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Colleges Try Distance Learning Off Campus

Susan Stellin.
Produced by
The New York Times


As universities grapple with the challenge of incorporating e-learning into their educational offerings, many are discovering that the technology is better suited to students outside their traditional audience of 18-24 year olds.

Some of the most successful distance learning programs have found that online education appeals to adult learners who need to take classes after work, or those who cannot travel to a campus and appreciate the flexibility of being able to take classes at home. More recently, universities have begun shifting their focus to yet another group of students outside the traditional mold: the corporate training market.

For schools, this audience is appealing because it represents a rich source of revenue to help finance the development of fledgling e-learning programs. (IDC estimates companies will spend $11 billion on e-learning by 2003.) Meanwhile, corporations benefit from being able to tap into the knowledge of university faculty for their employee training programs, combined with the cost savings and flexibility online education offers.

One of the institutions at the forefront of this trend is New York University, which established a for-profit subsidiary, NYUonline, in 1998 to coordinate and develop the university's online learning efforts. Although NYUonline has developed technology and courses that can also be used by the university, the primary focus of the business is corporate education, said Gordon Macomber, the company's chief executive.

The idea is to leverage the university's brand name and the knowledge of its faculty to develop course modules Mr. Macomber calls "learning objects." These modules can then be combined into a course the university markets through its distance learning program, or a training program NYUonline would sell to a corporation.

"They do all of their own marketing and delivery of their online programs," Mr. Macomber said, referring to the university. "We go after the corporate training market directly."

So far, NYUonline is still in the early stages of development, with a handful of clients in the financial services, advertising and media industries. As an example, Mr. Macomber cited a portfolio management course NYUonline is developing for a financial services company in conjunction with NYU's Stern School of Business. "They came to us because we have such a strong financial services core within Stern," he said.

NYUonline contracts with the university, so faculty members do get paid for their participation in developing online courses, according to Mr. Macomber. Corporations pay either a flat fee based on the length of the course or the number of students taking it, or in some cases, a license.

Another school that is going after the corporate training market is Columbia University, which is involved in several e-learning ventures: Fathom, on online learning portal primarily targeting consumers; Cardean University, which has partnered with Columbia Business School and other business programs to offer online courses to corporations, and Columbia Interactive Arts and Sciences, a new effort that is a partnership between the university and an e-learning company, Cognitive Arts.

Paul McNeil, associate dean of continuing education and special programs, who is involved with Columbia Interactive, said, "I think ultimately all of these enterprises are going to have to look at the corporate market."

Columbia Interactive, which just launched in January, has developed four courses so far -- two in English as a second language for business professionals and two information technology courses. Mr. McNeil said the program is "at a very early stage," but planned to target secondary schools (which generally have difficulty hiring IT instructors) as well as corporations.

Dalton Chandler, an equity analyst at Needham & Co. who covers the education market, said corporate training is a great market for e-learning companies to target, and a natural fit for universities, particularly those that have traditionally offered executive education programs.

By extending these programs online through e-learning ventures, he said, "They can reach so many more people in so many more companies than they would've been able to reach otherwise."

As for other universities that are moving in this direction, Mr. Chandler cited the University of Maryland, Duke, Harvard and Stanford. (In December, Stanford University and Harvard Business School announced their intention to jointly explore a project to develop and deliver online executive and management education.)

While some schools are choosing to develop their own e-learning efforts, and others are partnering with multiple third party ventures, Mr Chandler said he does not believe a school needs to limit its strategy to one model or the other. However, he did acknowledge that the current market for e-learning is highly fragmented, so those schools that pursue partnerships with outside companies may find that the landscape shifts over time.

"There will definitely be a lot of consolidation in e-learning," Mr. Chandler said. "There have been a huge number of companies that have been funded over the past few years and they're just not all going to make it."

(c) Copyright: The New York Times

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