Online Learning In The Off Hours
When Susan Sherman wanted to learn new techniques for drumming up business for her interior design company in Woodbridge, N.J., she could have signed up for a marketing class at a local college. But she was too pressed for time to sit in a classroom. Instead, she turned to the World Wide Web.
For $65, Sherman, owner of Professional Office Solutions Inc., which specializes in office design, took a two-session online course offered by Denver-based Retail Advisors, a consulting firm for micro-businesses. At the prearranged hour of 9 p.m., Sherman logged on from her home computer to consultant David Wing's password-protected site, along with about five other classmates around the country. Following Wing's instructions and comments on the left side of the screen, Sherman typed in information about her business and her customer base on the right side. Then, the participants commented on one another's situations; their discussions also appeared on the right side of the screen. This mix of instruction and live chat helped Sherman focus her marketing plan and develop fresh ideas. One was to attract new clients with a holiday gift brochure offering office decor items such as throw pillows and wall hangings. "I needed the help and liked the idea of doing it from my computer," she says. "The course really opened up my creativity."
While the Internet may still have its flaws as a marketing tool, educators, consultants, and trainers are discovering its huge potential as a virtual classroom. Particularly for small-business owners, who may have more good intentions than money or free time, Web-based courses offer an affordable and flexible way to get specific training and practical information--on everything from restaurant management to business-plan writing to dispute resolution. No less important, they offer a structured community, where entrepreneurs can network and brainstorm online with classmates. Sometimes, these online contacts lead to offline working relationships, even friendships.
MIDNIGHT OIL. While hard data is still scant, more than 250 colleges, universities, and training institutes offer upwards of 500 Web-based business courses, according to Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs. Many more classes are also being offered by consulting firms, professional groups, and trade associations.
These classes join other forms of distance learning, which in the old days consisted mainly of mail-in correspondence courses. Now, they also include audio- and videoconferencing, faxing, and computer-based training.
Like Sherman, most online business students are short on time and long on life experience--they're usually 30 and older. "People are always sending me their work at midnight," says Ann Delikan, who teaches an online course in grammar for business writing for the New School for Social Research in New York. Most students are also looking for answers to real-world problems rather than credits toward a degree. "The student oftentimes has a great widget, but he really needs an appreciation for the steps it takes to sell it," explains online instructor Ronald Ormiston, who teaches marketing for the University of California at Berkeley Extension program.
Some professional seminars offered by organizations are free for their members. Community colleges charge from $65 to $100 for short courses, while full-credit university offerings can run $300-$1,000. Most classes don't require a high-powered computer--just Internet access. Sometimes, you'll have to download special software that's provided.
In almost all cases, students receive their readings, assignments, critiques, and "lectures" over the Internet. Instead of the traditional classroom discussion, students communicate by posting comments on electronic bulletin boards at their convenience--or through live online chat.
So-called asynchronous courses usually have no set start dates or definite times at which students must log on and they rely on E-mail exchanges and bulletin boards. Others, such as Retail Advisors' classes, convene at specific times, to allow for live chat sessions.
At Richard Walton's "Introduction to Management" class, one of 20 online business courses offered by the New School, students log onto the Web site anytime. In the online classroom, Walton has posted a reading assignment as well as sample problems in strategic planning. His students include such entrepreneurs as publisher James Prevor, owner of Phoenix Media Network Inc. in Boca Raton, Fla., who often taps into Walton's virtual classroom via laptop from the road. There, he comments on other students' strategic plans, submits his own, and later reads student and teacher feedback on the site. "It's essential that everyone join in," says Walton, who prods reticent students by E-mail.
NET TRICKS. How can you find a class to suit your own business needs? If you search such key words as "marketing" or "management" on the Internet, you'll uncover a bundle--some useful, some not. Classes that teach Net skills are especially popular. Janis Rose says that her Internet Studio in Springfield, Ill., has taught more than 800 students such tricks as scoping out your competitors through E-mail or using the Net for long-distance calls.
For a less scattershot approach than a search engine offers, go to one of the bulletin boards that serve entrepreneurs, such as the National Federation of Independent Business workshop forum (www.nfibonline.com/workshop).
Jill Stahl Tyler, owner of Stahl & Associates International Consultants in Brattleboro, Vt., which arranges internships and labor exchanges among dairy farmers, took a class on marketing and pricing that is sponsored by Field of Dreams, an online support group for women entrepreneurs (www.fodreams.com). As part of the course work, Tyler designed a trade show to bring together far-flung dairy farmers. Tyler said the class forced her to consider new revenue streams and encouraged brainstorming: "After the class, I found myself spending two or three hours just thinking about it."
But not all courses are so satisfying. Tyler took one free class where the teacher simply stopped logging on, and often students drop out of low-cost classes, putting a damper on the discussion. Some students complain that chats are too time-consuming and hard to follow.
To evaluate online offerings, ask colleges whether their programs are accredited and check out private seminars as you would any other consultant and follow up on credentials and references by telephone if necessary. Or stick to well-established programs, like those of the New School and UC Extension.
And should a taste of Internet education merely whet your appetite for more, take a look at the fast-growing online programs offered by the University of Phoenix, whose students tend to be experienced professionals. The courses include full-fledged business degree programs--five of them undergrad and three masters--conducted entirely over the Internet. You'll probably never meet up with your professors--but you won't have to worry about parking stickers, either.