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E-learning and corporate universities appear to be following in the footsteps of business schools.
Their paths have been parallel from the first tentative steps, with a sprinkling of courses and institutions, to the proliferation of programmes available today.
And, just as business schools have sought to differentiate themselves by means of accreditation, e-learning and corporate universities appear to be realising the value of quality control.
Corporate universities can now turn to Clip, the Corporate Learning Improvement Process, as a quality benchmark, while the introduction of the Certification of e-learning (CEL) also offers a standard for customers.
The CEL has to some extent been born out of necessity. E-learning has much to recommend it; it is accessible, quick and once established, it is cheap. These benefits have led to its rapid growth.
However, there is cause for concern, as the quality of both the products and the programmes varies widely. To address this, the European Foundation for Management Development, the Swiss Centre for Innovations in Learning at the University of St Gallen, and Spirus Applied Learning Solutions formed a joint initiative, the CEL.
CEL is described by its creators as a “quality management system for e-learning supported programmes in the field of management education”.
Eligible programmes are those related to management education and have at least 100 hours of learning. Programmes must also be operated on a durable basis and must end with an assessment or examination.
The aim of CEL is to raise the standard of e-learning programmes worldwide.
The Open University Business School - the distance learning organisation - has become the first business school to acquire the CEL - in this case it is the OU’s professional diploma in management that has acquired the CEL.
“There is a lot of very poor e-learning around and the introduction of accreditation that gives a quality signal is a very important thing to be doing,” says Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, director of programmes and curriculum at the OU Business School.
The e-learning products that have crashed and burned, he adds, are those that have based their product on technology, rather than on teaching and learning.
Technology is merely an enabler for e-learning says Mr Fenton-O’Creevy; e-learning should be about the teaching and learning processes and the quality of students’ experiences.
The CEL accreditation, he says, looks at the processes by which learning is delivered as well as the institutional support.
“Distance education and e-learning are starting to take off, especially in management education, but the quality is ariable. We [at the OU Business School] do think it is pretty important to find ways of educating potential students and training organisations about what good e-learning is.”
Enrique Dans, professor of information systems at the Instituto de Empresa, Spain, sees many benefits of e-learning.
He started teaching on the school’s international executive MBA, an online MBA, three-and-a-half years ago and describes it as a very rich medium.
He maintains that the best discussions are those that happen online; students can reflect on the issue, refine their response and if necessary supplement it with additional material.
This is very much in contrast to the classroom formula, he says, where students vie for attention and a debate can be so quickfire that subjects are often debated only at a superficial level.
Prof Dans believes a teacher’s role is reinforced by being online. Not only is there more time for research before replying to a student’s question but the online format helps with grading as he can review past questions as well as course work.
For the students, he says a sense of community also develops rapidly online. In spite of being in different countries “they feel a sense of belonging” especially if this has been reinforced by face-to-face time in Madrid and Miami.
According to EFMD through its Clip report, traditional or face-to-face teaching is becoming less popular, particularly with top managers.
“This is one of the main reasons why companies feel they are better able to provide learning solutions for their future leaders internally [with corporate universities or e-learning] than by contracting out to the business schools,” says the report.
WebCT, the e-learning provider, has seen more companies turning to e-learning solutions. Peter Segall, executive vice president, says revenues have increased 20 per cent in 2003-04.
As the company has grown, he says, it has become more learner-centric with programmes tailored to the needs of the customer.
The UK is a definite growth area, he says, and has caught up with the US in terms of momentum. But, continental Europe he adds, is lagging two or three years behind both the US and UK in terms of e-learning sophistication.
The relationship between corporate universities and business schools remains problematic. While both recognise the benefits of co-operation and frequently work together, mutual distrust is common.
Gordon Shenton, director of Equis, the quality control arm of the European Foundation for Management Development, says the main criticism by companies is that business schools are trying to sell pre-packaged training programmes, rather than developing courses.
Other criticisms are that schools are unwilling to work closely with corporate universities, slow to respond to their needs and too academic in their approach.
Prof Shenton believes these perceptions are broadly untrue, but nonetheless it is one that is often repeated in corporate circles.
On the other hand, business schools accuse corporate universities of cherry-picking their best faculty, an accusation that may have some justification.
Prof Shenton sounds a warning note for business schools.
Corporate universities, he says, especially those within large companies, are becoming sophisticated in both training and learning and business schools do not always fully appreciate the improvements CUs have made.
“Corporate universities are now tackling the strategic issues, people development, management development and organisational issues that were once the exclusive domain of business schools,” he says.
“What is happening is that corporate universities are making a clear distinction about what they outsource and what they keep in-house.
Business schools do not understand the kind of differentiation that the companies have been making.”
Prof Shenton also believes there is a fundamental difference in perception between the two. Business schools may think they are better equipped to work at the top level of management, leaving corporate universities to deal with general training.
However, he says, companies seem to think it is easier to outsource this general training - sales training or marketing for non-financiers for example - than it is to outsource strategy development and people development programmes for their top executives.
“We are hoping that we can work at this interface,” adds Prof Shenton. Last year Accenture Learning, a learning service provider, commissioned the Gantry Group to research the future of corporate universities.
It has predicted that as corporate universities develop over the next three years, technology will move increasingly centre-stage in programme delivery.
But, although obviously important, Matty Smith, director of learning and teaching services at Henley Management College in the UK, warns that investment in new technologies can be a waste of money if it gets in the way of learning.
The point of investment is not to provide students with gimmicks, but to drive home the message that technology can and should be used effectively.
“It actually helps if the technology is not cutting edge because the majority of students do not have state-of-the-art equipment at home or work,” she says.
Certainly there is a place for virtual learning in the 21st century.
However the experiences of online universities - such as UK e-Universities (UKeU), the government’s online learning scheme for higher education that closed last year - the widely varying and sometime questionable quality of e-learning products, and the growth of corporate universities, would indicate that a place still remains for more conventional teaching.
Perhaps the answer lies in a balanced approach, blended learning, taking the best of each teaching format to create a hybrid teaching platform on which to base education for the 21st century.