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Shaking Hands on Education: Companies Embrace eLearning

by Paul D. Rosevear

This summer, the 3,000 employees that comprise Florida’s Sarasota Memorial Healthcare System earned a chance to save money on earning their advanced degree–simply by being an employee of the hospital. A partnership launched between the medical facility–ranked as one of America’s 50 best hospitals by U.S. News and World Report–and Columbia Southern University offers workers, along with their spouses and children, a 10 percent tuition discount on all bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Partnerships like this one are becoming more commonplace recently, with many large companies teaming up with online learning programs in an effort to make education more accessible to their employees, as well as encourage them to pursue it. In its new 2006 State of the Industry Report, the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) finds that leading organizations increased learning investments in two key areas: annual expenditure per employee and learning hours. The report also concluded that organizations' investments in learning technologies are paying off through cost savings and efficiency gains as eLearning reaches a high level of sophistication. ASTD estimates that U.S. organizations spend $109.25 billion on employee learning and development annually, with nearly three quarters ($79.75 billion) spent on the internal learning function, and the remainder ($29.50 billion) spent on external
“We have certainly noticed a steady increase in the use of eLearning platforms to provide training and continuing education for corporations, specifically in the number of partnerships between online education institutions and corporations,” says Tim Hill, president of Professional Education Solutions at Blackboard, a leading provider of education course management systems worldwide. In fact, the Professional Education Solutions facet of the company is a recent development stemming specifically from Blackboard’s desire to create stronger relationships in this particular niche of eLearning’s growth.

These partnerships not only present workers with educational opportunities, but ultimately benefit the companies that host them as well. “We are always looking for ways to enhance the educational opportunities for our staff,” says Sarasota Memorial president and CEO Gwen MacKenzie. “Online degree programs make it easier for our employees to fulfill their personal and professional aspirations, and easier for us to support them in their efforts.” Recent partnerships have also been forged between Motorola and Walden University, Lockheed Martin and Drexel Online, and even the F.B.I. and Capella University.

Cyber degrees play increasingly significant role in corporate America 
According to Hill, the growing connection between online learning and the workforce can be attributed to several factors.

“Corporations often turn to online education institutions because these organizations are well positioned with the technologies and infrastructure to deliver the training and provide significant economies of scale that save time and money,” he explains. “Also, today’s workforce is much more spread out and work arrangements are much more flexible, so employers need to provide continuing education and training to employees without the restrictions created by time and location.”

Many working adults cite limited time or limited financial resources as primary deterrents from pursuing an advanced degree, and these partnerships aim to eliminate these issues. In addition, they assist workers and employers with tackling industry issues, such as the widely publicized nursing shortage. This past February, Walden University partnered with Good Samaritan Hospital of Maryland to create opportunities for the hospital’s employees to pursue a Master’s of Science degree in nursing.

“In today’s rapidly changing healthcare environment, professional advancement is a 'must-do' for our R.N. staff, and they have long been asking us to find them a program that meets the needs of busy, working nurses,” says Joanne Eich, M.S., R.N., education specialist at Good Samaritan. “The online format allows more flexibility and support than most traditional advanced degree programs.”

And it’s not just the health care industry, or the corporate world–even the U.S. government is seeking out partnership opportunities with learning institutions. The F.B.I. recently incorporated online education provider Capella University [an  Encarta advertiser] into its University Education Program. Capella is one of only three schools to have entered into this formal relationship with the Bureau.
“F.B.I. employees across the U.S. are enrolled in bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs in specializations like leadership, information assurance, criminal justice, and education,” says Jim Landerkin, Capella’s Federal Program Manager. The Bureau provides generous tuition assistance–even paying full tuition in some instances. “The full tuition program offered by the F.B.I. is a great example of the confirmation by an employer of the worth of continuing education, not only to the employee, but to the entire organization,” he adds.

Deneen Hernandez, a forensic examiner at the Bureau, is one such employee. The F.B.I. is paying for her to earn her Ph.D. in human services from Capella University. “The tuition assistance is a big incentive for me to earn the degree," she says. “I got some assistance by being a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians, but without the help of the Bureau, it would be financially impossible for me to do this. Plus, an online university is the only way I could pursue a program in my field without relocating.” Hernandez is based in Virginia, while the closest Ph.D. program in her specialty is at New York’s John Jay University.

“My degree is going to help me in terms of my job, particularly as an expert witness,” says Hernandez, who is often called to testify in court cases. “Also, the instructors at Capella have been accommodating when my job calls on me to testify or travel overseas. They are understanding of the fact that these things are just part of my job.”

Achieving a common vision for vast companies or organizations, such as the F.B.I., is another reason online learning has achieved such popularity among them. “Techniques, technologies, and information changes so rapidly in today’s economy that it is crucial for corporations to keep their workforce up to date with the latest information,” says Hill. “Online education facilitates the fast and cost-effective exchange of information.”

Though some traditionalists still question online learning’s legitimacy as an effective learning tool comparable to the educational experience found in a classroom, the budding relationships between corporations, learning institutions, and consumers have made it clear that eLearning is a fixture among students in the busy working world. Hill projects that before long, the opportunity for tuition assistance and flexible arrangements between companies and online universities won’t just be a newfangled perk–it will be an expectation.

“In the future, online education in the workforce will be as common as flexible work arrangements are today,” says Hill. “It makes perfect sense for corporations to deliver education online, if not entirely, at least partially. As more students enter the workforce, they will expect this option as part of their career development, and companies who want to attract top candidates will need to offer this.”

Article Source: © 2006 Classes USA, Inc. All rights reserved.

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