The E-Learning Equation

Contrary to pundit predictions, the steady growth of online learning has not augured the extinction of brick-and-mortar educational institutions. In fact, e-learning may serve as a catalyst, not for the extinction of the traditional classroom, but for its evolution.
The E-Learning Equation

Five years ago, when Doug Durand became dean of the College of Business Administration at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, the reactions of some faculty members to the prospect of an online MBA were clear: No way. While there was some support among the ranks, for a few faculty members, e-learning simply wasn’t an option.

Durand knew from previous experience, however, that online educational delivery could be extremely effective. He had helped build a similar —and successful—online Master of Health Administration program at the University of Colorado in Denver. So, he challenged his faculty members to take another look.

Two years ago, after much passionate discussion, UMSL’s Professional Online MBA was born. The 48-hour program— conducted 48 percent online, 52 percent face-to-face— started with a cohort of 12 students, and has since grown to 25. Not only has the program flourished, says Durand, but participating faculty have discovered that e-learning, when paired with traditional delivery, affords educators opportunities to deliver more information, more efficiently, to a wider range of students than ever before.

“The faculty members in the online MBA program acknowledge that it is the best teaching experience of their professional careers,” says Durand. “They have found that students have very high expectations of the course. Not only do they want it to be relevant and up-to-date, they often want to work at light speed.”

Almost before they realized it, many educators have been indoctrinated into a new era of e-learning, in which online methods and traditional classroom methods are merging into a hybrid model for education—what many are calling a “blended solution.” Such techno-traditional methods are creating what may be a new generation of supercharged students, able to access and absorb more knowledge than their 20th-century counterparts even imagined possible.

“Don’t Stand in Front of the Train”

The reality of e-learning has been less revolution than evolution, one in which students can take advantage of the strengths of both online and offline learning interactions. And like evolution, Durand believes that e-learning is not something educators can discourage; they can only hope to mold it so that it most effectively suits their needs.

“Those who don’t wish to participate in the online courses don’t have to,” Durand points out. “But I tell them, ‘Just don’t stand in front of the train.’”

In fact, there is a sense among e-learning’s strongest advocates that education is currently experiencing an era of advancement akin to the years after the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. As a result of that invention, knowledge could be disseminated to a large audience, rather than to the upper class and clergy alone. Today, technology is playing a similar role. It is creating opportunities for education for those who might otherwise have to do without, believes Andy Rosenfield, the founder and CEO of online education provider UNext/Cardean University, headquartered in Deerfield, Illinois.

“Few things are as globally demanded as higher education, but most people in the world have no possibility of going to college simply because of where they were born,” says Rosenfield. “The profound value of technology-based education is that it can offer education to those who might not otherwise have access to it. What you see today is only a tiny precursor of how big the market for online education will become.”

E-learning methods also offer more options to the growing number of nontraditional students pursuing higher education, says Kristin Bledsoe Emerson, public relations manager for eCollege, which designs and builds online learning communities for educational institutions. Emerson points to numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics, which show that of the 15 million students attending higher educational institutions in the U.S., 6 million are part-time, 8 million are 22 or older, and 5 million attend community colleges.

“Traditional students are becoming the minority,” Emerson says. “While a college campus will always be part of the educational equation, institutions need to respond to the demands of the growing segment of nontraditional students who, for the most part, are already in corporate America or going back to school to get a better job. This group often needs to be able to access their education after work, after the kids have gone to bed, and on the weekends.”

Rosenfield agrees, noting that distance education—and elearning in particular—fills the requisite for lifelong learning that is becoming more important to the business world. “We now know that you cannot fill up your tank of knowledge when you’re 23 or 24 and then drive through life off that tank alone. In a constantly changing world, you have to retool your knowledge and skills. This requires lifelong learning, in the classroom, on the job, and at home.”

“Online learning alone is not a viable model. The social dynamics of workplace and everyday life are highly relevant for learning, and to suggest that technology can replace these environments is false.”

Not a Minute Wasted

For those who long for the “good old days” of low-tech learning, Rosenfield points out that much of the activity in a purely traditional classroom can be classified as simple housekeeping: passing out syllabi, giving assignments, planning projects, or going over preliminary questions.

Now, he says, imagine a classroom in which students come in on the first day with a copy of the syllabus already in hand. They’ve already read the first assignment and discussed it with classmates in an online chat. They’re ready with questions before the professor even has time to say, “Good morning.” As high-tech as e-learning may be, one of its central roles has become simply to clear the clutter, so participants can get quickly to the business at hand—learning.

“There’s no longer any reason to waste precious class time teaching the mundane, ‘nuts-and-bolts’ material that students can learn just as easily at home with a technology-based supplement,” observes Rosenfield. “This means that the professor can use class time to deal with the issues and potential problems the materials raise and explore them in great depth.” Once the mundane is relegated to cyberspace, he adds, “the classroom can be used in a richer way.”

Such a format also encourages a more egalitarian structure, which compels all students to contribute to discussions, instead of only a vocal few. “Everyone who has graduated from our online MBA program has agreed that there is actually more interaction in this format; students engage in some extremely lively discussions electronically,” says Durand. “Online there is no back row to hide in. Everyone is engaged, all the time.”

That is not to say that e-learning can be an end in itself, notes G. Roland Kaye, dean of the Open University Business School, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. Rather, he emphasizes, it is one tool among many distance learning techniques that serve a variety of learning styles.

“Online learning alone is not a viable model,” says Kaye. “The social dynamics of workplace and everyday life are highly relevant for learning, and to suggest that technology can replace these environments is false.” Only when it is used in conjunction with a range of media and modes is it most effective, he maintains.

Even so, in many respects e-learning solves problems that schools didn’t know they had, believe these educators. Just as society didn’t realize it had a communication problem until the use of e-mail became widespread, educators may not have viewed underutilized class time or reserved students as obstacles. Now, many educators believe that e-learning, in addressing these aspects of the classroom, only serves to enrich students’ overall learning experiences. But just as technology solves some problems, it, of course, never fails to create new ones.

A ‘No-Profit’ Profit Center

Even with the accolades educators bestow on e-learning, they admit it presents new, complex challenges to higher education institutions. First and foremost, it’s expensive to implement. Although many business schools dream of online MBA programs that are self-supporting, achieving that dream is, by its nature, a long-term proposition.

“It’s only been recently that business schools have wanted to be part of the game,” says Anne De Jaeger, managing director of FTKnowledge, a business education provider owned by Pearson, headquartered in London. “There have been many failures, partly because this game is very costly. If you create an e-learning product that has not been externally funded, you can have a tremendous amount of money tied up in those programs.”

FTKnowledge has integrated e-learning options into its general learning products for corporate universities and business schools. While e-learning cannot replace every way of learning, it provides a valuable mode of learning to students who prefer the medium, emphasizes De Jaeger.

She cautions, however, that many people are not yet ready for online education. The market is still growing, and schools must be patient. “Offering an e-learning program as an open enrollment program is not something that takes off easily,” she explains. “People don’t sign up for an open enrollment e-learning course as easily as an on-campus course. They’re so accustomed to getting so many things for free on the Internet, they are reluctant to pay for online courses.”

Schools that start gradually by integrating e-learning into their face-to-face courses will find greater success with the medium, she says. Furthermore, she adds, by introducing the benefits of e-learning to students bit by bit, schools will also build the demand for it.

Making a profit on e-learning programs is probably not in the near future for most, says Donna Spinella, dean of the Cross-Continent MBA program at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in Durham, North Carolina. Even Fuqua’s well-established, widely acknowledged online program has yet to be a profit center for the school, she admits. “Yes, schools are doing it because they feel committed to advancing business education to a higher level,” she observes. “But they’re also doing it because, generally speaking, daytime programs often run in the red. Schools are looking for other ways to generate income. The long-term goal for programs like this is to have them pay for themselves.”

“The online process mirrors the way well-run, globally distributed businesses operate. Today’s employees are expected to communicate and collaborate online and keep their projects and ideas alive even when they’re not face-to-face with colleagues.

The For-Profit Model

At least one online education provider is making money: the University of Phoenix. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, the online university boasts 110,000 students worldwide. Although the school has suffered criticism for what some perceive to be a quantity-over-quality approach, analysts have acknowledged that the school’s business model has made e-learning into a viable profit center.

“Many companies and universities have tried and failed to offer online education on a for-profit basis. It’s just not easy to do,” says Jeanne Meister, CEO of Corporate University XChange, a corporate education research and consulting firm based in New York City. “The University of Phoenix is doing it right—its stock has held up in a tough market, and it has proven its business model. It has a powerful marketing engine, with 350 online enrollment counselors who do emarketing. They realize you have to market aggressively and have a massive amount of content to attract students.”

Brian Mueller, executive president and CEO of the online university, holds that one of the fundamental strengths of the University of Phoenix model is the niche that it serves, one that previously had not been targeted by many branded institutions. “Traditional universities have a set of missions that we don’t have. First, they often serve the traditional student who needs to be not only educated, but also socialized. Second, they offer tremendous education in research,” says Mueller.

“The University of Phoenix has a different model, one that meets the educational needs of working adults,” Mueller adds. “There are those struggling to come up with an effective business model for online education. We have made a philosophical decision to run it like a business.”

Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Capella University is another for-profit online education provider targeting working adults. It does so, however, on a much smaller scale than the Unviersity of Phoenix. Five thousand students are enrolled in its degree programs, including 2,000 in its business degree programs.

A privately held company, Capella University has not disclosed whether it has earned a profit. The company reports, however, that its revenues have increased from $1.1 million in 1996 to $30 million in 2001. Its chancellor Steve Shank believes that although some traditional universities have been resistant to online education, they won’t remain so for long.

“The continuing evolution of the Web and broadband technology will create great potential for higher education,” he says. “As more schools become involved in e-learning, we will have an incentive to continue to pioneer the best experience for students.”

Teaching the Teachers

Yet another challenge of e-learning is that there is a steep learning curve for faculty. Educators who teach purely online courses, or even courses in a blended format, must learn to transfer their offline skills to a decidedly different online environment.

With e-learning methods, professors have less control over the direction of the class, says Peter Stokes, executive vice president of Eduventures, an education market research firm in Boston, Massachusetts. “Teachers become less the directors of their courses, and more the facilitators or intermediaries,” he says. In addition, teaching students in online classrooms presents logistical challenges. “It’s more difficult to herd cats when they’re all over the state, country, or globe.”

As Stokes points out, time-honored pedagogical methods often do not hold in an online format. For example, in the absence of body language, professors must learn to be aware of the tone they use in online discussions. Professors must, in essence, re-learn how to present material, pace content delivery, and foster collaboration in a virtual classroom.

The online format also accelerates the pace of a course, which places much different demands on a professor, emphasizes Spinella. Like UMSL’s online MBA, Fuqua’s two-year Cross-Continent MBA combines online interactions with ten weeks of face-to-face learning at its campuses in the U.S. and Germany. The flexibility inherent to this format appeals to busy executives, but presents a challenge to faculty members who must create a sense of community and common goals among students scattered across the globe.

“Not everyone is well-suited to this style of teaching. You can’t necessarily take someone who has great classroom skills and expect that this person will instantly know the parameters, both physically and intellectually, of teaching from a distance in an online environment,” says Spinella. “One of the challenges that I think all schools are up against in this area lies in teaching the teachers.”

Better Than the Average MBA?

Educators aren’t the only ones being transformed by the demands of e-learning; the students emerging from accredited e-learning programs also are adapting to a new learning environment. Blended learning attracts students who enjoy the accelerated nature of an online learning format and often push the pace of the course to learn what they need more quickly.

“After our first cohort went through the program, it became clear to everyone that this format had attracted stronger candidates,” says Durand. “It was a much different kind of student than our professors had been wringing their hands in fear over.”

That’s not to say that everyone who inquired about the program was a winner, he admits. “We received some calls from students who were looking for the quickest, easiest path to an MBA. But once they found out that the program included 52 percent face-to-face learning, they dropped it. The market quickly sorted itself out. In our experience, our online MBA draws a group of students that is more committed, more experienced, more capable, more savvy—and more demanding.”

Spinella of Fuqua’s Cross-Continent program also has seen the students’ need for “instant gratification” at work. “I call them ‘application junkies,’” she says. “They’re the kind of people who don’t want to delay the pleasure of using their newfound knowledge. They want to learn something today and test it in the workplace tomorrow.”

In the end, she believes the blending of online education and traditional classroom models parallels the new landscape of business that managers must inhabit. “The online process mirrors the way well-run, globally distributed businesses operate. Today’s employees are expected to communicate and collaborate online and keep their projects and ideas alive even when they’re not face-to-face with colleagues. They know how to work with geographically distributed teams among people from different cultures, working nontraditional hours.” In some ways, students who emerge from blended learning environments are better prepared for these realities, she adds.

Rosenfield of UNext/Cardean University agrees, noting that higher education institutions worldwide will see advancements via e-learning such as they have not experienced before. “The real power of technology-based education is that it will be transformative and profound in every modality,” he says. “If we look forward five or ten years, we’ll find the hybridization of education on campuses all over the world, at all levels. It won’t denude the power of those institutions— it will make them richer.”

As the number of nontraditional students climbs, their demand for flexibility, accessibility, and connectivity may soon define what universities must offer to remain competitive. What seems to be emerging is an environment where students can have it both ways: They can enjoy the freedom of online education while reaping the benefits of face-to-face learning. Now, more educators, administrators, and students realize that it’s no longer a question of whether or not Internet-based technologies will affect education. The real question is how far it will go.