Virtual Classrooms, Real Education
by Vicky Phillips
In 1840, Sir Isaac Pitman, the English inventor of shorthand, came up with
an ingenious idea for delivering instruction to a potentially limitless
audience: correspondence courses by mail. Pitman's concept was so hot that
within a few years he was corresponding with a legion of far-flung
Distance learning--in which instructor and student remain geographically
apart--has boomed since Pitman pioneered it. Now it is delivered via mail,
cable television, satellite broadcasts, videotapes, and, most recently,
via the Internet.
The recent development of online learning is appealing to small-business
owners and employees. Why? Typically, the cost is low and flexibility is
high. And cyberspace is well-suited for all kinds of specialized training,
especially computer skills.
A Way To Cut Training Costs
Classroom-based seminars on using computer software can cost hundreds of
dollars a day. In addition to the costs of the courses and training
materials, there are the expenses of employee travel, meals, lodging, and
transit time. Desktop training removes those expenses from the equation,
leaving only the costs of the courses and instructional materials.
The ability to price-shop is a chief advantage for employers looking to
online learning institutes. When it comes to Internet-based learning, it
makes little difference whether the education provider is located down the
road or around the world. Employers can purchase low-cost training from a
California company and literally have it delivered overnight to any
employee worldwide who has a PC equipped with a Internet connection.
Barbara Epstein, site manager of the Physick House, a historic home in
Philadelphia that has tours for the public, says the low cost relative to
other options she considered was the main reason she decided to take
online tutorials in computer applications from Ziff-Davis' ZDNet
University. ZDNet University is a new online training service of
Ziff-Davis Publications. Ziff-Davis publishes a number of computer
magazines, including "PC Magazine."
Epstein--who wound up using the training she received to build an
inventory-tracking system for the antiques at Physick House and to
organize her appointments and tours--lives close to several top-notch
colleges. But in shopping around for courses on computer applications such
as Microsoft Corp.'s Access, Word, and Excel, she found that no local
college could beat ZDNet University's price of $4.95 per month for
unlimited access to the self-paced tutorials which are located on the
World Wide Web at http://www.geteducated.com/welcome.zdu.com. "It's
definitely cheaper than video or [classroom-based] computer-software
courses," says Epstein.
ZDNet University courses are offered in popular applications and operating
systems such as Microsoft's Windows 95, Excel, and PowerPoint, as well as
programming languages and Web-site design. Each online course consists of
about 30 interactive tutorials, each focusing on a specific function of
the chosen software and requiring about 10 to 30 minutes to complete.
Students can work through all the tutorials in any one course or choose
only those that address the skills they seek to master. There is no need
to buy expensive supplemental textbooks. Instructional materials are
archived on the Web.
eZone - The Little Red Schoolhouse in Cyberspace
The rising need for inexpensive, just-in-time training in business and
computer technologies has not been lost on Waite Group Press, based in
Corte Madera, Calif. Waite Group has tied its best-selling tutorial books
to an interactive online educational center called the eZone, at http://www.mcp.com/distance_learning/frame_ezone.html.
The result: "For the price of the book--$50 more or less--you get a whole
school," says Charles Drucker, associate publisher of Waite Group Press.
Each Waite Group tutorial book covers a specific Internet, computer, or
programming technology, such as programming languages Java or hypertext
markup language (HTML). The books contain more than 90 lessons coupled
with application exercises and end-of-chapter tests. Each book also comes
with a CD-ROM that links the student to the eZone site for quizzes and
online conversations with other students.
The Waite Group's approach to online learning proved to be just what
Charles Reed needed. Reed is the chief information officer of The Graphics
Department, Inc., a six-person Web and design firm in Troy, Michigan. He
needed to learn a programming language called Perl, for Practical
Extraction and Report Language.
Rather than sign up for a classroom version of the instruction, Reed chose
Waite Group's tutorial book. He used the books CD-ROM to log on to the
eZone to work through online quizzes and swap ideas about Perl with fellow
students in online discussion groups.
Reed was so pleased with the low cost and ease of learning through eZone
that he persuaded a co-worker to take the Perl course. "He was a graphic
artist and afraid to take a programming course," says Reed. ``But when he
was done with the course, he told me it was the easiest thing he'd ever
After his first course, Reed went on to take Waite Group online classes in
the C++ programming language, Adobe Systems Inc.'s Photoshop design and
production tool, and Visual Basic, a programming system from Microsoft. He
now serves as an online tutor, helping new students in Photoshop and
Visual Basic with their questions as they enter the eZone to work through
their own courses.
Drucker says the eZone creates a "little red schoolhouse in cyberspace,"
making an analogy to the old, one-room schoolhouse, in which all the
grades were thrown together and students ended up teaching one another.
"Peer teaching," says Drucker, "allows people of varying levels of
expertise access to each other. People may be afraid to admit their
deficiencies to a teacher, but they will admit them to each other."
Students can communicate with one another via electronic mail or live chat
Reed sees the eZone's online discussion groups as invaluable tools for
allowing peers to address the real-life glitches that computer technology
sometimes presents. "They allow people to discuss the real things they
need to do with this technology at work."
For a small-business owner or employee who needs to get up to speed on a
computer language or software application and has no co-worker to be a
teacher, the eZone model can be an ideal learning environment.
Accessing Specialized Knowledge
Computer-skills courses are among the most popular online, but there are
many other possibilities. When Nancy Gordon, owner of Customized Travel
Research in Boise, Idaho, registered for an online course in travel and
tourism from the UCLA Extension, she wasn't sure what to expect. She says
now that she got the best educational experience of her life for a cost of
Gordon's online instructor, Joanie McClellan, turned out to be more than
just a teacher. McClellan, director of the San Fernando Valley Convention
and Visitors Bureau, helped Gordon develop her business concepts. "She
even custom-tailored the final project for me to fit my unique
business-research needs," says Gordon. "I've never had a professor do that
for me." McClellan even met Gordon at a travel-industry conference after
the class was over. There, McClellan introduced Gordon to people who later
became key networking resources and clients.
"Studying online is as close to a one-to-one tutorial as you can get,"
says Kathy McGuire, director of online learning at the University of
California at Los Angeles Extension.
Online classes can also give small business owners access to colleagues
from outside the United States. William Nix, Chief Executive Officer of
W.E. Nix & Associates, an Internet consulting firm located in Los Angeles,
taught a course last year for UCLA Extension online called "Doing Business
in Eastern Europe." To Nix's surprise and delight, all 45 students
enrolled in his course logged on from different countries.
Because the class was online, Nix was able to bring together students from
different countries who could discuss the real-life issues of doing
business in differing cultures. Students read classic business texts but
they also received focused input from their fellow classmates on
commercial practices worldwide.
Time Management For The Next Millennium
Once you have found the right online course at the right price, you
typically can do the work at a time that best fits your schedule. "Time
was my critical factor in turning to online learning," says Gordon. "In my
travel consulting business, I have to work sometimes until 2 a.m. With an
online course, I could read the e-mail from my instructor and do my
homework after 2 a.m. You can't replicate that kind of freedom in a
For self-paced, online tutorial programs like those operated by Ziff-Davis
University, students can manage their time by beginning or ending a course
at the exact point where they feel they need assistance. Unlike in a
classroom, where everyone begins with Lesson 1 and works at the same pace
from there, many online tutorials allow students to begin at their skill
level. You can begin in the middle of a tutorial if that's the best place
to start--and not disrupt the entire class by doing so.
Earning A Degree Online
Since the Internet was pioneered at universities to facilitate information
sharing, it's no surprise that an increasing number of them are creating
Web-based universities. An estimated 180 accredited graduate schools and
more than 150 undergraduate colleges and universities now support
distance-learning degree programs, an increasing number of which are
Many online universities are catering to the rising demand from industry
to deliver skill-development courses to the desktop. For example,
Champlain College, a regular 4-year college, in Burlington, Vt.,
advertises itself as a "career-building" college. It offers Web-based
professional certificates as well as associate and bachelor's degrees that
are built around a solid core of business and computer classes.
As with many online programs, the curriculum at Champlain is not simply
textbook-based. Each online class is carefully designed to emphasize what
John Lavallee, director of online programs, calls "experiential
understanding." Says Lavallee: "We use case studies, group exercises, and
real-life work problems. We test the students not by giving them
multiple-choice exams but by saying, "Here is a problem this company is
having; how is your group going to solve this?"
Champlain's online program began in the summer of 1993 and has expanded
rapidly; more than 550 students from around the world are enrolled. The
most popular courses, Lavallee says, are in computer programming, network
administration, business, and accounting. "We have a lot of people earning
their first degree online with us," says Lavallee, "but we also enroll a
lot of people who have bachelor's, master's, even Ph.D.s who are studying
online with us for career-skills enhancement."
Full-credit college courses typically cost $300 to $1,000. Most online
classes don't require that students have the latest high-powered computer,
but they must have Internet access.
Before enrolling in any online college, make sure that your chosen program
is recognized by either a regional accrediting agency or the Distance
Education and Training Council, a nonprofit nationally recognized
accrediting agency located in Washington, D.C.
At the rate that online course offerings are expanding, it's clear that
the Internet has added a popular new twist to the correspondence courses
of old. Sir Isaac Pitman, no doubt, would be pleased.