Investing in Online Learning: Companies Sharpen Their Competitive Edge with Education

By Dr. John Crossley

Canada’s best employers support the education of their employees. (Canada’s Top 100, 2009)   Many subsidize or reimburse college and university tuition for employees because they recognize both the immediate and long-term benefits for the company (Yerema, 2009).  The arrival of fully online, post-secondary programs offered by Canadian institutions specifically for working adult learners is making it easier for both the employer and the employee to take advantage of various employer-supported education opportunities.  Canadians should expect more employers to support their staff in this way.

Broadly speaking, employers have two reasons for supporting education and training for employees.  One is the need to provide job-related training that it is directly and immediately related to job performance and compliance with company and regulatory policy. However, many companies go beyond such training and also pay for some or all of employees’ education at colleges and universities.   Such programs can be expensive and take many months, perhaps years, to complete, but wise employers recognize these expenditures as investments in the stability and prosperity of their companies.

For employers, tuition reimbursement programs are strongly related to the recruitment and retention of talented employees.  In an increasingly competitive labor market, employers want to attract the best and brightest individuals and such individuals typically look for long term career and personal possibilities.  Employers also want to retain talented individuals to ensure stability, continuity, and continued growth of the company.  Furthermore, supporting employees’ personal and professional development through further education creates a culture in which employees are valued and respected, which is good for everyone within the company.

Employers with tuition reimbursement plans for employees usually support employee attendance at academic programs offered on campus at colleges or universities in the same community as the employee.  A number of universities have begun to offer degree programs for working adult learners entirely online and some universities, like my own, have originated specifically to serve such learners.

Many employers are coming to realize the benefits of fully online degree programs compared to campus-based programs, for them and the employee-learner. These benefits flow largely from the fact that online degree programs are designed and delivered specifically for working adult learners and their employers: curriculum is typically designed to integrate applied professional study with academic study, instructors usually have both academic qualifications and applied professional experience and courses are scheduled in ways that allow students to complete their degree study in a reasonable length of time while continuing to work full time.   Furthermore, our students tell us that they are often able to immediately apply insights and skills acquired during study to their work.

Based on our experience at Meritus University, I suggest employers and learners consider the following:

Accreditation: Fortunately, if learners are considering a Canadian online degree program they can feel assured about the academic standards of the program.  While there is no formal accreditation process for degree-granting institutions in Canada, public universities are held, and hold themselves, to high academic and quality assurance standards.  Private degree-granting institutions, such as Meritus University, can operate only when approved under provincial degree-granting legislation and to gain such approval the institutions and their programs must meet rigorous quality standards.

Trained faculty practitioners: Learners and their employers should look for online degree programs in which the instructors have both academic qualifications and practical professional experience in the area they teach.  This mix of academic and applied qualifications is beneficial to adult learners and helps students apply what they have learned to their work.  Because faculty practitioners are not primarily teachers, it is also important that the online degree-granting institution train instructors to be effective facilitators for adult learners.

Interactive student-directed classrooms: Online classrooms can be synchronous (students meet in real time in an online environment) or asynchronous (students participate at times convenient to themselves).  Asynchronous classrooms, which we use at Meritus University, have some advantages in that they allow students from different time zones to be in class together.  They also emphasize intensive written communication.  But whether synchronous or asynchronous, the classroom must engage the student and allow students to interact with the course material and with each other.  Effective learning for adults takes place collaboratively.   The effective model is the seminar, not the lecture.

Student services and support: Many working adult learners take on significant challenges when they decide to pursue further education.  For some it has been a while since they were in any type of classroom.   Most are busy with work, family, and community activities.  The best online universities support such students with academic and studentship advice.  At Meritus University, for example, each student has an enrolment advisor who helps the student settle into the routine of studying.  Students also have access to academic advisors and financial advisors as well as a number of tutorials and tools to help them hone their study, writing and mathematical skills.

Library: Not all universities are able to make library resources available online.  This can be a problem for students in rural or remote locations.  Employers and potential students should look for online degree programs supported by access to good online library resources.   At Meritus University students can enter an excellent online library directly from the online classroom; once in the library they have access to over twenty million full-text articles.

Scheduling and time to graduate: Neither students nor their supporting employers want degree programs that take forever to complete.  To avoid having to wait for semesters to begin, they should look for universities that start online programs several times during the year and that allow students to move continuously from one course to the next.  They should also look for universities that set clear and achievable expectations about the amount of time required to complete a program.   At Meritus University, for example, students can normally begin their program any month of the year and are encouraged at the outset of their program to set a target date for graduation.

Recognition of prior learning: Working adult learners are almost certain to have taken courses of various types while working.  When looking for an online degree program, they should look for a university that will assess such prior learning and, where appropriate, recognize it for credit toward the student’s degree.

In summary, good employers recognize that recruitment, retention, and development of talent requires them to support employees’ personal and professional development.  One way of doing this is to provide financial support to employees who want to pursue university degrees.  Such degrees are now available fully online, which is beneficial for both the learner and the employer.  It is possible, especially in Canada, to find high quality online degrees that serve the employee-student excellently and that amply repay the investment made by the employer.

Dr Crossley is the founding president of Meritus University (meritusu.ca.), based in Fredericton, New Brunswick. He has dedicated more than 30 years to Canada’s post secondary education institutions.

References:
Canada’s Top 100. (2009, December). Canada’s Top 100 Employers. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from Canadastop100.com: http://www.canadastop100.com/national/
Yerema, R. (2009, October 14). Canada’s Top 100 Employers. Retrieved April 19, 2010, from Macleans.ca: http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/10/14/the-top-100-2009/

(PeopleTalk: Spring 2010)

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