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 learners.

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 "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 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 learned."

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 rooms.

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 about $500.

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 classroom setting."

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 Web-based.

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.

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