July/August 2001 // Commentary
e-Learning for Adults: Who Has the Goods?
by Robert M. Burnside
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Robert M. Burnside "e-Learning for Adults: Who Has the Goods?" The Technology Source, July/August 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

At a recent gathering of 150 deans of MBA schools and directors of MBA programs, I was on a panel discussing how MBA programs can better serve working adult students by moving their programs online. One of the panelists, the president of a for-profit online university, referred to faculty members as "content providers." A professor on the panel angrily responded, "I am not a content provider. I am an educator! I have been in education for 20 years. And proprietary for-profit online universities pretend to be education institutions, but whether you actually provide real learning is very much in question."

The online university president responded, "You are defining 'real learning' as something that can only happen in the traditional classroom. Employees now demand just-in-time learning that speaks to their context on the job, which traditional universities are not providing."

This exchange sums up the gulf between traditional universities and newer online education providers. This gulf is marked by fundamental differences in philosophy over the value and purpose of education and the way education should be conducted. But this squabbling leaves corporations cold. A corporate recruiter, also on the panel, added that corporations have a neutral attitude towards traditional university programs and the new online programs. What corporations care about is high-quality education, scaleable globally (i.e., can be duplicated and extended easily through the Internet), that leads to practical on-the-job application. To him, universities are too curriculum-bound and not customized, but online programs are too superficial in their content and process. He asked, "Can't universities and online providers work together?"

As the research director of Corporate University Xchange, I find myself agreeing with the corporate recruiter. For-profit online education firms and traditional universities engage in turf wars that do little to help today's students—and tomorrow's employees. Cooperation, not competition, between the two would satisfy the needs of both.

Defining the New Space of Learning

The advent of the Internet as a means of delivering and facilitating learning is blurring the line between traditional academic education, held away from the job and focused more on ideas than on the application of ideas, and traditional job training, held at work and focused more on applied skills than on the mastery of a body of knowledge. This change in the very definition of education is reflected in current terminology: the term "learning" has come to mean improving one's skills through training as well as deepening one's understanding in a particular field of knowledge, an evolution of phraseology to which I adhere in this article. Similarly, the term "learners" has begun to replace "students" and "trainees," now encompassing the meanings of both the latter terms. Learners can be working adults, not only traditional students.

So who has the goods when it comes to providing e-learning—the delivery of skills and knowledge through electronic means, especially through the Internet—for working adults? To answer this question, we should look at those who need this type of learning. Working adults no longer have a psychological contract of fixed employment with one company; they are increasingly aware of their responsibility for their own careers. This causes a deep need among workers to ensure that they have the means for a successful career path. To attain this, they first need skills that bring success in their current jobs, that are portable to their next jobs, and that increase their market value. Second, they need membership in professional networks that keep them up-to-date in their professions and provide contacts for job searches. Third, they need the skills to use the new technologies—computers, hardware, software, Internet, webcasts, chat rooms, and the like—to the extent that these affect their current work practice. Fourth, they need the legitimation that degrees such as an MBA can bring, but delivered in a way that fits into their daily lives.

How do the needs of working adults fit with employers' goals? Employers support employees' building their career skills and knowledge, since this enhances retention and attraction rates. However, employers also want this investment to lead to increased effectiveness and productivity. Employers are attracted to e-learning because it is scaleable globally and can more easily allow for learner customization, such as translation to local languages.

However, an employer's need to have e-learning meet specific productivity goals is often at odds with the general good of the wider business world. This can be seen when an employer spends millions of dollars to create a customized e-learning solution that could also benefit employees at other corporations, but the employer restricts the intellectual property as a competitive advantage and refuses to share it.

Although there is tension between the adult worker's need for portable skills and the employer's need for immediate on-the-job increase in productivity, the overall economy is best served when both needs are met. As Alan Greenspan (2001) has noted, the presence of innovations in information technology and technological applications added a significant spur to the recent years of economic growth. When the skills and knowledge acquired through e-learning are portable to other companies, labor stays fluid; in other words, it is able to flow where demand is. When skills and knowledge can be applied to current business problems, employers stay productive, benefiting the overall economy.

Delivering Education: Online Providers Versus Universities

Who is delivering effective learning to the burgeoning e-learning marketplace for working adults, using the new technologies? There are four primary groups competing to provide e-learning:

  1. Traditional universities now adding online curricula. The online MBA for global executives at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business is a good example.
  2. New e-learning platform technology providers who also offer content as part of their service. See, for example, DigitalThink's catalogue of courses.
  3. Educational departments of corporations who train their large global workforces to reach short-term revenue objectives, as represented by Cisco System's e-learning courseware demos.
  4. Newly emerging for-profit online universities, such as Walden University.

As mentioned earlier, the difference between training and education has been blurred by the convergence of corporate and university interests in using the Internet to facilitate learning. Businesses have always been interested in application, seeing education as a means to deliver their service or product, not as an end in itself. Yet with the advent of new technologies and the so-called knowledge economy, knowledge itself is becoming a differential advantage for business. While continuing their emphasis on skills, businesses also want employees to build shared knowledge about their work that can be transferred elsewhere in the company as best practices. Meanwhile, colleges and universities are losing income to online education delivery firms, which bring skills and knowledge to the workplace—and to the working adult—in a way that lets employees gain education without leaving the job or disrupting their lives. Conditions change so quickly that colleges and universities are hard pressed to keep up with the changing knowledge. However, leading-edge universities such as Duke are responding by reshaping their executive education departments to better focus on the evolving needs of corporations. Although Duke is radical in creating a for-profit subsidiary (Duke Corporate Education), it points the way to how a university can address corporate educational needs.

According to recent Corporate University Xchange research, corporate universities have on average a $15 million budget, 90 full-time employees, and 4,000 students (Corporate University Xchange, 2000). They also train thousands of adults across the globe to meet immediate short-term business objectives. Corporations are therefore driving the growth of e-learning delivery. They plan to double their rate of spending on e-learning providers in the next two years while holding traditional university spending constant. Providing the money and the need is what funds the development of adult e-learning, but short-term profit emphasis can lead to narrow learning solutions that are not broadly applicable, do not yield portable skills, and do not develop knowledge that benefits the employer and the overall economy in the long run.

e-Learning technology suppliers have cost-effective, learner-friendly, customized asynchronous solutions that are globally scaleable. However, many also lack understanding of adult learning methodology and produce courses that dull the user's experience instead of expanding it. The technology is there, but it is often put to poor use, such that the experience does not interest the learner or solve the business problem being addressed. e-Learning instructional design is still in its rudimentary stages.

Traditional universities have a well-developed sense of effective adult learning. They have quality content based on freedom of expression and rigorous research. Although they are beginning to catch up, to date they have been slow to embrace new technologies and add e-learning to the mix, and corporations often still find them too theoretical and their curricula too standardized to be customizable to corporate short-term needs and the busy schedules of working adults.

New for-profit online universities, such as Walden University and Unext's Cardean University, offer an approach that focuses on working adults and employers as customers, integrates the benefits of technological delivery, and claims an understanding of adult education theory. They offer an integrated solution that holds promise as the comprehensive answer to delivering value to working adults, employers, and the overall economy. Although it is still too early to tell how this integrated model will work, the University of Phoenix Online, currently the largest online education provider, already has more than 20,000 registered students and is growing rapidly. The broader question of how online learning is best blended with synchronous and face-to-face learning is still being worked out in the marketplace and is a few years away from being answered conclusively.


The probability is low of finding one entity able to do all of what is necessary for successful e-learning. This includes the following:

  • Combining the efficiency and flexibility of e-learning technologies with high-context human interactions,
  • Fitting these to the learner's particular job situation and lifestyle, and
  • Providing encouragement and reward for learner engagement in a manner that develops portable skills and benefits the employer and the overall economy.

It is much more likely that we can attain a comprehensive solution through partnerships among employers, technology providers, online universities, and traditional universities, with corporations and adult learners seen as the customers being served. One recent example of a move towards collaboration is the A. D. Little-IRS consortium of 17 universities, who together will provide online training for IRS employees over the next five years. ADL is coordinating the delivery of services through a blend of online and classroom services. ADL also claims it will work closely with its university partners to conduct research and benchmarking studies to improve the effectiveness of online course design and delivery, thus seeking to provide both short and long-term benefits (ADL, 2000). The IRS, with its need to train employees faster and less expensively, has caused 17 universities who otherwise could consider themselves competitors to blend their best e-learning strengths together in a program that can also contribute to new research.

Our current best hope is to seek the potential of collaboration among partners who in the past have viewed each other as competitors, but who can gain much by working together. The A. D. Little-IRS approach is a step in this direction. The greatest good for all—working adults and employers, traditional universities and for-profit universities, e-learning technology suppliers, and the overall economy—will come from realizing the potential for collaboration, resulting in e-learning for working adults that uses the best contributions of all parties involved.


Greenspan, A. (2001). The challenge of measuring and modeling a dynamic economy. Washington Economic Policy Conference of the National Association for Business Economics. Retrieved April 8, 2001, from http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/speeches/2001/20010327/default.htm

Corporate University Xchange. (2000). Chief learning officers: Operating education as a business. New York: Westbury Press.

Arthur D. Little. (2000, October 19). Arthur D. Little awarded $88 million e-learning contract from Internal Revenue Service. Retrieved April 8, 2001, from http://www.arthurdlittle.com/about/article_10-19-00.asp

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