First Union Corp. is among a growing number of institutions expanding their computer-based training.

Thanks to its low cost and effectiveness, training via computers connected to the Internet is headed toward becoming a $1.5 billion a year industry in 2000, according to Brandon Hall, publisher of a newsletter on technology-based training. Financial services companies are leading users, he said.

First Union has been promoting computer-based training in conjunction with instructor-led training for about two years, said Wayne Felton, vice president in the company's First University Capital Markets Training.

"We won't eliminate classroom training," he said, but added, "We're moving as fast as possible to alternative delivery."

The First University program has benefited from the time savings, consistency, and ease of distribution that computer-based training offers.

The average time to train tellers, for example, has been slashed by 50%, Mr. Felton said. "The cost savings are one reason, but we also do it for the quality of training," he said.

Providers of computer-based training agree that recent advances in technology have removed obstacles to adoption.

In 1995, computer-based training "was a field of dreams," said R. Philip Giles, founder and president of CBT Worldwide Inc. of Mamaroneck, N.Y., which distributes self-paced learning software.

At that time, technology did not let companies carry out training by computer. "By 1998 that excuse was no longer there," he said.

Now, CD-ROMs supply clear graphics and sound at a user's desktop. "It helps to have animation, video, and voice," Mr. Giles said.

Roy Karon, founder, president and chief executive officer of BVS Performance Systems, said the Internet is a boon to computer-based training.

He said he expects that within a year 90% of the banking industry will be Internet-enabled.

"Today's need is distance learning," he said. "Banks have branches hither and yon and wonder how they can get to everyone. The computer screen can act as a virtual classroom administered from the server."

Mr. Giles' company sold its CBTutor Financial Series to 1,000 end-users last year, half in financial services. Clients include Citigroup, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, J.P. Morgan & Co., Bank of China, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Fannie Mae.

Mr. Karon's 17-year-old Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company launched the first of its computer courses for banks in 1993. Now it supplies 78 training courses via Internet, multimedia, and video to about 1,400 banks.

Its customers include Colonial Bank of Montgomery, Ala., Coastal Banc of Houston, National Bank of Alaska in Anchorage, Sterling Bank and Trust in Southfield, Mich., and Grand Premier Financial of Wauconda, Ill.

"The beauty of computer-based training is that each screen is a learning bite," Mr. Karon said. "My vision is CBT for every banker, everywhere."

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