Online learning comes of age

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New technology allows institutions to take the distance out of remote learning, comments Ray Irving, head of learning resources for the MBA at Warwick Business School in the UK.

Certainly, the raft of innovations now available means that e-learning tools make distance learning a viable – and for some a preferable – alternative to more traditional face-to-face, classroom-based learning.

International Data Corporation estimates that S$25.31m was spent on e-learning in Singapore alone in 2004 and this figure is expected to triple by 2008.

“Distance education has widened the reach of business education to previously underserved markets,” says Helen Lange, MBA programme director at Universitas 21 Global.

U21 Global, an online graduate school, is a joint venture between Universitas 21, a network of 18 universities and Thomson Learning. Its MBA programme is just over two and a half years old but has notched up 1,300 students.

There is already a huge market potential for e-learning in Asia says Ms Lange, “especially in less developed countries where there is less access to established and reputable brick and mortar universities or places of higher education”.

Distance/e-learning is also thriving in the US. The research report Growing by Degrees: Online Education in the US 2005, published last November, gives a very positive outlook on online education.

It says that online enrolment in the US increased from 1.98m in 2003 to 2.35m a year later, a growth rate more than 10 times that predicted by the National Center for Education Statistics for the general post-secondary student population.

Sixty-five per cent of schools which offer graduate face-to-face courses also offer online courses.

Elaine Allen, professor of statistics and entrepreneurship at Babson College, who conducted the research with Jeff Seaman, believes that the reason for the success of online education lies in the ubiquity of the internet.

“We truly are becoming a global community, so we are able to pull students from all over the place. And it is an untapped market, even for established universities,” she adds.

Babson’s fast track MBA – a blend of online and face-to-face learning – attracts a different population from those who attend classes, she says. “We have tuned into a new market.”

Richard Straub, president of the European eLearning Industry Group, also sees a change in the market.

“I am coming more and more to the conclusion that we are talking about a new type of learning market, with the e [of e-learning] becoming integrated into learning,” he says.

In describing it as e-learning, he adds, it implies that technology is the focus, but everyone is familiar with the technology available today.

Initially, he says, e-learning resembled a classroom on a CD-Rom, it was a very rigid format. “But e-learning has moved from this formal information to a much more informal, integrated type of learning,” he adds.

As technology has improved, demand has increased. The flexibility of the technology now on offer, from synchronous and asynchronous video conferencing to blogs and instant messaging, has allowed schools to flex their imaginations when it comes to creating and designing distance learning programmes.

At Warwick for example, podcasts allow audio interviews with academics to be delivered online so that participants can download them on to portable players.

Meanwhile, Spain’s Instituto de Empresa has launched a Global Communities MBA, a blended programme pitched at young professionals unwilling to interrupt their careers.

The programme can be followed from anywhere in the world. However, it is its innovative use of virtual communities that its creators believe give it the edge on other distance learning programmes.

These communities – comprising IE alumni and executives from the corporate world – are focused on specific regions, sectors, functions or other areas of interest.

Students can join as many communities as they wish and benefit from mentors and advisers from around the world.

The communities interact using technologies such as weblogs, and videoconferences and students remain members of the communities even after completing the programme. This in turn means that IE students can benefit from life-long learning.

“It would not have been enough just to come up with the programme, we have opened up an entire new world of possibilities,” says David Standen, director of marketing and communications at IE.

Learning via Internationally Networked Communities (Linc) is a new concept in education, he adds. “It is not just another online programme; it is a new learning model using technology to break down the barriers education has been facing.”

Business schools, he adds, are now learning from the business community and have to follow the demands of business and react accordingly.

But even if a school does decide to invest in online education and embrace new learning models, it comes at a price.

Establishing a viable e-learning/distance learning programme involves an investment of hundreds of thousands of dollars says Prof Allen at Babson. Most schools use the same faculty they employ in their classes, she says, and so, in order to accommodate online programmes, new faculty have to be engaged.

When this is added to software costs, overheads, information technology and teaching materials, the outlay is substantial. Of course she adds, there are economies of scale and outlay will reduce over time, but nevertheless online learning is a long-term investment.

For those companies who cannot or do not wish to rely on institutions for their learning and training programmes, corporate universities – inhouse training – remain popular.

Schlomo Ben-Hur, chief learning officer at Daimler-Chrysler Financial Services says the company’s corporate academy is thriving.

When he took on the role in 2000, the academy more closely resembled a training area. “We tried to consolidate learning initiatives. We need to align the development and learning initiatives with the needs of the individual.”

Consulting and change management areas were brought under the umbrella of the academy and today it has three key functions: global skill management; leadership development and succession planning; and organisational development.

Although working closely with business schools, Mr Ben-Hur says it became clear to the company that it could not outsource these initiatives and that they would have to be done inhouse.

However, he believes business schools continue to play a key role and co-operation rather than rivalry between schools and corporate universities is the way forward.

Distance/e-learning, brings with it both challenges and opportunities.

“In many cases, e-learning may be the only way forward,” says Ms Lange at U21 Global.

“The future demand for business education is such that it is unlikely that traditional or campus-based education will be able to cope.” A solution needs to be found rapidly, she adds, so that growth rates in the world economy can be sustained.

“At present, the main resources constraint in many economies, including developed economies is the stock of well-educated people – those with the skills and capabilities to meet the needs of the knowledge economy.

“So e-learning definitely has a place and it is a responsibility of the education industry to ensure that it is available.”

Distance learning/e-learning seems assured of a vibrant and thriving future as it increasingly becomes a feature of the workplace.

“Access to resources for work and access to resources for learning are coming together,” says Mr Straub. “There is a trend towards convergence and it will be hard in the future to differentiate between the two, between work and learning.”

Technology, he adds, is a great chance. “It gives you the unprecedented opportunity to integrate learning processes with work.”

His sentiments are echoed by Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, director of programmes and curriculum at the Open University Business School based in the UK. He already sees distance learning as being closely aligned to the working environment and the practice of management, because his students study alongside their work.

A good distance learning programme, he says, will be well integrated – allowing students to make use of their working practices in their learning, while at the same time using their learning to help them become more effective at learning in the workplace.

”In this case, distance learning programmes are a really good answer to the criticism that an MBA is not workplace relevant,” says Prof Fenton-O’Creevy.

Changes in working practices, rapid advances in technology and the global economy have safeguarded the future of distance learning.

Providers must now invest in order to ensure that they can meet the growing worldwide demand for business education.

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