The Internet is the way of the world. E-everything. We chat, shop, and even bank online, so why not learn online? Distance learning has existed for several years, but now an entire AA degree can be earned without leaving your keyboard. Beyond the academic advantages of this ultra-convenient education method, employers and employees are also reaping the rewards.
No Chalk, No Pencil, No Parking
The mechanics of online learning are simple. Anyone with a personal computer, Internet access and an e-mail account is equipped. E-students may log on from home, work or nearly anywhere else. Course instructors dictate lesson plans, just as in classrooms. And as online education grows from its infancy, those lesson plans are becoming more dynamic. Martha Mills, director of the Greater Bay Area region for California Virtual Campus, sees this as a natural evolution. "Faculty must learn to teach online, because the written form of a lecture would bore someone to death. Many early courses were just that, but now there is far more student interaction."
Petersen never met anyone in person in conjunction with her course, but claims, "This suited my learning style. I do well on my own and at my own pace." She credits her instructor with structuring the lesson plan well, and providing online reference material that she still finds useful.
In business, wasted time is wasted money, and drained employees drain the company. To update employee knowledge and skills, or ensure all are duly educated from the start, many companies are choosing online education to avoid losing workers to classroom hours. Petersen's manager, Lisa Henslee, found that "Online education proved very cost-effective for all of us." Some companies rely upon on-site intranet training for specific needs, but may also resort to online courses offered by colleges, business schools or Internet-based enterprises, such as eHandsOn.
Headquartered in Santa Cruz, eHandsOn offers online web-development courses, and would have been another option for Petersen. "Our students are mostly business people. We offer content-only courses at $50-100, which beats buying a book because the information is always current. We offer instruction at $250-450, comparable to community college prices, that gives students access to industry experts," contends eHandsOn President Mark Grilli.
Element K (formerly ZD Education) of Rochester, NY, is another Internet-based "university," with a business-oriented curriculum, and more than 450,000 registered users. Its online catalog includes courses in information technology, business and management skills, and proprietary training. Students may take self-study or instructor-led courses, and even interact online with each other. In a display of online education's growing acceptance, Element K has a contract worth nearly $400,000 with University of Toyota and will provide training to 8500 Toyota Motor Sales employees.
Positives and Negatives
The advantages for employees are obvious - tremendous scheduling flexibility and no money or time spent fighting traffic, finding parking, or waiting while an instructor focuses on someone learning at a different pace. A lesson that could amount to a two-hour experience on campus can be accomplished in as little as a half hour at home, on a lunch break or during work hours. In addition, the price per course through community colleges is the same whether taken in a classroom or online.
What's the downside? Not everyone is suited to independent learning. Some require more than e-mail correspondence with an instructor, or more than just access to a page posting other students' questions and comments. Mills notes that many people do not monitor their own learning progress well, and need personal instruction. Formerly the distance learning coordinator at Cupertino's DeAnza College, she points to a higher dropout rate among online students. "They think online courses will be easier, but the information is the same as in the classroom, and they're responsible for learning it."
Because of the inherent independence, there is concern that learning online may not be as effective as classroom education. "Employers should use discretion when allowing employees to utilize this method. I would not necessarily approve it for any employee - some would do better in a classroom," Henslee cautions. Many community colleges require students to convene at some point during their online courses, and are juggling with the concept of online testing. The validity of online testing is debated by some since it relies on the student adhering to the honor system. That's why to pass a course, students may be required to undergo testing on campus. For vocational purposes, though, testing may be primarily a function of self-evaluation, done not so much for a grade as for competency on the job.
The Vocational Education Approach
Vocational training can be taught in random segments, versus academic instruction which is usually progressive, and teaches theory," Mills notes. "I think community colleges will be offering more true vocational courses within the next year or so."
Foothill College in Los Altos Hills offers true vocational courses. "We are involved with several union apprenticeship training programs and are developing courses through Foothill Global Access (FGA), our electronic instruction department, that would complement their vocational training," says vice president of instruction and institutional research Bill Patterson. FGA offers career development courses that anyone may take, "but one concern is how these individuals put together their own learning programs.
"How does a strictly independent and isolated learner gain team-building experience and confidence in learned skills? For some vocational education, interaction is necessary. Many unions have existing learning structures with on-site trainers that are supplemented by online courses," Patterson observes, "and we'd like to deliver lessons to job sites in a similar model."
Robin Purdy, chief of planning for the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, raves about the practicality of training up to 150 staff members per year through a customized online program designed by The Training Source, the custom education arm of Los Rios Community College District. All employees complete the courses entirely online, Purdy notes. "They can learn what they need to know right at their desks. This is far more efficient."
If you wish to increase your marketability or learn skills for your current position, online education may be the answer. If the courses needed apply to your current job, find out if your organization will foot the bill or split the cost with you. Many employers will, in exchange for benefiting from your new knowledge and skills. Look into local community colleges and business schools or check Internet-based training companies for classes that will suit your needs, taking into consideration the course's format, content and price. Work out a schedule with your employer - you may be allowed time during work hours for your lessons, or you may be required to log in on your own time. With schools, training companies, businesses and unions working to develop new online options for employees, the future of electronic education is growing brighter by the minute.