Nevertheless, an accurate understanding of the online paradigm and how it can work to the advantage of a company and its employees is hard to come by. It is difficult to separate the hype from the reality in assessing the benefits of online learning. There is a lot of noise, both from proponents and critics of online learning, though both sides take as axiomatic the notion that we are in the midst of a “revolution.”
Part of the problem is that the hype has some basis. The world has changed. A combination of factors, including evolving technology and an increasingly global economy, has made ongoing training a corporate priority. According to “Enterprise Learning: A Spending Summary” from the September 2002 issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, enterprise firms individually spend an average of $3.7 million annually on learning, with a total of $1.8 billion spent on programs for senior management and $2.5 billion for middle management. The new challenges posed by a global, technology-heavy information economy include the need for lifelong learning, just-in-time training and, most of all, increased educational access.
Educational institutions have been forced to rethink both the type of learning they provide and their methods of delivering this learning. If training has traditionally been the province of the industries themselves and general education the responsibility of the university, businesses today are increasingly relying on educational institutions, not just for “pre-service” preparation for employees, but for ongoing skill updating and targeted learning. The capacity to quickly develop, implement and distribute relevant curricula, especially in areas like business management and the burgeoning field of information management and technology, has become an essential function of the modern education provider.
As a result, online learning offerings that target working adults have grown exponentially. Various institutions and organizations, traditional and new, have entered the online learning marketplace. In December 2000, more than 3,000 higher-education institutions were offering Web-based classes. In addition to these traditional educational providers, thousands more private e-learning companies, individual corporations and industry organizations produce coursework and educational materials for electronic dissemination. Recent research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows participation in adult education is at an all-time high. The corporate statistics reflect this as well: According to e-Learning News (July 22, 2003), the number of Global 2000 companies that have used some form of e-learning tops 90 percent, and International Data Corp. (IDC) statistics show the market for corporate e-training will reach $18 billion by 2005. With this kind of money at stake—and with a business context that seems to undergo cataclysmic change with each news cycle—figuring out how to milk the most from training dollars is paramount.
In order to cut through the haze of rhetoric, it is useful to move beyond the idea of “revolution” and instead look more closely at exactly what online education does and does not offer. Instead of trying to answer the big question—What are the benefits of online education?—corporations that are considering sending their employees online for skill enhancement would be better served by asking a more specific set of questions, such as:
- Who will be participating?
- Are the desired outcomes consistent with the strengths of the online model?
- Can the program yield immediate returns?
Which students stand to benefit most from online education?
We can start by defining whom online learning is not for. One of the primary advantages of the online modality is its ability to target learning to specific career objectives. Students who are unsure about their future goals may benefit more from a campus setting, where they can test-drive a range of subjects, both formally and informally. Also, students without a strong sense of purpose may feel left out by the intensive nature of the online learning community.
We do know whom online education is best suited for: highly motivated, self-directed adult learners who have a strong stake in their educational outcome. Because so much online study is conducted on the employee’s own time, the “you get out what you put in” cliché is particularly relevant in the online context. At the University of Phoenix Online, for example, students are required to be at least 21 and working full-time. Their commitment to online education is driven by a strong desire to advance and grow in their careers.
A second aspect of online learning that makes it particularly effective for adult learners is that the typical student already possesses substantial experience in the world of business. Many online providers focus on career-oriented programs that help people develop specific skills for specific industries. This narrow focus encourages clear, relevant program objectives and ensures that students are deeply invested in the coursework.
Third, online education is particularly useful for those who, because of work or family obligations, simply do not have the time to travel or take time off from work in order to attend on-site classes. For example, at the University of Phoenix Online, the average age of students is 35. Most have children, and flexible scheduling is a necessity. For these students, the new online modalities are a godsend, allowing them to pursue training that will benefit both them and their employers without impinging on either their work or family obligations. For working adults, asynchronous online models provide one of the most flexible platforms for ongoing education.
What Are the Strengths of Online Learning?
How does online learning stack up against other educational options?
Online education is not necessarily appropriate for all subject areas. In particular, areas that require physical, hands-on training are ill-suited to online modalities. Also, areas in which face-to-face, real-time encounters are critical are difficult to translate into an online setting. On the other hand, subjects that can be divided into specific constituent skills that must be mastered sequentially lend themselves well to the task-oriented online environment.
In general, the majority of research shows that online learning can be at least as effective as traditional classroom learning. Thomas Russell’s pioneering study “No Significant Difference” collates the available data and research with regard to online learning and finds “no significant difference in outcomes between online and traditional classroom environments.” Other studies show similar findings, pointing to online education as a viable solution to advanced training needs.
Different universities take a variety of approaches to presenting online material. At the University of Phoenix Online, courses are traditionally offered in intensive six-week modules, to cohorts of eight to 20 students. This approach allows students to build knowledge sequentially, focusing on one area at a time. This highly interactive model emphasizes collaboration and teamwork, reflective of today’s business models. A lecture or reading is electronically posted at the beginning of the week, with discussion questions or group projects also posted on the course site. Students then write responses to questions (or, in the case of a group project, work together electronically), and the instructor provides feedback to the students as the assignments are completed. At the close of the cycle, the instructor integrates the readings and discussions and posts a new set of primary materials, continuing this process for the duration of the course.
One strength of the online modality is that the asynchronous virtual classroom offers an opportunity for students to work closely with other professional peers, potentially drawing on a wider range of experience than is possible in a traditional classroom setting. For example, the University of Phoenix Online recently piloted a master’s in International Management program, open only to non-U.S.-based students and designed specifically to meet the need for workers trained in an international context. Advanced business courses such as finance and strategy are combined with case studies and background on international business practices. Students are drawn from a minimum of two foreign countries to ensure a variety of perspectives.
Two additional unique strengths of the online model deserve mention. First, the online environment is intensely democratic, and egalitarianism tends to encourage participation. All members of an online class must contribute; since communication is generally through text, the class and professor have a written record of contributions. This tends to reinforce the idea that there is no “back of the class” to hide in. Frequently, students who are intimidated in a classroom setting utilize the relative anonymity provided by the virtual setting to participate more intensely than they would otherwise. For minorities and women, this can be a particularly strong “plus” factor enhancing learning. Second, in text-based classes students have access to a shared comprehensive record of the course. The message strings can be an important resource in both mastery and retention of the course material.
What Are the Returns?
Why should corporations consider taking advantage of online programs?
Educating in a corporate context is just one use of online education, but it is a use for which the online modalities are particularly well suited. Employers support more than 60 percent of online students for a very good reason: Online education offers the benefit of skill enhancement for employees without taking them away from their work. Individual and company goals advance in concert, with students using their current jobs as learning laboratories, directly applying course lessons to real-life situations. The benefits to the company are immediate, with students developing both theoretical and practical expertise in the context of their current employer’s business interests.
A particular strength of many online programs is their ability to respond quickly to advances in the world of business and train employees in emerging areas. With courses constantly in development to meet new business needs, and with a nimble, scalable infrastructure, institutions can offer up-to-the-minute programs in fast-changing areas such as network management. Also, since faculty members are drawn from the ranks of practicing experts in a given field (and are rigorously trained in online pedagogy), students and their employers can expect a program that is deeply grounded in both theory and practice. In effect, an asynchronous, text-based approach permits students—and the companies that employ them—to benefit from the expertise of top practitioners in the field with no constraints of time or geography.
The collaborative approach enabled by asynchronous technology is also particularly suited for corporations. With an emphasis on problem-solving, text-based communication and project teamwork, the model replicates the skills demanded by today’s business environment. By maximizing accessibility and minimizing cost, online programs can provide a convenient and cost-effective answer to training needs.
‘The Big Picture’
Online education has come a long way in the past 20 years. Just as information technology has evolved, so has the sophistication of online pedagogies and platforms. Where once the online platform could be as simple as a dedicated chat room, today institutions are pioneering a new model in which all the support services typically found only on a campus are being incorporated electronically into the virtual education experience.
In practical terms, this means that the new breed of online courses retains the benefits of the old approach—intensive interactions with experts, a full range of services from technical support to tutoring to access to outside resources—while adding the flexibility, resources and constantly updated curricula made possible only through modern technology.
In truth, online education is no longer a newfangled solution to today’s training needs. Overheated rhetoric about “revolutions” obscures a more complicated reality in which effective education is context-specific—that is, different populations need different things, and what is right for one group might not be right for another.
Whether a company develops a partnership with an online education provider to meet specific training needs or avails itself of existing curricula to enhance the skills of its executives, the question is no longer “What are the benefits of online education?” The real question is “What are the benefits of education, and what is the most cost-effective and efficient way of getting those benefits?” Online education and training is not a revolution in the fundamental aim of education; it is simply an attempt to realize that aim more effectively.
Brian Mueller has been with University of Phoenix since 1987 and has served as chief operating officer and senior vice president of University of Phoenix Online since 1997. In March 2002, he became executive vice president and chief executive officer. For more information on the University of Phoenix’s Online Campus, visit www.uopxonline.com. E-mail Brian at email@example.com.
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