Fidelity Investments, Boston, introduced its first investment education seminar for 401(k) plan participants, and will be the first fund manager to deliver such a program by satellite.
The distance learning service will enable employers to relay a 90-minute session with independent financial planner Jonathan Pond to an unlimited number of remote sites simultaneously.
Part of Fidelity's STAGES educational series, the seminar guides employees through basic investment principles and asset allocation, using a workbook.
The satellite seminar format encourages participants from all locations to ask questions and participate live in the session.
Fidelity has tested the service so far with one large Massachusetts-based engineering and technology company; Fidelity wouldn't reveal the name. The company invited employees by flyer and e-mail to participate in the first satellite-beamed financial planning seminar and within two days had more than 300 applicants for the available 80 places at two sites.
Focus groups held after the broadcast rated the program highly, said Andrea Pollinger, vice president of communication and education of Fidelity Investments Retirement Services Co.
"The challenge in effective distance learning is the teacher can't see how the audience is responding. The instructor has to make it engaging in order to hold students' attention and to get them to ask questions. This kind of service has to marry television programming and effective curriculum planning. The format worked so well that we had a line of people standing up at each site during the session, waiting to ask questions by phone of the instructor.
"People said the chance to ask a professional about a topic very compelling to them - their retirement and savings plan - was worth their attention, even if the teacher wasn't in the room with them," said Ms. Pollinger.
Fidelity's cost calculations for the savings companies can realize by using distance learning for participant education programs may convince many companies to try the technique.
Satellite transmissions of 401(k) financial planning programs are particularly well-suited for companies with more than 2,500 employees scattered at many locations.
By enlarging the audience for every education seminar by combining a number of different sites by satellite, the per person cost will drop dramatically, even more so if the company already has its own satellite network in place and doesn't have to rent the equipment.
Financial planners typically charge between $200 and $250 per participant for similar investment education programs presented live at the employer's sites. Ms. Pollinger said the cost of Fidelity's educational seminars could be just $50 per employee, or lower, depending on what type of equipment would be needed. Fidelity will provide the educational seminar as part of its on-going employee communications efforts for clients, generally not at additional cost to the sponsor, she said.
"Basically, companies pay for the price of the broadcast only; whatever it costs to set up the logistics of the technology," said Ms. Pollinger. "Our calculations suggest savings overall for typical large employers of at least 75% over similar programs. Plus, using simultaneous learning sessions will speed up the process of education."
The distance learning program can be delivered using traditional telecommunications technologies - telephone, cable television, public address systems and satellite. The training sessions also can be presented on-site at an employer's request.