Why e-learning?

January 15, 2010, by Michael Gillenwater

Here at the Institute, we are consistently amazed at the number of people who blindly assume we deliver training in a standard classroom setting. Indeed one of the most common inquiries we receive is where and at what time we are offering classes. After more than two years of responding to such format questions, we have gotten pretty good at explaining the how and why of the online learning tools (i.e., e-learning) we utilize.

Many of you will have noticed our big announcement regarding the launch of ghgLIVE, a joint initiative with the organizers of Carbon TradeEx and Carbon Expo, to provide onsite training workshops on GHG management.

Yet our focus is and will continue to be heavily based on e-learning.  It is reasonable to ask us to justify this strategy. In a question: “Why favor e-learning over traditional in classroom learning?”

Our reasoning for e-learning delivery proceeds as follows:

And outcomes? Are we sacrificing on quality to reach more people and avoid travel? Actually, reviews of learning effectiveness point to e-learning as not only being on par with classroom-based learning, but one of the most widely accepted studies on the matter concluded that e-learning was in fact more effective than face-to-face instruction:

“The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction”

Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies, U.S. Department of Education, 2009

This study found that superior outcomes for students engaging e-learning were explained by students tending to spend more time on online courses than the face-to-face equivalent course. And learners spent even more time, and did better, in blended courses, combining face-to-face and e-learning.

Our primary learning strategy is a blend of e-learning with experienced instructors and in-person workshops to practice and reinforce skills.  Due to the time and resources required to develop an e-learning course (we can definitely testify to this), more time is spent creating a course with strong pedagogy, which then leads to better quality instruction.

It is interesting to think about this study’s findings as they relate to the future of education more generally, especially university (post-secondary) education.  Could we do away with universities and put everything online?

Several schools are experimenting with online learning, including the program we partnered with at Harvard.  And there are even some totally online universities, such as Capella. But could universities go the way of travel agents and newspapers?

One company that is pushing this envelope is Straighterline, which provides online university level courses for typical subjects for just a flat rate of $99/month plus $39 per class.  Imagine a college education for a few hundred dollars per year.

Are these guys going to close down Princeton and Harvard.  No.  But mark my words: online learning will become a disruptive technology.  The next generation is increasingly comfortable doing almost everything online.  And with the internet, multimedia is beginning to deliver on its promises.  The economic pressures are too real to fend off forever.  Rich families will still go for the Ivy League brand.  But imagine it being possible for poor families in developing countries to afford a college education for their children.

Or imagine an entirely new professional community being trained and created globally in just a matter of years so that we can address the greatest environmental and social challenge of our time.

If we want to double and then triple the number of people around the world getting a college education (or exponentially grow the number of GHG management professionals around the world), how else can you imagine accomplishing this feat?

Other readings:

College for $99 a Month: The next generation of online education could be great for students—and catastrophic for universities. Washington Monthly, by Kevin Carey, September/October 2009.

A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges. Washington Post, By Zephyr Teachout, Sunday, September 13, 2009.

2 responses to “Why e-learning?”

  1. Don Bain says:

    No so fast. We may be leaving something out.

    eLearning is effective. Moveover, it is the only real solution for serving post-college, busy, working professionals.

    But as much as I am a fan of eLearning, I do miss the personal interaction with fellow students in real space. My hypothesis is that part of the learning comes from the questions, sharing of interesting problems, practices and collaborative work with other learners. Universities do have a distinct advantage in being able to aggregate an interesting and motivated group that interacts during the education experience.

    The Institute attracts REALLY interesting people. The new initiatives I see the Institute rolling out are in the right direction to raise learner interaction. Keep ’em coming.

  2. Don,

    Thank you for the comments. I agree with your points entirely. But many of us liked the personal touch of using a travel agent. Or the character of a local newspaper. But economic forces were too strong for these other factors to overcome. I agree that the university experience is more valuable than dealing with a travel agent. But it is also a lot more expensive. Again, if we hope to increase the number of kids going to college about the world by ten times or more (not the mention the increasing cost of a college education even after inflation), then something has to give eventually.


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