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.