Online education appealing to busy employees

Employers also like accessibility, cost-effectiveness and time management benefits
By Grant Cameron
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/24/2013

Days of rushing home from work to eat dinner and then barreling out the door for night school are a thing of the past for many employees seeking to upgrade their skills.

Thanks to a proliferation of distance education courses, employees can learn and earn a degree through online classes, negating the need for mind-numbing, stressful commutes.

Post-secondary institutions are offering an increasing number and variety of such courses, giving employees the flexibility to work around social or family commitments.

Employees gain because it gives them flexibility, allowing them to work around job, social or family commitments. Employers benefit because employees don’t need time off work to go to school.

“It provides a very effective solution from a number of perspectives,” says Norm Sabapathy, vice-president of human resources at Maple Leaf Foods in Mississauga, Ont. “It is typically more cost-effective from an employer’s point of view and employees are able to manage their time better.”

More workers at Maple Leaf are learning via online courses, he says, in large part because it’s a more convenient way of acquiring new skills.

“The courses are accessible and people can fire up a module on a Saturday night with a glass of wine. That’s much more effective than trying to work when they don’t have the time.”

Maple Leaf encourages employees to take online courses by allowing them to do some of the work during office hours. The company also offers tuition reimbursement. However, the company doesn’t just throw money at employees — it helps them choose courses to ensure the training is relevant and provides mentors who can help employees with the courses.

“It really starts with a candid assessment of where somebody’s current capabilities are and what you need them to be in the future and then dialing it into the very specific key skills or behaviours they need in order to drive the biggest performance improvement from the person. If you don’t start with that, you’re basically throwing solutions at a problem that you haven’t defined,” says Sabapathy.

“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got some kind of system around the employee taking online courses. Otherwise, you’re paying for e-learning that may not be translating into anything productive.”

Employees enrolling in distance education and online courses can study at any time and complete their assignments when they want to work,” says Lori Stobbe, manager of continuing education and business development at the open learning and educational support department at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“If they want to work in the evening or first thing in the morning, it’s their choice.”

Enrolments for the university’s roughly 300 undergraduate and 100 online continuing education courses are growing and show no signs of abating as the popularity of webcams, use of videos and much faster download speeds have helped streamline online learning.

“We expect the trend will continue as we expand new programs. We have a whole pedagogy around teaching and learning strategies for online learning,” says Stobbe.

There has been “tremendous growth” in the offerings of online courses, especially in business, says Alain May, associate dean of accreditation and program director for the MBA program at Athabasca University in Alberta.

“We are also starting to see all the traditional universities starting to get into online and blended work,” she says, due, in large part, to advancements in technology and people being more comfortable using computers and the Internet and learning via the Web.

“There’s a growing acceptability of online programs that maybe wasn’t there really early on. People are beginning to see that we can deliver high-quality education that’s tested and proven.”

Technology has also advanced so the university can offer more, says May.

“When we first went online with some of our programs, we were worried about what we delivered because of bandwidth issues. But it’s increasingly not an issue for us any more.”

Chris Busch, director of the centre for executive and professional education at the University of Windsor in Ontario, says the traditional model of attending school during daytime on weekdays has changed.

“The model does not fit, at least not for our clients, and I don’t think it really fits for anyone that is really in the workforce.”

As a result, the university has dramatically revamped its approach to providing education, Busch says, becoming much more entrepreneurial and service-centric in its methods. The learning management system used for online courses is more dynamic, he says, and can incorporate video chats so students can interact with each other.

It makes sense for employers to encourage employees to learn online because it’s less expensive, as there’s no time off work or commuting costs, says Tashia Batstone, vice-president of education services at Chartered Professional Accountants (CPA) Canada in Toronto.

CPA Canada uses a learning management system that allows participants to sign into a classroom-type environment, do quizzes, watch videos, view presentations, webinars and other content.

The programs are expensive to build and take a lot of time and effort to put together, she says, but as people become more comfortable with technology more employees are using them.

“The other thing,” says Batstone, “is that if you do a webinar, you don’t necessarily have to have everybody online at noon on a Thursday viewing the webinar because they can take the webinar and catalogue it and put it in a library and somebody can watch it later when it’s convenient.”

Grant Cameron is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Ont.

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