Parallel lines continue on forever without intersecting. Are corporate education and academic Internet learning similarly hurtling down parallel paths? Largely yes, but not to worry: It can all turn out for the best if we recognize that the problem isn’t separateness, but a lack of systematic connections.
Why systematic connections? First, Internet education expands the cost-effectiveness, scope and scale of the traditional role of colleges as education suppliers to corporations. Second, each sector is developing knowledge about effective learning delivery in its own separate delivery model. Each can learn from the other about parameters such as time-to-launch, cost-effectiveness, learning effectiveness and customer satisfaction.
Modern Web-based learning is not just a small, incremental advance. It is, in fact, a big deal—revolutionary, really—in an area where revolutions are rare. It enables capabilities never before available in “distance education.” The Sloan-C Annual Survey estimates 2.5 million online learners in academia, most in traditional nonprofit institutions of higher learning. On the corporate side, the numbers may be even more impressive, though difficult to quantify. Academic institutions today operate with asynchronous learning networks (ALNs)—asynchronous versions of old-style classrooms: instructor-led classes of 15 to 25 students who begin and end as a cohort over a specific time period. Interaction is more plentiful, whereas lectures and expensive media content are not typical.
Corporate America started later, since the Internet was not open to commercial entities until the mid-1990s. Prior to that, corporate e-learning mainly referred to computer-based training through CD-ROMs. Newer Web-based versions of this approach are similarly not instructor-led and have little provision for peer-to-peer learning. Other e-learning modalities also are practiced in the corporate world, including ALN-like and blended implementations, but the reported results are small in comparison to what is known, researched and practiced on the academic side.
Internet education can expand the established role of academic education providers. ALNs exceed classrooms on every count in cost-effectiveness and learning effectiveness. Much evidence shows that the same things can be learned just as well online, and less expensively. However, the Internet versions do not dominate.
Firms within specific industries could form consortia with one or a handful of academic institutions to jointly define an industry-specific degree curriculum that is delivered to all member locations worldwide through an ALN. These ideas also would address cost- and learning-effectiveness. They were not feasible in the pre-Internet days, as a single college could not hope to serve a global industry with thousands of locations from its single brick-and-mortar location. There are now examples of such consortia, but they are few, and the basic premise has yet to be fully recognized.
Connections should come through existing mechanisms, such as the conferences and trade shows that cater to the corporate and academic e-learning communities. Both have a function, but might serve a larger purpose by broadening their scope to include sessions that demonstrate exemplary cases where academic institutions have entered new corporate learning niches, and lessons learned. Sessions also could emphasize what is being learned in each sector. Some agreement on common quality, effectiveness and cost metrics is necessary. Common metrics on Internet learning would generate significant advances in benchmarking. (Are ALN approaches really better than content media in a particular application? If so, by how much?)
Publications devoted to corporate learning, and a similar number that serve academics, might feature articles on the intersection of the two communities. If corporate and academic practitioners speak out, action can follow.
Parallel lines don’t intersect, and it isn’t a good idea to try to overthrow that particular axiom. Much has been learned through the separate directions of academia and corporations in the young field of online learning. Connections are now needed.
Frank Mayadas, Ph.D., is director of the Program on Anytime/Anyplace Learning at the Sloan Foundation, and is president of Sloan-C, the Sloan Consortium. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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