For many working adults there just isn’t time for traditional classroom learning. HRM gathers five leaders from the Online Education field to discuss the benefits of this learning method and how encouraging it can provide business success for employers.
“Students can focus more on the opinions and knowledge of their peers without the bias that often exist in classroom discussions”
-Josh Baron of Marist College
HRM. Online learning creates a lot of choice and enables student-centered teaching approaches. How important is choice when it comes to education?
Josh Baron. Choice is essential and something that students have come to expect. Providing a variety of entry-points to education, be that through traditional classrooms, hybrid models with residencies, or fully online instruction helps to ensure that students can select the model that is right for their learning needs and professional and personal goals. It’s also important to provide students with options in terms of how they choose to interact with course content. Online learning often includes the use of multimedia-based content that provides students with richer interactions than you typically find in face-to-face courses. Even something as simple as adding hyperlinks to Word documents allows students to select their own ‘learning path’ through the content, branching off to refresh their knowledge when needed or going more in depth on topics of particular interest. When traditional colleges like Marist provide accessible and flexible online programming, adults have educational opportunities that were not available to them 10 years ago.
Cynthia Gallatin. Online education is now more mainstream and offers adult learners the ability to continue their education while balancing family and professional goals. With the number of higher education choices available, it is now more critical than ever to ensure that a chosen institution has a credible reputation. Key factors are a strong academic reputation and regional or national recognition.
Choosing the right educational experience will help a student shape future professional opportunities. Every potential student needs to make sure they research the variety of educational choices. When considering different programs, the primary question that students should ask an institution is whether the school is accredited and if so, by what accrediting body? Different accrediting bodies provide oversight for higher education institutions and evaluate the quality of the programs. While many choices remain, students need to educate themselves about the value of each option in order to find the best fit.
Tracy Stewart. Choice is very important to education since it empowers students. Students have diverse values, beliefs and communication patterns, and providers of online education must be knowledgeable in how these differences can affect students’ learning styles. Online learning environments allow students to receive and process content in various formats: text-based, video-based, podcasts, group collaboration, individual projects, etc. As a provider of online education, we must continuously analyze our students’ learning preferences and improve our delivery methods in order to prepare students for careers, job promotions, future educational opportunities or overall personal improvement.
Lee Kantz . Choice is a powerful selling point of online education. When you consider that you can ‘attend’ a university on the other side of the country, or the other side of the world, without leaving your home, the entire universe of higher education becomes available to you. Students can be selective about the exact programs where they want to study and can shop around for the best fit. I recommend they focus on learning outcomes when selecting programs, and talk to graduates about whether better jobs and higher pay resulted from the degree.
Robert Mendenhall. We know that adult college students come to their education knowing different things and having different skills, and that they learn at different rates. Yet the current higher education system generally requires all students to take the same required courses and dictates that all courses take a four-month semester. WGU was founded by 19 US governors to offer a different model of higher education: WGU’s online, competency-based education approach allows students to study only what they individually need to learn, and to do so at their own speed. Students earn degrees by demonstrating their grasp of the skills and knowledge required for success, as proven by a range of assessments.
HRM. How can encouraging employees’ education help companies achieve their own goals? Does an investment in your workforce’s education always equate to business success?
CG. In order to be competitive in today’s global environment, employers must continually stay focused on developing their workforce. An educated workforce is a key differentiator for any organization, and it is the people within an organization who accomplish goals and objectives.
The benefit of educational reimbursements is that it covers some or all of the cost that really benefit and motivate employees to continue to degrees and certifications. The organization receives payback for this benefit in terms of how an individual performs their job. An educated workforce improves productivity and is the engine for innovation in any organization competing in today’s world
Programs that embrace professional adult learners and organize the curriculum to meet the needs of this target audience will assist in the development of the workforce. When students attend an online program through Quinnipiac University, it is important that students bring their professional situations into the classroom. Many times the projects they work on in the classroom are issues they may be facing in their profession.
TS. A deficient workforce is certainly not a strategy for success. In order to stay competitive, companies need not only offer cutting-edge products and services but they must also have a workforce whose education prepares them to think and address national and global issues with a critical and sharp mind. Providing an employee access to online learning is another formula for economic growth in business. An education allows an employee to grow, develop and invest in themselves and the organization they are serving. An employee’s confidence can increase with education, thus leading to a more productive employee. Education is critical for a competitive and strong company; it is a critical element for business success.
LK. Encouraging employees’ education provides measurable and immeasurable contributions to business success. One measurable contribution is the reduction of employee turnover, and another is the reduction of on-boarding new employees at higher levels when you can promote employees from within who already know your challenges and culture. On the immeasurable side, education provides the engine for solving business problems. Think about how much your corporation pays for consultants, and the cost of degrees for several of your employees may seem inexpensive by comparison.
RM. American employers need a workforce comprised of highly competent individuals who have both specific expertise as well as general abilities such as analytical thinking, making smarter decisions, and communicating effectively. When employees develop these kinds of competencies through higher education, both the employees and employers benefit. The key is developing real-world competences – not just earning a piece of paper that shows a degree was awarded. While there are no guarantees a particular individual will show dramatic improvement on the job, if the employee successfully completes a rigorous program of learning, the enhanced competence of the employee should translate into improved productivity.
JB. Promoting education in terms of encouraging employees to gain skills and knowledge through specific coursework, undergraduate and/or graduate degree programs, and formal certification programs, helps to ensure that an organization’s workforce is prepared to meet future challenges and demands. At Marist, the School of Computer Science and Mathematics collaborated with IBM to develop an online certificate program for the zSeries mainframe. By providing scholarships for the System z program, IBM employees, as well as employees at client companies around the globe, were able to take advantage of this training and maintain their competitive edge in the enterprise computing industry.
HRM. With an online environment, class attendance is only evident if a student participates in classroom discussion. This increases student interaction and the diversity of opinion, because everyone gets a say, not just the most talkative. What benefits does this offer to students and tutors alike?
TS. Learning only occurs with the intake of knowledge followed by reflection. The online environment provides an excellent platform for reflection through interaction in discussion boards and group collaboration. Online learning provides equal opportunities for all students to participate. In a way, online education is perhaps one of the most democratic means through which to educate since it involves all students and provides opportunities for a multitude of perspectives. For instructors, such diversity is a great opportunity to tackle difficult questions and facilitate learning from various perspectives. Students can review the comments from other students and the instructor and take time to think about their response before actually responding. As a result of not having to respond immediately, the dialogue can go deeper. The students cannot judge each other prematurely, as we so often do because of gender, race, age, appearance, etc. The online environment invites and challenges each student to actively participate in a refreshing new way.
LK. The fact that you can’t sit in the back of the class in an online environment puts the onus on the student to participate. At the University of Illinois Global Campus, we believe this environment is conducive to creating the knowledge workers that are most needed in the 21 st century. Online students need to be self-paced. They need to be masters of their own schedules. They need to be effective writers, and they need to be masters of a wide range of communication and collaborative technologies. These qualities make up great online students and great employees.
RM. This is an interesting question because it implies that online learning follows a ‘class attendance’ model that mirrors what happens in a traditional classroom. Not every online school uses this approach. At WGU our emphasis is on personalized, self-directed learning under the guidance of an assigned mentor, with students using a wide array of learning resources to develop competence in each subject area. A student’s interaction with fellow students, faculty and a personally assigned mentor is much more continuous and fluid, with numerous online communities available to support the learning experience.
JB. Online education is a great equalizer. Many of us have had the experience of being in a traditional classroom setting where discussion revolves around a handful of highly-verbal extraverts or where a professor doesn’t get a chance to listen to all questions because class time ‘ran out’. Asynchronous discussion boards, which are prevalent in online classes at Marist, level the playing field and ensure that no question goes unanswered. M any stereotypes can be avoided or broken down through online discussions, as students’ age, race or ethnicity, and sometimes gender, are unknown. As a result, students can focus more on the opinions and knowledge of their peers without the bias that often exist in classroom discussions.
GC. In an online environment attendance equals participation. Students are not able to hide in the back of the class and quietly observe. Online education encourages and promotes a method of learning that requires engagement. Every student needs to engage in classroom discussion boards or chat rooms in order to be counted as a participant in the class. Students must take ownership for their learning.
HRM. Students can "attend" a course at anytime, from anywhere, and course material is often accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week while spoken material in a classroom can pass students by. Given the increasingly mobile world we now live in, where accessibility is key, how important are these factors?
LK. All of these factors are important, but online course developers and educators need to make sure that technology is always at the service of an accessible and collaborative learning experience that puts humans at the center and allows the technology to recede in the background. We benefit most from technology when we realize it’s not there – when we lose ourselves in a song on our iPods, in a story on our Kindles (or the old technology of books), and in the lessons and experiences we take away from our classrooms, whether they’re real or virtual
RM. Today’s working adult student expects flexibility and accessibility, but also is demanding better quality and personalization too. Additionally, online education allows students to continue full-time employment and meet family responsibilities while attending school. Even the employee who travels for work often can complete a degree program now.
JB. Providing accessibility is paramount. The lives of students have changed considerably in the last decade. To expect that a working adult will fit into the educational model that was developed for 18 year old traditional undergraduates is shortsighted – and in some cases impossible. Not only does the accessibility of online learning allow working adults to engage with the learning materials when they want, they can also review the materials as often as they want. This facilitates deeper understanding and ensures better leaning outcomes. Students at Marist often comment that this quality is something that cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom and is a much-appreciated resource.
CG. Students who participate in online learning do so because they cannot commit to meeting at a physical location at a fixed point in time. Online learning permits students to engage in their continued educational development whenever or wherever they are. The 24-hour asynchronous classroom means that the barriers of a fixed location for education are replaced by learning anywhere or anytime. Since students may learn anywhere and anytime, the definition of the classroom has significantly changed in order to provide a more open and flexible format for learning.
TS. Many adults have family, social and work demands that prohibit them from attending scheduled classes on campus. Additionally, they may not live in proximity to a university campus. The anytime, anywhere characteristics of online learning makes it more inclusive for our workforces. The online environment also allows employees to participate in just-in-time-training when the need to learn or master a subject is right on top of them.
HRM. What do you think the future for the online learning space holds? How will new technologies continue to develop the popularity of this field and is there anything on the horizon you are currently excited about?
RM. If higher education continues down the same path as always and continues to increase costs, we face an increasingly serious national issue of affordability and access for working adults and employers. However, new models of higher education, using the power of technology, can offer proven approaches to reduce costs, expand access and increase quality. Online, technology-based education should utilize ‘best in class’ learning resources to provide, not just an equivalent education, but an enhanced one.
JB. At Marist we’re incredibly excited about the future of online learning and the technological capabilities that future development will bring. When you look at the advances that are being made in academic technology in terms of 3-dimensional simulation environments, learning platforms for mobile devices and tablet and pen-centric computing, it’s tough not to get excited about all the possibilities. Web 2.0 tools will also have a significant impact on online learning because of their ability to extend the classroom onto social networks, where students can connect to others who share an interest in their field of study. In the current form of online learning, we’ve freed the student from the constraint of the traditional classroom. In the future, students will be freed from the constraint of sitting in front of a computer – education will truly become an anytime, any where, endeavour
CG. Online learning is continually evolving due to the development of educational technology tools. As high-speed internet access has increased, we see more adult learners taking advantage of online learning opportunities. Multimedia tools such as videos and podcasts that we use to facilitate the learning process have improved online education and the proliferation of asynchronous and synchronous online collaboration tools offer exciting opportunities for students and faculty to work together. Technology tools such as blogs, wikis and chat tools enable student to faculty and student to student collaboration in order to develop higher level learning environments.
TS. Beyond the potential financial benefits to students and employers, the growing segment of online education allows greater educational access to a broader spectrum of employees. Education is the great social and economic equalizer. Technology has reached the point where the major challenges are related to course design and instructional methods. With Web 2.0, online students joined other students and their instructors in creating and sharing knowledge with tools like blogs and wikis. As education providers we must continually discover new ways to use existing technologies. Mobile devices and ultraportable netbook computers are new technological frontiers, not yet being fully utilized for online learning. Coupled with emerging citywide/countrywide wireless networks, such devices open new possibilities for students to be actively engaged in true anywhere/anytime learning. With the increase of mobile bandwidth, possibilities for larger scale integration of multimedia are increased for the online learning experience. Providers of online education must continually observe what technology is being widely used by potential students and evaluate these emerging technologies for use within online learning environments.
LK. The University of Illinois Global Campus has built an island in Second Life, and we are exploring ways to use this virtual world for collaborative learning experiences or just as a meeting place. With virtual worlds, the ability to replicate the real world in vivid detail, and to create simulated experiences, provides a powerful new tool to assist educators. As virtuality becomes more and more real, one wonders whether medical students can perform virtual surgeries, or whether law students can conduct simulated trials where opposing counsel or judges are simulated personalities or real people on the other side of the planet.
Josh Baron is Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College. He is a member of the Sakai Foundation Board of Directors and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan with a BS in Aerospace Engineering and holds an MA (online) in Educational Technology Leadership from George Washington University.
Cynthia Gallatin is the Associate Vice President for Online Programs at Quinnipiac University, a private college in Hamden, CT with approximately 7,000 students. She launched the online learning division in 2001. Quinnipiac University Online provides instructional design, technical/administrative support and online admissions for all academic online programs within the University.
Tracy Stewart is the Vice President of Information Technology at Regent University, and has more than 25 years of experience and an extensive background in management and software systems development. She has a proven track record of building strong relationships throughout organizations. She also serves as the Executive Director of the School of Undergraduate Studies
Lee Kantz has more than 20 years of experience in publishing, interactive media and education marketing. Kantz began his career at Encyclopaedia Britannica, where he was at the center of the company’s transformation to CD-ROM and online reference products. He has worked in education marketing for eight years and prior to joining the University of Illinois Global Campus, managed the educational directories division of Monster.com.
Dr. Robert Mendenhall is the president of Western Governors University, a private, not-for-profit, online university founded by 19 US governors offering competency-based degrees. He served on the US Department of Education’s blue-ribbon National Commission on the Future of Higher Education. He has over 25 years of experience in technology-based education and higher education.