School bells are ringing in dealerships thro-ughout America as salespeople, technicians and other staff gear up for the '2000 model vehicle launch. But there are fewer teachers, fewer books, let alone dirty looks.

Product, service and finance training courses from the major automakers are beamed into the dealership via satellite or World Wide Web. Employees can access information on demand, almost 24 hours a day, with the help of today's technology - a laptop computer, video or DVD player, e-mail, satellite and a simple, interactive key pad.

Distance learning is the fastest-growing form of training conducted in corporations, according to the American Society of Training and Development. The new training offers more variety in formats while shaving the cost of travel, separate classrooms and time away from dealerships.

"You pay a monthly subscription fee - kind of like cable TV - and you can train more people, bring them up to speed faster than you could when nearly all courses were held at training centers," says Bill Demmer, president of Jack Demmer Ford in Wayne, MI. "If you don't understand the broadcast, you can make a video and play it again several times."

George Stavros, general manager of automotive services for ASTN, which trains dealers with satellite- transmitted broadcasts, says videos give dealers daily access to the country's best trainers, for the cost of a few lunches.

Nearly all the automakers are scrambling to spread technology fever to train its entire dealer body, from managerial skills to transmission overhaul. Here are some key developments:

* This month Daimler Chrysler Corp. rolls out a sweeping approach to retail communications and training called the DaimlerChrysler Academy (DCA). Employees in all dealership departments will be able to register for courses online, take the courses and exams, and transmit their results directly in to the DCA database. The automaker expects to shave $120 million a year from the dealership cost of live product and service training.

* General Motors Corp is dismantling 17 of its 23 training centers, largely used for service technician training, and offering new, interactive courses on satellite television and CD-ROM. For the first time in GM history, service courses for all brands will be supplied by Raytheon, a defense contractor with decades of experience in technical training, instead of the individual divisions.

* Ford Motor Co. is revamping the training offered on its FORDSTAR satellite network to fit 56 different processes important to the customer. Some courses will be delivered live, some by satellite, others by CD- ROM, but the goal is to assure that the customer gets what is promised. Ford schedules an average of 450 satellite courses a month on its network to help dealers follow through.

* Toyota Motor Sales USA launched its full-size Tundra truck to dealer personnel by deploying four mobile education centers with seating for up to 120 people. Within 60 days the training team had visited 151 cities, infusing sales staff with value-added features. Trainers felt it was the most successful launch in Toyota history because the first 30-day sales broke all records for the automaker.

Format fits function The average American watches five to seven hours of television a day, and so, the automotive retail industry sees TV as a teaching tool that participants are not unfamiliar with.

The University of Toyota in Torrence, CA, set up state-of-the-art surveillance rooms with an AMX digital panel display, audience response pads and surveillance rooms.

Inside this learning center, salespeople role-play scenarios with customers, then review a videotape of their performance with a coach. They might redo the same scene several times until the lessons become fluid and familiar.

"The information age not only changed the way we sell cars but the way we train people to sell and service cars. We're responding to the way today's generation wants to be trained," says Mike Wells, dean of dealer education and development at the University of Toyota.

Ford launched its FORDSTAR satellite network five years ago, with live, interactive broadcasts beamed on seven channels on the dealership television set, nearly every hour of the day. The system has a built in microphone so that the viewer who is signed up for the class can electronically raise his or her hand and the instructor will answer the question.

Enrolled students sit down at the keypad, punch in their social security number and they are automatically registered for credits leading to their certification. Classes are offered to just about every position in the dealership, from leasing to customer service. Others can view the program from the background.

DaimlerChrysler is shifting from a 12-year-old satellite system to a web-based delivery. Course enrollment will be handled online, even if the class is taught live.

"The Internet holds the potential of access anywhere, any time, whether it's at home, at a Kinko's in the mall or the dealership," says Lynn Bradfield, PhD, senior manager, DaimlerChrysler service and parts process group.

Paying the piper Once a month the Larry Miller Group, a Salt Lake City-based chain of 36 dealerships with 2,400 employees, designed its own Miller Business Academy and invites university professors, motivational speakers and business leaders to its corporate training center for lessons in business fundamentals.

"Highly trained people help us grow," says Bryant Henry, Miller's operations manager, and a staunch backer of on-site training. With such a large group of managers, they can afford to hire the best minds to coach their people. The firm invests 3-5% of its revenues on training all of its employees.

"We schedule training so all our people are exposed to information they need to know. Sure it takes time away from customers. But untrained people aren't making money for us either," says Bryant Henry, Miller's operations manager.

Acquiring education takes a sizeable investment for dealers. Not only must they pay for the training and compensate employees for time spent away from their jobs, they must buy the corporate-approved equipment to run the programs and set aside a dedicated training room. In space-starved quarters, the lessons are serenaded by the continual sound of power tools in the background.

DaimlerChrysler suggests each dealer purchase two laptop computers so employees can take them home to finish training on their own time. But the cost won't be cheap.

Some dealers have a storeroom full of defunct equipment, from 70s era videodisc players to the nearly obsolete CD-I machines. With the increasing variety of formats, the training room likely needs a big screen television set, several touch pads, at least two high-speed computers and several hand-held diagnostic machines that are compatible with instructional CD ROMS.

"Not everyone is hooked up yet. You'll see a big learning curve as dealers move to Internet and website training," warns Mr. Demmer. Dealers don't have a choice in jumping aboard. The manufacturers mandate a certain level of training for key employees, such as technicians and sales staff, to maintain the franchise agreement.

Manufacturers offer a host of incentives for dealerships and key employees to participate in training, rewarding its top participants with perks ranging from pewter technician statues to motivational trips to Cancun or Disney World.

At the dealership, training helps reduce employee turnover, according to John Schenden, owner of Pro Chrysler Plymouth Jeep in Denver.

"When our people are trained and up to date on product, they fix it better and sell it better," Schenden says. "Employees appreciate the training because it lets them know we're investing in their future."

Fixing the glitches As the manufacturers scramble to deliver more programs via high technology to the dealership, some managers wonder if the process is going too fast for the common good.

"Now that GM is putting most of its training on satellite, we'll miss being in a classroom with our peers. A lot of what we learned came from casual conversations at lunch and breaks, deciding what works best for people," says Carol Keeton, service manager, Nelda Stephenson Chevrolet and a member of the now defunct, National Service Managers Advisory Board for Chevrolet.

Service managers expressed anger and frustration at GM, according to Keeton, because it began closing its regional training centers before its new training was underway. The free-standing training centers still had waiting lists for hot technician courses when they closed.

A GM spokesperson says 3,000 dealerships would have satellite technology installed by October to receive the new training materials.

By contrast, DaimlerChrysler plans a gradual rollout of its web-based system, to assure dealer cooperation. Luis Martinez, senior manager, sales process and product launch, said 78% of its dealership training is currently delivered away from the dealership, 7% inside the dealership and 15% interactive. By the 2001 model launch, they expect to reduce off-site training to 56%, increase interactive training to 27% and provide another 17% inside the dealership.

"Daimler Chrysler came to the dealer council a year ago and presented this concept. They met with us several times to get our buy in," says Dwight Goad, dealer principal of Stevens Creek Dodge in San Jose, CA.

Ultimately, the dealer employees will determine whether the cost savings achieved through technology are worth the sacrifice in sharing lessons with a live instructor and other pupils. Keeton said the quality must be good to keep people's attention.

"Some of the service videotapes are so bad we laugh at the things the instructor says. It's obvious he doesn't know the material he's presenting," Keeton says. "When it's a comedy, you lose attention quick."

What is distance learning? An instructor, located in a transmission studio, trains several hundred students simultaneously. Students, likely two or three in a dealership, view the lecture via a standard TV monitor. Each student has a small box (keypad) which allows them to "raise their hand" by pushing a button and talking with the instructor. They can also answer questions, take pop quizzes with simple yes/no or multiple choice answers.

Will live training go away? Experiential training or live events will retain an essential role in nearly every manufacturer's mix. However, existing courses, live workshops and new courses will be evaluated for delivery in a high technology format. The end result, developed in tandem with dealers and their employees, will be a balance of flexibility, personal choice and high quality personnel development, because more people have access to more training courses.

How do you verify participation? Students log into the training technology by entering their password or social security number. They may view a course on a satellite broadcast and videotape it to review. Other classes might be a combination of live, hands-on sessions with a follow-up CD-ROM to practice skills and techniques. Some of these CD programs are designed so that you can't move to the next section until you successfully complete the previous one, so you keep reviewing the lesson until it sinks in.

Where do dealers save costs? DaimlerChrysler spokespeople estimate their dealer body invests 300,000 total days in training, plus an additional 300,000 days traveling to and from actual training sites. Because their employees are away from the dealership, the owners lose a combined $240 million in revenue. If non-productive travel were cut in half, the dealers would save $120 million or 150,000 productive hours of employee time.