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Learning in cyberspace

Learning in cyberspace

Online learning is taking off, but it is still not clear if it can compete with a classroom full of peers and the immediacy of face-to-face learning.

Education is doing well out of the financial crisis. Workers, worried about their employment prospects, are keen to add skills to their resume and a master of business administration, or enhanced qualifications, certainly helps the employability factor. The federal government is also pouring money into its so-called education revolution, providing more opportunities. While conventional face-to-face learning is growing, online education is doing even better. Various factors are increasing demand for online learning services. It is cheaper than face-to-face learning for a start. Companies using online learning frequently report savings of between 30 and 60 per cent. It is also more convenient. Students have the ability to dip in and out when it suits them, which makes it particularly attractive to time-starved professionals. Further, geographical location is irrelevant, making courses that were once limited to a metropolitan or regional audience available to a broader set of consumers.

Overcoming geographical restrictions has breathed new life into education providers, particularly regional institutions. Online learning levels the playing field, allowing regional institutions such as Southern Cross University, Central Queensland University, New England University and the University of Wollongong to compete with their city rivals. All have embraced online with vigour.

More than 55 per cent of higher education courses on offer are either fully online or contain on online component, global data from technology research firm Gartner shows.

In three years, enrolment in online courses will exceed 30 per cent of total higher education enrolment in the Western world, Gartner analyst Marti Harris says.

Why? Because online learning tools - computer software mostly - are more sophisticated and easier to use, internet access has increased, people are consuming more services online, and the teachers are better prepared to adapt their content and methods to cyberspace.

Combined, these factors make many courses ripe for online delivery. Add to this the commercial constraints under which businesses now operate as well as people's busy lifestyles, and you have some compelling forces, Harris says.

Plenty of companies have moved to capitalise on this growth. Online job site Seek has been one of the most successful. In five years, Seek has built an education business turning over $152.5 million (2008-09 financial year) with a net profit of $16.6 million.

It acts as a broker or promoter for courses run by the likes of Open Universities Australia and New South Wales TAFE Open Training and Education Network, but over time has also acquired an interest in education providers directly.

It owns a 50 per cent share in IDP Education and upped its stake in Think (formerly called Amadeus) to 100 per cent in May. Think invested heavily in expanding its flexible and online learning division in the past year to capture the substantial demand it sees in this sector.

For the Australian Securities Exchange, the benefits of moving to online learning have been impressive. It spends half as much on investor education as it did in 2005 when it ran face-to-face sessions on Saturdays in metropolitan areas. It also reaches 4000 people a month online, which is about the same number that it reached in a year under the old model.

The ASX simply followed the eyeballs. "So much of people's investing is online, they expect education to occur there as well," head of ASX investor education Tony Hunter says.

How much detail people absorb through online learning is questionable, cautions Hunter. The exchange has had to completely re-engineer its educational material for online students at great expense. "Online students have a high degree of self-direction, they jump around a lot. They need plenty of interactivity to keep them amused and small bites of information that are easy to digest," he says.

Despite this, Hunter feels the goal of the course is being met. "People are in reasonable shape after completing our courses to confidently engage a financial adviser," he says.

Finance, accounting, information technology and MBAs appear well suited to online learning, but it doesn't suit every course. Informa, which runs conferences and leadership courses, as well as technical sessions for industries such as mining and engineering, tried delivering courses online but found customers preferred the in-person experience.

"They liked networking, which is a really important part of training," Informa marketing director John Wilson says. "That's not to say we won't be revisiting it down the track."

The company is now looking into "webinars" to add value to students engaged in face-to-face courses and as a lead-generation tool.

"Our United States operation has used webinars successfully over the last year in both areas," Wilson says. "Key differences to public courses held in a classroom are of course time and money. It will be important to analyse the optimum time that people would want to sit at a computer screen and commercially, how much they would be prepared to spend.

"The way to go is what we call "blended learning", a combination of various platforms to give attendees the maximum learning opportunity. You can't beat sitting in a room talking through a problem with an experienced instructor and a group of your peers."

Leadership skills are especially difficult to impart in an online learning environment, says Paula Ward, human resources director of one of the nation's large accounting firms, PKF. "You can provide a case study but ultimately [business leaders] want to work through real world scenarios. Their problems don't always follow textbook descriptions," Ward says.

Seek marketing manager, digital and learning, Justin Lyster, says tactile disciplines such as natural therapy are not suited to online learning.

However, technical, compliance and operational topics are ideal for the environment. PKF moved its entire induction program for new starters online in May. It has proved so successful that the firm is now asking what other forms of training can be delivered using the web.

As Ward says: "It's a consistent delivery nationwide, it's self-paced, at minimal cost with regards to the use of external resources and internal people's time, plus there is proof of completion."

Like Informa, PKF advocates a blended model. It still allocates half a day to a face-to-face induction but these sessions are not as time critical, Ward says. "We can wait until there is a mass of people and it allows those [face-to-face] sessions to be strategic and purely about the individual rather than being consumed by operational matters."

Why online learning is on the rise

• Online learning tools have matured (computer software mostly)

• Ubiquity of the internet

• Preparedness of teachers to adapt their content and methods to cyberspace

• Commercial constraints on businesses

• Cheaper than face-to-face lessons

• Flexibility moulds to people's lifestyles

Source: Gartner

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