School Is Never Out

Continuing education is evolving at Net speed

As the store operations manager for Berean Christian Stores, a Cincinnati-based book-store chain with 22 outlets in nine states, Roger L. Feenstra spends a lot of time on the road. MucH as he'd like to hone his managerial skills in school, he is hard-pressed to free up a couple of nights each week for class. His answer: the Internet and an extension program at the University of California at Los Angeles. "I can set my own pace," says Feenstra. "I can show up to class in my own time. I can spend five minutes in class, or two hours."

While conventional students--including his two college-age daughters--haul themselves off to classrooms to meet face-to-face with professors, Feenstra, 44, labors by laptop. He dials in to his program from his kitchen table in Riverside, Calif., or from hotel rooms across the country. He downloads lectures, submits papers, joins in student discussions, and even gets his grades over the Net (he just got an "A" in human resources). He puts in 20 hours a week online. "It's fantastic," says Feenstra, who is now embarking on his second learning-by-Internet class.

Like millions of others, Feenstra is riding the crest of a wave that is reshaping education. As job demands change at lightning speed, more and more people are becoming lifelong learners. Whether on the job or--more often--on their own, they are constantly updating their skills. It's thanks to the Net, though, that lifetime learning is hitting its stride now. As Feenstra has found, the Net brings the classroom to you, on your terms, in your time frame. "It's just-in-time, just-in-place learning," says John S. Parkinson, national director for innovation and strategy at Ernst & Young.

The days when formal education ended after college or graduate school are rapidly disappearing. Some professionals have long needed to keep up their schooling to maintain their accreditation or licenses. Doctors often must meet annual educational requirements to prove they are up to date on medical advances, for instance. Now, businesspeople find they too must hit the books anew or risk losing out to competitors.

The numbers are dizzying. While just 23 million Americans took part in adult education programs in 1984, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the figure had risen to 76 million by 1995, and, some prognosticators say, it could top 100 million by 2004.

COMMONPLACE. To the surprise even of many of the people doing it, lifelong learning is becoming commonplace. "I never expected to need to go back and do another degree," says Shermaine A. Tilley, a 47-year-old AIDS investigator and associate professor at New York University's medical school. Tilley got her PhD in biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University in 1980. She wants to move into venture capital or business development in the drug industry but felt a gap in vital business skills. So Tilley is halfway through a two-year MBA program at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Contending that academic science has become more businesslike, Tilley says: "If I'm really doing business, though we don't call it that, I may as well get paid for doing business." The degree will help, she figures.

For many working people, educational updates will come at the workplace. At outfits as disparate as General Electric, Unisys, and Federal Express, corporate universities give up-and-comers a mix of company culture and management skills in programs that can last from a day or two to up to three weeks. The aim: to give managers "the ability to energize other people," says Steven Kerr, GE's chief learning officer. Where just 400 company-run universities operated in the U.S. in 1988, there are now over 1,600, according to Corporate University Xchange Inc., a New York research and consulting firm.

In these corporations, too, the Net helps expand education offerings. Web-savvy startups such as Pensare Inc. of Los Altos, Calif., are partnering with the likes of Wharton and Harvard Business School Publishing to develop online programming that corporations can use over their internal networks. Unlike conventional degree programs, the programming is usually targeted at specific skills such as the art of negotiation or customer relations. "We try to focus on what you need to do your job," says George W. Dunne, vice-president at Unisys University, a Pensare partner.

Outside the corporate environment, schools are responding to lifetime learning demands by putting educational programs on the Net. This isn't just the cyberspace equivalent to the old back-of-the-matchbook correspondence school. Master's degrees can be earned online, for instance, from schools as prestigious as Stanford University. Andy DiPaolo, senior associate dean at Stanford's engineering school and executive director of the Stanford Center for Professional Development, says: "Students need to be educated at any place and at any time and universities are trying to figure out how best to do that."

REWINDING CLASS. At its best, Net education can trump conventional classroom learning. While staying close to his job site in Vancouver, for instance, Hewlett-Packard hardware design engineer Allen Ong can log on for classes in Stanford's online engineering master's degree program in Palo Alto, Calif. He taps into taped three-hour lectures and uses an indexing feature to pull out the salient bits of a talk. He can even rewind, something he couldn't do in regular classes at the University of Alberta. In Net classes, students too shy to raise questions in person may be less inhibited, and the answers they get from peers and teachers may be better thought out. What's more, there's no hasty scribbling of notes from slides when the whole slide set is downloaded.

Cyberstudents may not be getting a bargain, however. Syracuse University charges the same tuition--about $32,000--for its Net-based MBA and its classroom version. Stanford, which traditionally charges higher tuition to part-timers, bills a distance-learner about $45,000 in tuition to earn an engineering master's degree vs. $26,000 for a classroom student.

Some educators say the students ponying up those fees are getting a second-rate education. The Net, they argue, can't replace the spontaneity and depth of person-to-person interaction. "There is no substitute for the academic environment," insists Carole S. Fungaroli, an adjunct professor of English Literature at Georgetown University and author of a forthcoming book, Traditional Degrees for Nontraditional Students. "As professors, we can really change students' lives, but not if we never see them, not if we're never face-to-face."

Still, for many students the Web variety of distance education may prove just as life-changing--and far more practical. Molly Hilton, a 33-year-old project leader in marketing communications at office-furniture giant Haworth Inc. in Holland, Mich., has an undergraduate English degree and is taking UCLA Extension courses online to prepare for an MBA program. With Haworth footing the bill, she will soon choose between a conventional classroom regime at Western Michigan University and a Net-based degree, perhaps through Syracuse. After her UCLA experience, Hilton is leaning toward the Net degree. The reason: She believes that e-mail enables instructors to be more attentive to their students online than off. What's more, as the single mother of 9-year-old Mac and 7-year-old Tressa, she finds that the Net lets her better meet family, work, and school obligations. Says Hilton: "With online learning, we sit at the table together and do homework."

Even in more conventional programs, the Net is profoundly changing the educational experience. MBA students at the University of Toronto, for instance, still meet with professors and fellow students in classrooms. But they typically download lecture notes in advance, discuss them in online chat rooms, and swap materials for group work electronically. Instead of spending the wee hours at the library, they're often hunched over computers at home. "The whole online experience is not necessarily meant to replace the on-ground experience. It is just another avenue," says Jeffrey E. Feldberg, chairman of Embanet Corp. Feldberg's company creates and maintains electronic communities among Rotman students as well as among students at Fordham and Vanderbilt universities, UCLA Extension, and some 200 other institutions around the world.

Over time, education will likely prove to be a mix of conventional classroom work and distance learning. Undergraduates may still opt overwhelmingly for four years of ordinary campus life--with lots of Net-aided courses--but later many could wind up doing advanced studies by computer from afar, perhaps while holding down full-time jobs. Certainly, that's what forecasters at International Data Corp. expect.

Where there were just 710,000 U.S. students in distance-learning programs in 1998, or some 4.8% of the nation's 14.6 million higher-education students, IDC forecasts that the number will rise to 2.23 million, out of 15.1 million students overall, by 2002.

THE FORDHAM MODEL. For a good blend of face-to-face schooling and Net learning, one model for the future may be Fordham University's Transnational MBA Program. Over a 15-week semester, students meet one weekend a month, usually in or near New York City but sometimes as far away as Dublin, Ireland. The rest of the time, they communicate with their teachers and fellow students via the Net, reading lectures, filing papers, and doing group work. The students typically work for multinationals such as IBM, and find the school mimics their workday environment. Says Ernest J. Scalberg, dean of Fordham's Graduate School of Business Administration: "We try to emulate what it's like for people in transnational organizations."

Fordham has found, though, that the Net can't do it all. Online courses may foster a sense of community among distant classmates, but the one-on-one meetings inevitably foster far richer interactions. Discussions that start in class spill into hallways or nearby pubs. Students in the Fordham program hold down regular jobs--and their companies typically pay the $74,000 freight--but they keenly enjoy the weekend seminars. "It's fascinating to learn about the cultural diversity of IBM and benchmark National Starch vs. IBM," says student Masoomeh H. Ghahari, a 37-year-old marketing manager at the National Starch & Chemical Co. unit of Imperial Chemical Industries PLC. Her fellow students, she adds, "ask really interesting and insightful questions."

PleNty of people have neither the time nor the money for programs that include the face-to-face meetings. For them, pure online offerings make the most sense., the company that develops courseware for UCLA Extension, expects its online enrollment to jump to 10,000 next year from nearly 6,000 now and 2,200 last year. The nondegree programs appeal to people with advanced schooling already (half the enrollees have master's degrees) and to women (about two-thirds Of the student population). Says Chief Executive John E. Kobara: "Women have told us in tremendous numbers that the only way they can go back to school, given their families-and-career balancing act, is online."

Whether narrowly drawn or broadly focused--and whether it's exclusively or only partly delivered on the Net--education in coming years won't stop at the schoolroom door. The need for new or refreshed skills is just too great. As graduation speakers have intoned for years, commencement really is just a beginning.