Introduction to Distance Education: Corporate eLearning
By: Farhad (Fred) Saba, Ph. D.
Distance education has enjoyed several decades of growth in major corporations, particularly since the 1960s. Many major corporations developed and managed their own distance education programs as a function of their training departments. Some also relied on programs offered by institutions of higher education. In the 1906s, for example, Stanford University offered engineering and management courses to a growing number of electronic companies in an area around the broadcast range of the University which became world famous as Silicon Valley. Courses were televised to corporate employees, and tests were collected and sent back to the university for grading and providing feedback to students via the US Postal Service.
In my institution, San Diego State University, courses were recorded on video tape and were circulated by the US Postal Service to employees of companies in Southern California through an organization dubbed ProfNet. This practice continued until the late 1980s.
In the 1980’s, with the expansion of cable television and rapid increase in the use of telecommunication satellites for educational and training purposes, many leading companies developed well designed and produced courses that reached their corporate branch offices in the United States and throughout the world. This was also a time that corporations became education and training providers not only for their own employees but for other learners as well, thus giving rise to the concept of corporate universities.
eLearning, was developed in the corporation independent of the theoretical and practical developments in distance education in Europe and the United States, which prescribed interaction with an instructor and emphasized its importance.
In the 1990’s the emergence of the knowledge economy had a profound effect on business and education. Information technology deeply impacted training, teaching, learning and managing practices. Businesses were able to eliminate middle managers whose primary function were relaying information between the top management and front line workers. Organizations went “flat,” when leading managers could directly communicate with front line workers using information technologies. Also, workers who were directly involved in manufacturing or dispensing services were included in “quality circles” to share the burden of managing the organization with the managerial class. This “downsizing” or “rightsizing” of the organization also eliminated the stand up trainer in many organizations. Instruction could be placed on the World Wide Web, without the need for an instructor or facilitator to present such information to learners. Further, employees could access instruction at their convenience thus reducing the time they would spend away from their tasks in training, at times hundreds of miles from their workstations. In most cases, learning was asynchronous, and more importantly, the instructional materials were self-paced. Rarely, an instructor was present for responding to questions or conducting a live real-time discussion. This form of training, dubbed eLearning, was developed in the corporation independent of the theoretical and practical developments in distance education in Europe and the United States, which prescribed interaction with an instructor and emphasized its importance. Nevertheless, the telecommunication and computer nexus enabled some businesses to integrate training better with working. This was achieved in certain cases through the creation of performance support systems, which directly connected learning to tasks at hand for just-in-time training.
Today, according to eLearningIndusty.com 77% of major businesses use some form of eLearning. There are a wide variation of estimates about the total expenditure on corporate eLeaning. eLearningIndustry.com pegs the current total expenditure on eLearning to be 56 billion dollars in 2013. This amount is expected to double by 2015.