Distance learning - providing access to learning when the source of information and the learners are separated by time and/or distance - has been around since the dawn of postal delivery services.
In the current economic climate further education seems likely to take a pounding given the huge personal expense and often substantial debt involved, so I was interested to see a new business from for-profit online tutoring company Smarthinking.
Straighterline is selling 'all you can eat' college courses for $99 a month. For your money you get access to current and new courses as they are added by StraighterLine, 10 Hours of 1-on-1 instructional support and a course advisor (a real person, with real phone number, who will 'help you get your credits').
There's no time limit and you pick from several affiliated colleges who will award you real college credits from that school.
The University of Phoenix, founded in 1976, has over 250,000 students - and of course many colleges and universities offer online courses as components of their curriculum.
(Nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during the fall 2005 term, a substantial increase over the 2.3 million reported the previous year, according to Sloan-C).
A precise figure for the international enrollment in distance learning is unavailable, according to Britannica, but
the enrollment at two of the largest public universities that heavily utilize distance learning methods gives some indication: in the early 21st century the Indira Gandhi National Open University, headquartered in New Delhi, India, had an enrollment in excess of 1.5 million students, and the China Central Radio and TV University, headquartered in Beijing, had more than 500,000 students.
There was an explosion of business enthusiasm for top-down internal education during the dot com boom, with the Knowledge Management movement leading the charge: Wikipedia defines KM as comprising....
a range of practices used in an organisation to identify, create, represent, distribute and enable adoption of insights and experiences. Such insights and experiences comprise knowledge, either embodied in individuals or embedded in organisational processes or practice.
The idea of a job for life at a company is ancient history, and the concept of a multi year course at a prestigious university to qualify for that job for life is equally outmoded, yet the western educational world persists in this thinking.
Apprentices used to learn a trade from a skilled journeymen before repeating the process by training their own apprentices (often within a guild system): that practice is largely gone now in the present era. What we are left with is the expectation that should you be lucky enough to land a job you are expected to hit the ground running.
The old employee orientation training days are replaced with rapid accommodation, assimilation and acceleration of new team members. It's a variant on sink or swim with HR expecting to see almost immediate value from the new team member. Ideally the employer wants to see their new employee go from 0-60 in a blaze of traction and acceleration, demonstrating business value virtually immediately.
Clearly the ability to collaborate with new cohorts is vitally important in this situation, and assuming wikis and other collaborative network technologies are structured and organized in a way to enable a new employee to find what they need when they need it, and to contribute insights, they have great value.
The enterprise software Learning Management System world - although very valuable for tightly regulated industry compliance training (and the so-you-can't-sue-the-company sexual harrassment training tracking) - has largely grown in tandem with the Knowledge Management world. These systems aim to develop 'human capital' - train you to be a more valuable employee - but increasingly we are a 'Free Agent Nation' in this economy, whether we like it or not.
The 1930's saw an increase in distance learning as people sought competitive advantage through obtaining mail order qualifications (then as now saw value judgements about quality of education and accreditation validity).
We are in a somewhat similar era globally - perhaps personal education all-you-can-eat buffets like Straighterline are an idea whose time has come, and perhaps appropriate college credit courses and time to complete them should become part of employee perks.
Just as Wikipedia is often challenged as being dominated by the Wikipedians, who change, edit and remove the supposedly crowd sourced content, many business internal collaboration systems are dominated by a few individuals, often with an agenda. Some people are more adept at online communication than others, and office politics almost invariably exists online.
Appropriate accredited information is often a good way to raise the tone of conversation, and if an employee furthers their education as well that has to be a win for everyone.