Access and Flexibility Set Apart Online EducationA far cry from traditional correspondence courses, today’s distance learning programs offer students access to streamed media lectures, online discussion groups, and digital libraries, while providing them flexibility in class and assignment schedules unavailable at brick-and-mortar institutions. The uniqueness of the digital experience has encouraged many people for whom further schooling had been unworkable to enroll in career-enhancing study.

Whether they are pursuing a bachelor’s degree, a graduate degree, or a career-specific certification, these students are typically employed full-time and often have families; some live abroad while others live too far from an educational facility to be able to attend regularly. Even for residents of major cities, a nearby facility can seem remote due to scheduling conflicts. That is why, says Andy Rosen, Chief Operating Officer of Kaplan.com, some students in Kaplan’s online Concord Law School happen to live in New York City. While New York is chock full of law schools, “not every one can commit to every Thursday at 6 p.m.,” he explains sympathetically. Seeking to change careers or add a credential in their spare time, people prefer the more flexible student life that online education allows.

It is this formula of access plus flexibility that has made distance learning the new wave in education. A 1998 International Data Corp. survey of emerging markets reported that Web-based training and education will rise to 2 million users this year and to more than 5 million users by 2002. Enter the big players in online ed., like Kaplan Educational Services (heretofore best known for its test prep services). Leveraging on its respected brand, the company has expanded its services by acquiring educational companies in diverse industries and repackaging them into a multi-tiered online curriculum with something to offer to everyone from small children to retirement age seniors. Since 1994, when Jonathan Grayer became Chief Executive Officer at the age of 29, Kaplan has made programs in Nursing, Criminal Justice, Law, Paralegal Studies, General Business, and Information Technology available for study on the Web. Two years ago, the company launched its virtual law school, Concord, which offers a four-year degree. Concord offers different degrees for law students who intend to practice the law and for those who prefer to trade on their legal expertise to secure jobs in business or government. Kaplan’s motto, “Learn to Earn,” reflects the belief that education, especially professional training, can change peoples’ lives and swell their earning power.

Kaplan’s makeover from test prep company to educator-at-large stems from a desire to provide customers with what Rosen calls “multiple learning experiences.” In its earlier incarnation, the company had one shot at students through the SAT or GRE tutorial courses. Once these students took the standardized tests, however, Kaplan never saw them again. The company’s only residual business was word-of-mouth referrals. By reinventing itself as an education company, Kaplan has sought to become a lifelong companion in learning. The company has opened over 100 Score! education centers where students in grades K-10 can work on computers to develop academic skills (Rosen estimates that 65 percent of this work is enrichment and 35 percent remedial). The companion online service to these centers is eSCORE.com, which invites parents to join with children in games and exercises.

Long the chief competitor of Kaplan in the test prep area, the Princeton Review has also become a rival in the wide-open Digital Ed. business. What augurs well for both companies is how their longstanding philosophies of education adapt nicely to cyberspace. Rosen terms Kaplan a “results-driven” education provider. It tries to deliver learning that is “measurable” – assessed by whether a securities trader does or does not pass the Series 7 exam or whether a law school graduate passes the bar exam. “Classical liberal education is great but it’s not our niche,” he says. In response to a criticism that Kaplan’s kind of education is too test-targeted, he points out that while this applies more to the most career specific programs, others – like SCORE – are more broadly educative.

Drawing on its similar success prepping exam takers, the Princeton Review has forayed into online education to help public school students prepare for standardized state exams in math, English, and other subjects. The business opportunity is a consequence of the national preoccupation with standards in education and the rushed efforts by state administrations across the country to institute exams for grades K-12.

Like Kaplan, the Princeton Review has identified an education niche it is uniquely suited to fill and jumped in boldly. Steeped in assessment methodology, the company is skilled at identifying test preparedness issues. The problem for many states which have instituted subject exams is that a given subject material is taught differently in class from the way it is presented on the state exams. The disparity reflects bureaucratic mismanagement, specifically poor coordination between the state curriculum committees and the private test companies hired to design the exams. The bizarre result is that classroom lessons do not prepare students for the exams that supposedly measure classroom effectiveness. Enter the Review to design software programs that will re-teach students their lessons in the manner in which they will be tested. “We have filled a void,” says Jeff Rubinstein, a curriculum developer at the Review. The company has contracted with the New York City Board of Education and other education boards to provide an online test preparation for students. Students do the work on computers after class and at home.

Kaplan, too, believes that online relationships can make the difference between success and failure. Its online education process is predicated on administrative support to help a students who get overwhelmed by the workload or who lose confidence in their ability to get through. Only 21 percent of Americans over 25 years of age have a bachelor’s degree. Just as he recognizes that the other 79 percent are Kaplan’s target audience, Rosen also recognizes that many can be troubled by defeatism. “Someone with a high school degree often doesn’t have one for a reason,” he says. To help students overcome any lingering self-doubt, the online experience grants them anonymity: they can ask a question and remain unnamed; heads won’t turn and they won’t become the focus of the class. Kaplan’s Vice President of Communications, Melissa Mack says that this enables students to assert themselves who could not otherwise do so.

While granting them classroom anonymity, Kaplan keeps a benignly watchful eye on students to make sure they don’t begin to feel isolated. If students fall behind in their work, they will receive a supportive call from the dean. “If they feel overwhelmed, it is the job of our administrator to help them figure out ‘how we’re going to get through this.’” A study plan is agreed upon and the student is supported step-by-step. This kind of “handholding” requires enormous staffing and a great investment of time.

Kaplan can afford to invest in people because it does not have to maintain a campus or cafeteria. Online education is budgeted to provide faculty and administrative support that surpasses what students at brick-and-mortar institutions will commonly receive. The extra support has resulted in a relatively high rate of retention – 75 percent in the case of Concord Law School (where the students do of course already have BAs). The high retention rate is the best current measure of Concord’s success. It will be two years until members from the first class of law students graduate from the program and proceed to take the bar. Until then, Kaplan will lack the hard data needed to evaluate the law program’s effectiveness.

One of Concord’s apparent drawbacks, the absence of a brick-and-mortar law library, may turn out instead to be a strength that will illustrate the full potency of education in the digital age. The Internet has allowed Kaplan to assemble an online library collection to match the most hallowed sanctums of legal study. Kaplan partners with a digital library service to provide its students with the case laws and legal tomes they will need to do research. According to Rosen, students in brick-and-mortar schools – as well as practicing lawyers – have for some time foregone treks to law libraries and resorted instead to using online library services. “Most of the volumes in a law firm are there to impress clients,” he says. “It’s not as if anyone uses them.” Kaplan is pondering whether to try to capitalize on the legal profession’s penchant for online research by packaging its own set of resources for sale to firms and law schools. Concord’s law librarians have scoured the Web and aggregated these resources from micro-sites; ever opportunistic, the company may now try to cash in.

When practiced skillfully, the technique of aggregating Web content shows enormous promise for the development of online curriculum. Its success will be measured in large part by its capacity to yield what digital educators refer to as “authenticated knowledge” – knowledge achieving consensual validation. By mining and sifting its infinite spaces, researchers of the Web can separate gold from dross, and deliver learning materials of pedagogical merit. Concord’s law librarians are one example of a growing species of Web excavator. At Chalkboard.com, a company that creates computer curricula for grades K-12, a team of PhDs in the “academics” division scours the Web and deliberates over what content to incorporate into software programs introduced into computers in 62,000 public schools across the country. “I’m a great believer in what the Web has to offer in the way of educational content,” says Chalkboard’s Judy Breck. “I think what we’re doing reflects the future of education.”

Not only is the Web developing bold new curriculum initiatives, it is also introducing new teaching methods that are, in Mack’s words, “medium-specific,” assuring from students a degree of preparedness that they potentially could skirt when attending a lecture class. While some critics of Concord have said an online legal education would suffer since professors could not use the Socratic method, Mack argues that the new technology has created a fresh pedagogy. Students are not permitted to advance to the next scheduled lecture until they demonstrate familiarity with the material to be covered by passing a quiz or completing some other exercise. By incorporating these checks into the learning process, the curriculum assures the students will be engaged in the lecture when they watch it on streaming media video.

As with distance education as a whole, the success of Kaplan’s online endeavors still hang in the balance. Rosen feels that ultimately success will rest with the company’s graduates’ ability to get jobs, and with the caliber of work these graduates deliver to employees. Can he foresee a time 15 or 20 years from now when Kaplan alumni populate the major cities like alumni from other respected colleges, and employers hire a Kaplan grad with total confidence in what they’re getting? Will there one day be a Kaplan endowment or even a homecoming day? “I can foresee a scholarship fund, perhaps,” Rosen says. “But, yes, we are hoping that we’ll have that reputation with employers.” Still, he concedes that he’s not able to forecast the future. For online education, the next few years loom like a frontier.