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291
By Gene I. Maeroff
W
hat observers tend tooverlook as online
courses deepen their inroads at institutions of higher
learning is that the content of, and audience for, these
offerings remains largely specialized. Chances of signing up
students for online learning are perhaps greatest in job-related
fields in which courses tend to be more about training than
about theory. It follows that students are found most readily
among adults looking to upgrade or revamp their careers.
Requirements by states and professional organizations
that people engage in continuing education help boost
enrollments. The constituencies for the courses often include
working men and women with positions that make it difficult
for them to meet campus residency requirements and
sometimes even to break away fromwork to attend courses.
Thus, online courses have the appeal of giving students the
chance, among other things, to overcome obstacles of time
and place.
These students, in turn, are an attractive group for higher
education. Unlike students of traditional age, they have money
and are not as dependent on loans or grants. Anthony F.
Digiovanni, formerly chief executive officer of the University
of Phoenix Online, maintained that what gave his institution a
kick start in e-learning was that the online component simply
targeted the same audience that the university pursued in its
campus-based courses: mid-career professionals.
Cornell University organized its for-profit arm, eCornell,
along similar lines. It began by mounting courses for working
professionals in human resources management, hospitality
management and continuing medical education. These
online courses have
been created with the
help of Cornell’s School
of Industrial and Labor
Relations and the School
of Hotel Administration,
along with the Hospital
for Special Surgery, an
affiliate of Cornell’s Weill
Medical College.
Even blue-collar and
service workers comprise
a potential constituency
for adult-oriented
e-learning. Job skills of
all sorts seem to lend themselves to online instruction. The
16 institutions that make up the Wisconsin Technical College
System, part of the statewide University of Wisconsin, joined
forces in late 2001, for instance, to establish a collaborative
online presence, etechcollege.com.
This venture represented a first step in lending coherence
Spring 2003
The Online Learning Boom
Tailoring college to the needs of working adults
to what had been a collection of
disparate online offerings. The 16
colleges continue to determine their
individual fates in e-learning, but
now, in addition to their separate
home pages, they have benefit of
a single portal at which potential
students can find all of the system’s
online courses. “Our presidents
expect us to coordinate this so
eventually there aren’t 16 versions of
the same course,” said Jeff Larson,
who was charged with pulling
together the project for the system.
This is the beginning, some in the
system hope, of higher standards and
more quality control in the online
courses.
Not scheduled to change is the orientation of the courses
toward adults looking to change jobs, retrain, or earn
certificates essential to getting and retaining their positions.
For instance, there are certificates in clinical coding for
specialists who analyze health records and assign diagnosis
codes, for office workers who use Microsoft software, for
wastewater operators, business managers, legal assistants and
information management specialists. There are associate’s
degrees in microcomputer programming, emergency
dispatch, and developing websites.
Policymakers sometimes regard education as the engine
that drives economic development. Some people inMichigan
had the novel notion of harnessing that engine to the Internet.
It all began in the mid-1990s as an idea that appealed to the
University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the
Automotive Research Center. The goal was to use online
courses to accelerate workforce development. Governor John
Engler embraced the approach and helped persuade the Big
Three automakers to commit themselves to buy $5 million
each of professional development fromwhat was dubbed the
Michigan Virtual Automotive College.
By 1998, the idea had snowballed into the creation of
Michigan Virtual University (MVU), a private, nonprofit,
market-driven entity that contracted for the delivery of
programs and services by Michigan’s colleges and universities
and by private training providers. Michigan Virtual
Automotive College was absorbed intoMVU as part of the
MichiganManufacturing Training Network. In all, MVU
by 2002 carried out three missions, all linked to its original
aim of economic development—operating Michigan Virtual
High School, providing online career guidance, and offering
corporate learning services.
MVUwas not authorized to grant degrees, which
Online courses
have the appeal
of giving students
the chance, among
other things, to
overcome obstacles
of time and place.