The lessons of online learning extend far beyond the subject matter. Ask those involved... especially since there are striking similarities between eLearning and the workplace. In fact, the online delivery model of education mirrors today's - and more importantly - tomorrow's corporate environment.
1. It helps you think globally. According to Rich Baich, CISSP, CISM, chief information security officer at ChoicePoint Inc., a provider of identification and verification services, earning his online graduate degree broadened his horizons. The University of Maryland University College (Adelphia, MD) student was encouraged to think of territory as "boundaryless," a thought process frequently associated with online degrees and virtual corporate offices.
"We often get caught up in international vs. domestic leadership," Baich explains. "Motivating an individual in Georgia is different from motivating an individual in California or Germany." The 2004 recipient of Georgia's Information Security Executive of the Year Award had the opportunity to lead a global team in his classroom and spend time getting to know the students. "Their countries and cultures have been enlightening," he notes.
2. It enhances your critical thinking. While the majority of eLearning focuses on deadline-oriented projects and online bulletin boards, Lee Junkans, director of career services at Kaplan University (Davenport, IA), indicates that weekly "live" seminars emulate weekly meetings in a boardroom. "Critical thinking is required on the spot, not unlike a business meeting at work," he says. In addition, as in other online courses, Kaplan students find themselves constantly corresponding via computer, and are required to hone their communication skills via e-mail, instant messaging, and message boards, an attribute of value in today's cyber-powered corporations.
3. It strengthens your electronic business communication. For Linda Couch, the virtual aspects of her MBA studies at the University of Maryland University College, which she pursued while working in Japan, were nothing new. She was accustomed to working remotely in her global role as position business unit strategist for IBM.
The challenge, however, was coordinating a virtual team that did not have experience working with colleagues from around the world. As such, Couch frequently took a leadership initiative and sent specific e-mails to elicit efficient and timely responses to team assignment duties. Most importantly, she learned to plan ahead. If a project was due Monday morning, she would complete it prior to the start of her work day and have it done by Sunday night to factor in the 14-hour time difference of her fellow students. She often took such a lead with succinct communication, a characteristic she says has already translated into accolades at work.
4. It promotes active participation. Similar to the way those heading up corporate environments and meetings typically expect employees to actively engage in their work, online education officials require students to be actively involved, perhaps even more so than in a traditional classroom. "In order to be 'seen' in an online environment, you have to actively participate," Couch explains. In other words, you can't sit quietly in the back row of a classroom (or the boardroom), especially when everyone is expected to post weekly responses on class bulletin boards based on the reading assignments.
5. It builds your time management skills. According to Frank Mayadas, president of Sloan-C, a consortium of online schools, the online delivery model of eLearning mirrors today's corporate environment, specifically in its efforts to help individuals strike a balance between work and life. In addition, juggling various assignments and deadlines is not dissimilar to meeting the demands of a full-time job while maintaining outside family and financial obligations. "You save time by logging in when it's convenient for you - late at night, early in the morning, weekends, whenever and wherever - 24/7," he says.
6. It fosters flexibility. As more and more employees telecommute, studying online in a remote location increases one's self-efficiency as a solo learner/worker. "One of the most important factors in online communication - for a job or for education - is flexibility," says Virginia Lofft, who recently earned her master's degree in professional studies from Thomas Edison State College (Trenton, NJ). There's the flexibility of being able to shift your daily priorities around what's most convenient for you, she points out, but there's also a more important element to the shift.
"When is your mind in gear? When are you mentally most productive? In other words, how does your diurnal clock work?" Lofft asks. The ideal situation, she says, is the flexibility demonstrated in eLearning, similar to her telecommuting work at home. "If you're in an 'e' situation, you work when you're at your peak, at your optimum level of performance."
7. It highlights a virtual team environment. Lofft also notices one of the significant benefits of eLearning is the ability to work with people remotely and build strong bonds. "You find yourselves e-mailing each other outside of class to discuss issues, swap ideas, or gain more data," she shares. When Lofft earned her bachelor's degree, she attended brick-and-mortar classes at night after a long work day, and recalls that she basically wanted to "get there, sit in class, and go home." "No one chit-chatted," she says. "I don't remember a soul from any of those classes. Because of the special atmosphere of eLearning, however, I've made real friendships with kindred souls."
8. It sharpens your tech savviness. ELearning incorporates the latest technology tools that also spill into the workplace, such as Instant Messaging from remote locations, or posting ideas and feedback in a virtual conference workgroup room.
"A corporation will choose a meeting room platform like Breeze, WebEx, or LiveMeeting. A university will choose an asynchronous bulletin board system like Blackboard or WebCT," says Dan Smith, president of Management Simulations, Inc., an eLearning business simulation company used at more than 500 campuses and corporations such as GM, Allstate, Johnson Controls, and John Deere. All have similar functions. According to Smith, constant use of technology - whether it's in the classroom or the workplace - is becoming the norm. "To use a comparison, five years ago we talked a lot about 'eBusiness' in our curriculum. Even then, academics said to each other, 'By 2004 or so, we will have dropped the distinction as just another way to do business.' And, of course, that happened," Smith explains. "Something similar will happen with online education. It will become a 'positioning' alternative in a university's strategy."
9. It allows you to stay abreast of industry advancements. The information you learn in an online classroom is current and connected with industry trends, all of which can be applied at the office.
"Anyone can enhance their IT skills with online discussions by paying attention to what other students do in their perspective industries," explains Debra Wall-Czech, who is earning her master's in project management from Keller School of Management of DeVry University (Oakbrook Terrace, IL). The software executive points out that she learns much from others in different positions.
"I happen to be in software development for the health care industry. Someone else may be in hardware. You ask and learn about other forms of industry from your peers," she says. In addition, says Junkans, since Kaplan's course developers are industry professionals, curriculum is constantly updated. As the industry changes, so do online lessons.
10. It accelerates your advancement. Simply stated, pursuing an online degree or certificate more often than not equates to long-term career success, as it did for David Moore. A staff sergeant in the Army Reserve, Moore pursued a master's degree online at Temple University (Philadelphia, PA) when he was deployed to Bosnia. The civil affairs officer didn't want to put his education on hold while on assignment, so he enrolled at American Military University, an institution of the American Public University System. He completed a course to earn his certificate from the United Nations, something he says set him apart when interviewing for his current position at a private security firm.
"The United Nations certification I received at American Public University System and my graduate work in international politics at Temple University impressed my new employers," he recalls.