e-Learning for Adults – Who Has the Goods?

**There is a newer version of this article available at http://horizon.unc.edu/ts/articles/00882.htm **

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[Please address the global comments of Critic III, who wrote: "The article starts with comments by MBA deans. But the description of education sounds like training, with its emphasis on skills and networking, not an MBA program." Other critics seem to think you've blurred the distinction between education and training, and between knowledge and skills. If this is your intent -- i.e. if you believe the difference *is* blurry -- please make that explicit. Otherwise, please address the critic's comments: "Does adult e-learning refer to higher education, training, adult literacy, or the many other things adults learn? Or does it refer to it all?" You raise the argument between content and education in the first paragraph, but then largely drop it, although your article is premised on a particular view of the distinction (or non-distinction) between the two. Please make that explicit.]

At a recent gathering of 150 deans of MBA schools and directors of MBA programs, I was on a panel discussing how MBA programs can move their programs online. One of the panelists, the president of a for-profit online university, referred to faculty members as "content providers." A professor on the panel angrily responded, "I am not a content provider. I am an educator! I have been in education for 20 years! And you [proprietary for-profit online universities] are pretending to be educators, but whether you actually provide real learning is very much in question!"

The online university president responded patiently, like a father to a child[This phrase immediately strikes a tone of bias in your article. That's fine, if that is your intent, but if not, we suggest deleting it.], "You are defining real learning as something that can only happen in the traditional format of the classroom. Employees now demand just-in-time learning that speaks to their context on the job, which traditional universities are not providing." A corporate recruiter noted, "Corporations are neutral toward traditional university programs and the new online programs—what we care about is high-quality education that is scaleable globally, and which leads to practical on-the-job application by learners. Universities are too curriculum-bound and not customized, but online programs are too superficial in their content and process. Can't universities and online providers work together?"

An audience member noted that online universities claim all the tuition dollars that corporations formerly set aside for employees to get degrees from local universities. His point was that funding is drying up for traditional education, and that corporations are abandoning the funding of the source of new ideas based on research[unclear; please clarify and expand]. I responded that Corporate University Xchange's recent research with 175 chief learning officers showed that corporations currently spend only 12% of their total funding on traditional universities. The remaining 88% is fair game for universities if they address the needs of corporations.

Who has the goods when it comes to providing e-learning for working adults? Who is delivering effective learning to the burgeoning e-learning marketplace for working adults, using new technologies? There are four primary groups:

What Working Adults Seek

Before we consider who is doing the best job delivering the goods of e-learning, let's start with the working adults who need education. What do they seek? Working adults no longer have a psychological contract of fixed employment with one company, and are responsible for their own careers. This causes a deep need among workers to assure themselves of the means for a successful career path. To attain this, they first need skills that bring success in their current jobs, that are portable to their next jobs, and that increase their market value. Second, they need membership in professional networks that keep them up to date in their professions as well as provide contacts for job searches. Third, they need Internet skills, to the extent that the Internet materially affects their current work practice[can you expand on this? also, don't they need computer skills other than just Internet skills?]. Fourth, they need the broadly accepted legitimization that degrees such as an MBA can bring.

How do the needs of working adults fit with organizations'[could we substitute "employers" for "organizations" throughout?]goals? Organizations support employees' building their careers, since this builds retention and attraction rates. However, they also want this to lead in the meantime to the attainment of organizational goals. [please explain how this can happen -- i.e., what can businesses gain from employees' building their careers as you've described? how can it fit into the business plan or goal attainment?]Business goal attainment is the overall good for the organization. Organizations also need e-learning to be scaleable to global solutions and customizable for the learner, since application of the knowledge must be fitted to the local context, including language. But how do organizational needs fit with the overall society's goals?[the last two sentences of this paragraph are unclear. You might expand on each of them, adding 4-6 sentences total to the end of this paragraph. That should help clarity]

Although there is tension between the adult worker's need for portable skills and the organization's need for immediate on-the-job application, the society overall[this term may be too broad -- it implies sectors of society beyond the economic or business sector. Suggest "the overall American economy" or a similar term instead]is best served when both needs are met. As Alan Greenspan has noted, the presence of innovations in information technology and technological applications added a significant spur to the recent ten years of economic growth. http://www.thetopnotch.com/greenspan/index2.html [this URL links to photos of Greenspan; please provide the URL for the text of the article you are citing, and include the citation below in the References section]When the skills and knowledge acquired through e-learning are portable to other companies, labor stays fluid; in other words, it is able to flow where demand is. When skills and knowledge can be applied to current business problems, organizations stay productive.

Who Delivers the Goods

Who is doing the best job of providing the goods for adult e-learning?

Corporations certainly have the money. According to recent Corporate University Xchange research, corporate universities have on average a $15 million budget, 90 full time employees, and 4,000 students (CLO: Operating Education as a Business, for more information go to: www.corpu.com/). [Please include a References section at the end of the article, place the in-text citation in APA format, and add the full citation to the References section. Also, we generally link website URLs from words within the text. From which word(s) should this URL be linked?] They also train thousands of adults across the globe to meet immediate short-term business objectives. Corporations are therefore driving the growth of e-learning delivery; they plan to double their rate of spending on e-learning providers in the next two years, while holding traditional university spending constant. Providing money and need funds the development of adult e-learning, but short-term profit emphasis can lead to narrow learning solutions that are not effectively designed, do not yield portable skills, and do not develop knowledge that benefits the organization in the long run.

E-learning technology suppliers have cost-effective, learner-friendly customized asynchronous solutions that are immediately globally scaleable. However, many also lack understanding of adult learning methodology and produce courses that dull the user's experience instead of expanding it. The technology is there, but it is often put to poor use, failing to integrate learning delivery with content to solve the problem being addressed. E-learning instructional design is still in its rudimentary stages.

Traditional universities have a well-developed sense of effective adult learning. They have quality content based on freedom of expression and rigorous research. But so far, they are agonizingly slow to embrace new technologies and add e-learning to the mix, and corporations often find them too theoretical and their curricula too standardized to be customizable to corporate short-term needs and the busy schedules of working adults.

New for-profit online universities, such as Walden University and Unext's Cardean University [please provide URLs if available], offer an approach that focuses on working adults and organizations as customers, integrates the benefits of technological delivery, and claims an understanding of adult education theoryan integrated solution that holds promise as the overall answer. It is still too early to tell whether this integrated model will work. The University of Phoenix, which has 20,000 students currently enrolled online, is still primarily an instructor-led, classroom-based offering.


The probability is low of finding one entity able to do the following: combine the efficiency, flexibility and scalability of e-learning technologies with high-context human interactions, fitted to the learner's context, providing encouragement and reward for learner engagement, in a manner that develops portable skills and is embedded in a knowledge-development strategy that benefits the organization long term.

It is much more likely that we can attain this integrated solution through partnerships among technology providers, online universities, and traditional universities. Corporations and adult learners are the customers to be served. One recent example of such a collaboration is the IRS-A.D. Little [is there a URL?] consortium of 17 universities, who together will provide online training for IRS employees over the next five years. Currently, we seek only the potential of collaboration among partners who view each other as competitors, but who can gain much by working together. [Please respond to the new comments by the section editor, who wrote: "This is an interesting, well-written piece. I was curious, however, what kinds of courses the IRS/AD's consortium of 17 universities has planned and how they are distributing the content development, technical support, and infrastructure management. I think it would provide a more satisfactory conclusion if this is included." Focus on the partnership / consortium idea here.]