Online Universities Teach Knowledge Beyond the Books

by Vicky Phillips

When Barry Cotton, District Director of Human Resources for ManorCare Health Services, decided to earn his master’s degree in business he encountered only one problem: access. Cotton, who works out of an Oklahoma City, Okla. office, was on the road four days a week. He couldn’t get to a campus. He needed for a campus to come to him.

To solve the access issue, Cotton, like an increasing number of business executives, enrolled in Colorado State University’s online MBA. The Colorado degree program, which is delivered via computer conferencing and videotape, is one of a growing number of campus-free, high-quality desktop degree programs that cater to the business community.

Cotton, who is almost done with his degree, travels less these days, but continues to study online with CSU. Brick-and-mortar evening degree programs operate within commute distance of Cotton’s office but they lack the convenience he seeks. "Even though I travel less, getting out of the office by 6:45 any particular night, and to a physical classroom, is not always easy -- or possible," comments Cotton.

Carron Albert, who attends Thomas Edison State College’s online master’s in management program, frequently does her homework after her two children are taken care of in the evening. She then e-mails her papers to faculty mentors and her study team members. "With my work and life schedule," comments Albert, "there is very little time left in my day for going to school." Like Cotton, Albert, who is Associate Vice President of Administration and Finance at Thomas Edison State College in Trenton, N.J., could commute to a graduate school that offers classes in the evening or weekends, but she has chosen instead to telecommute to a virtual campus.

The Future Is Flexible

Dr. Jo Ann Oravec, author of "Virtual Individuals, Virtual Groups: Human Dimensions of Groupware and Computer Networking" (Cambridge University Press), is not surprised that business executives are attending desktop universities. "Online learning will soon be a major force in certain kinds of education," predicts Oravec, "graduate education, especially at the MBA level, is one of these." Oravec sees a tremendous need for more flexible learning options in today’s knowledge economy. "For people with demanding and erratic work schedules, and demanding responsibilities at home, flexible learning provides a tremendous opportunity."

Oravec’s opinions are informed by her role as faculty for the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater’s online MBA program. Last fall, the university launched a virtual version of its long-standing, brick-and-mortar MBA. Dr. Donald Zahn, Associate Dean of Business and Economics at the Whitewater campus, sees the online option, which requires no campus visits, as a way to reach a burgeoning audience of business people who are eager to have quality educational opportunities conveniently delivered to their desktops. "Business people in particular," says Zahn, "are busier and busier. They travel more than most professional people. Their time is especially precious. Distance learning gives them the convenience to take courses on their own schedules from a hotel room, from wherever they may be." Executives now telecommute to the Whitewater MBA program from as far away as Thailand.

Knowledge Delivered in New Ways

Like most distance learners, flexibility is what lead Laurie Hutton-Corr, Director of Strategic Executive Development for AT&T, to register for the online master’s in organizational design and effectiveness offered by the Fielding Institute of Santa Barbara, Calif. "With my schedule it was not realistic for me to go to a day or evening class on a regular basis." Though flexibility was the issue that led Hutton-Corr to explore an online option, she now feels that she underestimated the kind of education that Fielding’s virtual university was purposefully designed to deliver. "I was never that excited about learning in a classroom setting. It always seemed too one-way. At Fielding, you learn constantly from everyone in the group."

In the university, the professor’s role has historically been that of the expert who lectures or "professes." Online learning is less likely to use top-down knowledge delivery methods, like lecturing, and more likely to rely on peer-to-peer learning in the form of collaborative discussions and team projects. Hutton-Corr, like many adult learners, enjoys this new way of learning. Collaborative education, where students are expected to learn as much or more from each other as they do from their professors, is also known as horizontal learning. And horizontal learning, or peer-to-peer knowledge sharing, is, many argue, what the Internet is all about. "In online learning," explains Fielding Co-Director Dr. Judith Stevens-Long, "you get to hear voices that you’d not normally hear speak in a classroom. There is a valuable enhancement of quiet voices in an online (written) learning environment."

Online learning commonly operates by having cohorts of students communicate weekly in written form via message boards or text-based conferencing systems. It is both a highly personal and intensely written process of instruction. "We maintain a student to faculty ratio of one to six," comments Stevens-Long. "That sort of individualized contact and small class size is rarely found in campus degree programs." Individualized instruction and feedback is a hallmark of many, though not all, virtual university programs. Thomas Edison State College, for example, does not use "professors" in their instructional process. Instead of a professor, students are assigned to work one-on-one with faculty "mentors."

New Technologies and Learning Platforms

Many different platforms are being harnessed for online instruction. Fielding uses AltaVista’s Forum, a platform that allows for both real-time Internet chats and asynchronous message board discussions. For convenience reasons, Fielding does not use live chat, which would require students to be present online at set times. The program relies instead on asynchronous communication where students go online and post their comments and read the comments of their classmates according to their own schedules. Students still "attend" class weekly, but the exact time this is done is left up to each student. A student might participate in a team project at midnight after the children are asleep, or during his or her lunch break. At Thomas Edison State College the instructional platform includes weekly mentoring via e-mail, phone conferences among cohort learning groups, and three brief face-to-face campus residencies.

Colorado State University launched one of the earliest virtual business schools in the United States. The program also employs one of the richest multimedia instructional delivery systems. Unlike many Internet universities, where learning occurs primarily via text-based threaded discussion, the Colorado program mails videotapes of weekly campus lectures and classroom sessions to remote learners. Students view the videotapes weekly, but at their own convenience. They then go online to discuss issues with their distance learning cohorts in live chat sessions using a conferencing system called embanet. Faculty maintain online advising hours and are also accessible via phone for questions that students may have after viewing the weekly videotapes or while working on their homework.

Cotton, who attends Colorado State, likes the combination of online chat and videotape viewing. He feels that being able to see some procedures applied by faculty helps him to better understand complicated material. The addition of videotape has been especially helpful to him in mastering complex quantitative procedures in finance and accounting. Jamie Switzer, Colorado’s program director, likewise sees certain business curricula, like accounting and finance, as especially well-suited to distance learning where "drill-and-kill" methods can be employed to help students master complex skill sets through visual repetition.

The University of Wisconsin MBA program operates via still another technological platform. LearningSpace, an integrated Lotus Notes educational system, allows students and faculty to post and read assignments and class discussions online. The LearningSpace virtual campus is accessible to any student who can access the Internet using a Pentium computer with an industry standard web browser, like Netscape.

Knowledge Management on the Net

Many in human resources and training agree with management consultant Peter Drucker that virtual learning is coming on fast. Some see attending a virtual university as a hands-on way of learning how to establish a new generation of online learning centers for their own corporations.

Hutton-Corr, a student of organizational design and effectiveness with Fielding, sees the Internet as a natural place to develop and orchestrate knowledge communities or corporate-sponsored web forums where employees from different geographic divisions, even different departments, gather informally to learn from each other. "A knowledge community is a form of online learning," explains Hutton-Corr, "It is not a degree program but it does answer the question of how people can conveniently come together to learn."

Hutton-Corr sees online learning and training as a concept in need of greater development within the corporation. "We have to move in that direction, a lot. There is a lot of material that lends itself to online learning ... it’s simply more flexible and less expensive." Hutton-Corr’s next course in the Fielding degree program is knowledge management. She is excited about learning more effective ways to identify and deal with knowledge resources within the corporation using virtual platforms. "We teach one person something, then we have to answer the question of how we can teach fifty others the same thing. We need to get more efficient in dealing with these issues. Web resource centers can help us do that."

Face-to-Face Increasingly Optional

An increasing number of online graduate schools do not require students to meet any type of physical residency requirement. Colorado State University’s College of Business, which has been offering its MBA in virtual form for several years, has never required face-to-face meetings.

Jamie Switzer, program director, sees face-to-face residencies as optional elements. "Residencies allow students to get to know faculty and their classmates; to create a cohort. While this is nice, people can get to know each other online just as well." Research in the field supports Switzer’s no-residency rationale. Unless there is some special educational reason to require face-to-face components, the learning process itself is not generally hindered by a completely virtual approach.

Other business programs, often those that focus heavily on the process of human management -- leadership and organizational design programs, for example -- tend to include two or three weekend residencies where learning cohorts can meet face-to-face to establish psychological connections.

Albert, a student in Thomas Edison’s virtual management program, sees the three short residencies that are required for her degree as "vital". The Edison management degree has a special emphasis in leadership. Albert met her mentors and classmates at a required 3-day orientation. For her, the face-to-face residency "really personalized an otherwise fairly impersonal process." Albert’s residency included an orientation to the learning technologies and team-building exercises that left her feeling more connected to the process of learning in a collaborative way. "I attended a traditional four-year college. When I went there you had to dress for dinner," explains Albert, who earned her undergraduate degree from Wheaton College, in 1974. "So, for me to move into this (virtual learning) has been a quantum leap. For some it is a hop, skip, and a leap. But for me, it was a quantum leap."

Virtual Learning - Real Life Benefits

"Learning this way has helped to make the computer and online world very real to me," says Albert. "Now my computer is not just a bundle of software; it is a lifeline to my classmates and their knowledge and experiences. The younger generation, my kids, see the online world as real because they have always learned this way...learning this way has made it very real for me too."

Like most distance learners, Albert is pleased with her virtual university experience, not just with the quality of the instruction but with the unexpected rewards that have come her way because she chose to learn in a virtual way rather than face-to-face. "The learning itself," explains Albert, "is very traditional. It is grounded in traditional concepts, but I think it (the learning) is deeper because of the virtual delivery system itself."

For Albert, and her virtual classmates, learning online has provided welcome, albeit sometimes unexpected, lessons in corporate virtual communication skills. Albert has used Thomas Edison’s virtual delivery system to enhance her skills in writing and giving feedback in written form. "I speak better than I write," explains Albert. "Learning this way has helped me learn how to get ideas from my mind to my fingertips in a clearer way."

At Colorado State University, students are steeped in how to learn and communicate across modern media. According to Switzer, program director, students at CSU learn how to use "many kinds of (communication) media - the tools of tomorrow for the corporate world." Colorado is working with desktop videoconferenceing in addition to text-based Internet conferencing and videotape.

At Fielding, the process of how people learn online is considered such a vital part of the curriculum that students have the option of earning a special guided-practice certificate in the development, management, and facilitation of electronic learning environments at the end of the degree process.

In a world where many are confident that knowledge will increasingly be disseminated via virtual networks, Fielding’s Co-Director, Stevens-Long, offers strong advice to training and human resource executives looking to earn their advanced degrees: "Online skills are really critical...if you are considering an education, I really think it ought to have an online component."

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