition of an evaluation strategy.
Provision of concrete input on market assessment.
Use of learning material and strategies developed under COMETT.
Experimentation of DBS;
Contribution to the objectives of the telematics programme in terms of standardisation, integration, innovation, and cost effectiveness.
Proof of the viability of the pilots in the full implementation of services (cost effectiveness, management structure, performance, motivation of the learners,.),
Assessment of regulatory aspects.

Key issues

The concept of the TTSU, which will be formalised into a "TTSU charter", is based on the idea of providing decentralised resource centres, conveniently located and staffed with permanent personnel. Each TTSU is created and managed by national or local SME organisations and local authorities.

The services offered by the TTSUs include a combination of the following:
- general information on existing products and on local suppliers
- demonstration of multi-media products both at the TTSU premises and at the sites of local SMEs
- marketing of flexible and distance learning concepts
- evaluation of the training needs of specific SMEs in a given geographical area or a given economic sector, in light of improving the competitiveness of SMEs in the Single Market
- assistance in the selection of appropriate hardware and basic software
- specification of new products
- technical assistance
- mediation between producers/publishers and SMEs
- training.

The pilot experiments at the TTSUs will be conducted in two phases. The first phase of experimentation is presently existing stable distance learning assessing materials. The second phase of experimentation will be based on innovative technologies as well as on prototypes developed in the 200 series of the DELTA main phase. Included in the technologies to be experimented are:

- stand alone portable multi-media training stations that can be easily installed in shops and hostile environments
- distribution of multi-media training material via ISDN, with effective tutoring and monitoring
- COMETT multi-media/ videodisk products
- video/software/computer conference products
- satellite broadcasting.

The TTSUs are open to:

- SMEs themselves
- their employees
- young adults seeking employment in local enterprises
- the unemployed seeking re-entry into the job market
- vocational trainers, and
- other interested individuals.

Different learning settings, each of which might imply different technological scenarios are being tested:

- at home
- at the workplace
- at the training centre
- with a mobile unit.


Improving the supply of training for small businesses in the EC:

SMEs are a very important element of the European economic and social area, and would be better equipped to perform their role if they were to demonstrate both solidity and flexibility. The improvement of the qualifications of the owners, managers and employees of these enterprises is thus, a major challenge.

The improvement of the operational abilities of small and medium enterprises in the Community, allowing them to seize the opportunities available as a consequence of the Single Market, is the major objective sought by the training organisations grouped into the SMILE Consortium.

As a consequence this project aims at improving the supply of training for small businesses in the EC; which presently falls somewhat short of needs and perhaps even fails to meet effective demand. The challenge to the supply side, therefore, is to convert needs into demands and to meet these effectively and efficiently.

A European network of "Training Technologies Support Units":

The SMILE Consortium is fully aware that the term "small business" embraces many millions of companies of different types, with very different learning needs. That is why the project has invested a significant amount of time during the first year to analyse and categorise these needs, and approach the most critical areas of work through detailed implementation and evaluation plans.

This Consortium is based upon the belief that the key to closing the gap is the development of a professional cadre of trainers and organisers throughout Europe, operating to recognise standards of competency. They should have all the entrepreneurial skills required to reach the owner-manager and his staff with their services. This will also be one of the key objectives of the project : to create a European network of "Training Technologies Support Units".

SMEs in remote areas:
Specific attention is being paid to reach SMEs in remote and peripheral areas. TTSUs will offer services to more developing areas in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland and the new "Laender" of Germany.


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