Opinion and Online Education and Return on Technology

ALTOM: It's easy to fill gaps in business knowledge online

November 17, 2012

The online world is blossoming with education, both good and questionable. It was one of the first uses for the Web. The Web brought technical people together to share information, and often it was in the form of a tutorial to answer the question, “How do I get this to do that?”

Tutorials still abound today, but they’ve been joined by a number of other approaches. Some are scams, while others are free and carry the provenance of prominent universities. It’s the latter that interest me the most.

You can get an entire degree online, if you’re willing to take the chance that an employer will honor it. The University of Phoenix (www.phoenix.edu) and Kaplan University (www.kaplan.edu), just to mention two for-profit online schools, confer degrees, but they’re controversial to say the least. Most conventional institutions don’t offer complete degrees online, although—under constant fiscal tightening—they do offer a growing number of individual credit courses online. Many have also developed certificate programs that are entirely online, although these can cost a fair amount of money.

Indiana University (www.iu.edu), for example, has its School of Continuing Studies that offers 20 online certificate programs in everything from strategic management to computer networking. The courses are the same as for full degree programs; there are simply fewer of them. Some of the courses are “asynchronous,” meaning you can go through the materials whenever you want, and others are “synchronous,” meaning they’re held at specific times.

Most of us, though, aren’t keen on paying full tuition for the smatterings of knowledge we often need or to satisfy some intellectual itch. For that, you can turn to sites like Udacity and Coursera.

Udacity (www.udacity.com) was founded by four computer science instructors who wanted to offer their courses online to as many people as they could. When Udacity was launched, there was an immediate tidal wave of students taking the two asynchronous online courses in computer science. The course catalog is still heavily slanted toward computer technology, but Udacity has since added courses in physics, statistics and business.

I took Udacity’s CS 101, Introduction to Computer Science: Building a Search Engine, and I can attest personally to the quality of the course. It’s all done in tutorial style, meaning you never get a real instructor, but considering that the course was free, it was exceedingly good.

Interestingly, Udacity is a for-profit company, although it’s difficult to see how they’ll make any money giving away coursework. The present thinking seems to be that just taking a course is free, while having Udacity test you and certify that you passed will cost you.

Coursera is similar to Udacity in that it’s also for-profit, but the courses are free if all you do is sit in on them. The breadth of coursework at Coursera is wider than at Udacity and consequently probably more interesting to businessfolk.

Coursera has recruited some 35 universities to supply courses, many of them big-name universities like Ohio State, Michigan, Duke and Johns Hopkins. It’s truly international, featuring institutions from eight other countries, including India, Israel, Canada and Australia.

In the category of business and management alone, Coursera lists 13 courses as of this writing in many major aspects of business, among them operations management, organizational analysis, business strategy, health care entrepreneurship and finance. An example is Foundations of Business Strategy from the University of Virginia, which doesn’t start until March 4, 2013. Lectures are usually short videos followed by homework.

And there are yet more heavy-hitting institutions getting into the free-coursework game. MIT (ocw.mit.edu) has long had OpenCourseWare with some 2,200 courses waiting to be taken for free. The courses are essentially recycled materials from the classroom courses MIT has offered over the years. The updated materials are in MIT’s new EDX (www.edx.org), which is a partnership with Harvard (Harvard.edu) and features classes from those two institutions plus Berkeley (www.berkeley.edu), and the University of Texas (www.utexas.edu). EDX appears to be all computer-related classes right now, but could expand later.

All of this doesn’t begin to cover the sprinkling of courses being offered by universities all over the world in all sorts of subjects, including business, nor the informal and often surprisingly good YouTube offerings. I’d be so bold as to say that if you’re uninformed about any subject in business, it’s likely your own fault. Between books, informative websites, certificate programs and free courseware, today’s businessfolk have plentiful opportunities to be the most educated and capable in the history of the world.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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