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The Online Education Tsunami

By Kevin Meyer

As one of the partners in Gemba Academy, online education is something I'm a bit interested in.  Of course the 230+ lean training videos we offer are more "training" than "education" - but I'll get to that topic in a bit.  I'd like to think we're doing something right if over 1,000 companies are now using our products, and especially since one of those companies is none other than Toyota.  Yes, really.

Columnist David Brooks penned a piece over the weekend titled "Online Education: A Tsunami is Coming."  It's interesting on a couple of different levels.  First the legitimacy quotient for online ed has increased dramatically in the last few years, although maybe it's just my age but I still have a hard time seeing University of Phoenix on a resume.  Yes I know it's actually pretty good, and I even happen to be related to the guy that developed their doctorate programs (yes, they have them), but still.

As Brooks points out, top tier schools are getting into the market.  Harvard, MIT, Yale, Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford - you name it.  I know USC is as well, as my wife is taking graduate level classes from that school via an incredibly slick online portal.  Live classes, direct interaction, the ability to go into random groups.  Pretty incredible. 

So how will other lower level schools compete?  On price?  That's hard to do when the likes of Harvard and MIT are offering their classes for free.  The kicker?  If you want that little piece of paper called a diploma you have to kick in for a big chunk 'o change plus actually do some things in person.  Here we go again with a question many folks in our world, especially on the six sigma side of things, wrestle with.  Diplomas, certifications, a rainbow of belts.  Are they worth it?  What do they mean?

In the lean world, perhaps with the marginal exception of the AME/SME/Shingo version, certifications mean basically squat.  There are no real standards, and even the definition of "lean" has many different flavors.  I personally believe the "respect for people" aspects are far more important than the rote tools, yet how many so-called certifications measure proficiency in that area. Zip.  Six sigma is considerably better, with a fairly-defined body of knowledge that is more scientific in nature, hence more measurable in its own right.  And the belt requirements are also fairly standardized, although the execution and review can vary significantly.  A GE black belt is worth a tad more than a black belt from the corner consultant.

If I seen a lean certification on a resume I quietly laugh and it actually reduces my opinion of their lean competence, if I see a black belt on a resume I'm more impressed - but will then allow my lean vs. six sigma bias to take over some of the questioning in an interview.

So what would happen if you saw "completed entire Harvard economics curriculum" on a resume, but not "BA, Economics, Harvard"?  Ok, economics is a bad example - an econ degree from Harvard would disqualify folks in many of our books.  How about "completed entire MIT chemical engineering curriculum" but not "BS, Chemical Engineering, MIT"?  I'm guess you'd raise an eyebrow, and in my opinion you should.

That's the difference between "education" and "training."  As Brooks points out, online ed does pretty well at step 1 of the education process - the knowledge dump.  But to really learn, to have a real education, you also need to reflect on the information, think about it, apply it, scramble it, etc.  A formal degree from an accredited institution does that - and since the University of Phoenix is accredited I guess I have to lump it into that category.  Simply saying you've completed a curriculum doesn't.

But perhaps that's being a bit unfair, especially in the future.  The top tier schools will presumably develop methods and technologies to enable real distance learning.  That will turn the typical university experience on its head.  The ability to think outside the traditional "degree" and "program" via the mass customization ability of the online world will be interesting.  The lower tier will probably continue to be the lower end of the spectrum.  And the middle?  With top tier professors able to reach millions around the globe, it may become hard for middle tier schools to compete.  At the same time the barrier to entry for the low end is minimal so competition for effective diploma mills - or "I completed some type of curriculum" mills - will be fierce in itself.  "Completed MIT curriculum" may actually be worth more than "BA, No Name University."  And it will be free.

I'm guessing at the lower tiers we'll see a bit of a convergence between "education" and "training" as "education" becomes more "knowledge dump" and "training" actually adds some minimal learning methods.  A good step up for many people in many countries.  And the top tier will become global exporters of both knowledge and real learning - an opportunity for several U.S. universities - and the real degree, even if online, will still have value.

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7 Responses to "The Online Education Tsunami"

  • David Hallsted
    7 May 2012 - 7:07 am

    Ouch! You hurt my feelings and I was feeling pretty good after watching the Avengers yesterday.
    I value lean more than Six Sigma. I have yet to see a customer PO for us to collect data to analysis why we sent out defective products. Collecting data is process waste and no one wants to pay for it and Six Sigma is all about the data.
    For now, I will stick with lean to help change the culture where I work from batch-n-queue firefighting to continuous improvement through Kaizen (PDCA). Perhaps one day my company may reach the pinnacle of lean, “stop the line so it never stops”, which means you have no data to collect because you did not ship any defects.
    Thanks for the article.

  • Tom
    7 May 2012 - 7:16 am

    Kevin, I would not worry too much. Given time, universities, with the help of technology, will find ways to simulate what David Brooks is questioning. “There is reflecting upon information as you reread it and think about it. There is scrambling information as you test it in discussion or try to mesh it with contradictory information. Finally there is synthesis, as you try to organize what you have learned into an argument or a paper”. Blending will surely be necessary, since I remember from my college years that I learned more outside classes interacting with people and the environment than inside classes. One thing they must do when designing courses is to use the lean approach, pulling the student to investigate by himself instead of just pushing information to him.

  • Tony
    7 May 2012 - 9:02 am

    I question that many students in “top tier” universities necessarily “reflect on the information, think about it, apply it, scramble it, etc”, especially for humanities degrees. After all, look at the mess the Ivy League has made of our economy….

    To put it another way, I would put more value on a science or engineering degree from the University of Phoenix than a sociology degree from Harvard.

  • Nick
    7 May 2012 - 10:49 am

    Kevin, so glad that Mark Graban pointed me in the direction of your blog…as we would definitely find a lot of common ground. If you get a chance, I’d love to have to read some of my own ramblings:


  • Steve H
    7 May 2012 - 12:02 pm

    I think calling online learning “lean” is revealing a narrow view of what education is about. There are many intangibles to face-to-face instruction. Granted, the 150-student lectures could just as easily be ported online, but you can’t replace the “humanity” of a 20-30 person classroom. I know I had several teachers in my life who noticed I was bored or had finished early, and could see to ask me questions or stimulate me further. Where does that ability to “see” go if the teacher is 3000 miles away? I don’t think education in general can benefit from going online any more than you can replace going to the gemba with a ceiling mounted webcam. You can’t super-size everything and maintain quality, especially when it comes to people. I would suggest that education could benefit from moving closer to a mentor-mentee relationship, rather than up-sizing lectures to 1 lecturer to 600 students (a ratio that has been tossed around at our local university). People have variation, why treat them as if they are all the same?

  • Christopher Pfeiffer
    7 May 2012 - 12:30 pm

    On Line education / training is here and in spite of our absolute knowledge that “instructor led” in person is always better, we have always preached “Don’t let perfect get in the way of better”. It took me awhile to come to grips with this fact. Yes I would prefer to send qualified, seasons instructors all over the globe to share and impart Lean / Six Sigma knowledge, but we all have the same fiscal concerns. While I would be first to turn this into a statement of “True commitment” by our senior leaders, that fact is, there are a lot of leaders that live in political environment where ROI for any investment (down to travel) must be within the quarter. So if this is the world we live in, we must adapt and “make it better”. I love Gemba academy online material, and have started developing online content for Six Sigma belts up through Green and Lean overviews for a global company. Never thought I’d see the day where I would be doing it, let alone me and my family participating in it, but it is better than Nothing!

  • Robert Drescher
    7 May 2012 - 12:38 pm

    Hi Kevin

    It may seem surprising, but there are more ways to create interaction between students using online tools than there are for the pure classroom systems. Many very good schools and/or professors use these online tools along with the classroom, yet a I know of several professors who basically admit they could teach most of their courses online just as well or even easier and better online.

    Lectures can be recorded and then the students can play them at the rate they want, starting and stopping as they need something which in the classroom doesn’t work you have to teach to a selected group. With live chat and voice and video over ip, you can run seminars without the students every actually being in the same place. The use of forums for posting questions to the professor allows student to find most of answers they need without having to actually even see the professor. Often professors have to answer the same question dozens of times.

    Several Canadian universities, have used online education as a way to expand their student population without having to spend a fortune on building and maintaining more buildings. Both AThabasca, and Memorial Universities in Canada have more distance students than most schools have students.

    It allows them to hire better staff for teaching, because they do not need to build buildings to handle the students. The only fields where distance education is challenged is when lab work needs to be done. Athabasca solves this by separating the lab time in science courses from the classroom part. Students do their labs by visiting the campus for short periods at their convience. After all in most schools labs for a course only add up to 13 to 14 hours, you can easily do all the lab work for a terms courses in a week if that is all you have to do.

    Additionally adults returning to school for more or different education is becoming a big section of the future student body. Online schools are much easier for them to work with as many have eliminated the fixed term periods and instead allow student to start courses as they wish or need to, and they work the few components that require some type of student interaction to defined blocks starting every few weeks.

    As schools move to using modern teaching tools and methods some schools at all levels will do better and other will do worse. Reputation won`t guarantee you succeed if you do not do your work right and meet the needs of the users. Some very big name schools are having real trouble selling their programs, because they have not adjusted their ways of doing things to meet student needs while other schools have done a great job. In fact online learning has allowed some smaller schools to hire professors they normally could not afford, because of student body size, yet they can hire a professor who lives half way around the world to deliver a progam they never leave home for. There are several schools from the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand that share professors this way already.

    Today anything can be done if you really want to.