HandsOn: Chief Exec

Time-strapped entrepreneurs are going to class on-line

When Jerry Mosier graduated from high school, in 1975, he didn't have much desire to attend college. But over time, he developed the gnawing sense that he'd missed out on something big. "You reach a point where you just need to get your degree," he says.

That feeling hasn't subsided. Today, Mosier is living near Winter Park, Colo., and running Premier Services, his two-person company, which sells and repairs appliances. But Winter Park is miles from the nearest university, and--given the demands of operating a company--Mosier doesn't have time to travel to school every day. So he doesn't. Instead, school travels to him--over a wire.

Mosier is working toward his bachelor of science in business through the "distance education" program of Regis University, in Denver. He receives his professors' lectures on videotape. Then, using a Pentium personal computer with a 33.3-baud modem, Mosier downloads his assignments through the school's Web sites, corresponds by E-mail with professors and other students, and participates in "class discussions" on electronic bulletin boards. "I'm doing it in large part for my own satisfaction," he says, "but I'm also putting all my knowledge to work at my company." He should complete his degree in May--and plans to go on for an M.B.A.

For years large companies have poured millions into employee education and in-house "corporate universities." But small companies--and particularly, small-company executives--have been at a disadvantage. Tied to their businesses, entrepreneurs often fail to brush up on core skills or to acquire new ones. The proliferation of "distance-learning" programs is solving the problem for many company owners like Mosier.

Of course, long-distance learning isn't new; it's just gone high-tech. Originally, correspondence courses were the popular off-campus learning model, and many company owners still benefit from such programs. A well-known example: Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, of Ben & Jerry's fame, learned how to make ice cream through a Penn State University correspondence course that cost $5 back in 1977. "We actually split the course," Greenfield recalls. "We were too broke to afford two of them." Together, the entrepreneurs received an A--an achievement Greenfield attributes to large print and the wonders of open-book tests.

While correspondence has become a bit of a dirty word in the education realm, distance learning with new technologies is gaining credibility. According to InterEd, a Phoenix-based company that researches educational quality, the percentage of regionally accredited universities that offer some technology-based distance education reached 55% in 1996, up from 30% in 1994. "The technology infrastructure is finally reaching a point where it is reasonable for a great number of people to learn wherever they can bring their computer," says Judith V. Boettcher, executive director of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking.

But it takes more than a modem to make distance learning work. "You really must be self-motivated and dedicated," says Terry Jenkins, business consultant and owner of Problem Solver Consulting, in Atco, N.J. "You have to really want to be in a program, or you just couldn't get through it." Jenkins is working toward a master's in business communication through a distance-learning program from the International University, in Englewood, Colo. Like Mosier, Jenkins receives his course material on videotape and interacts with classmates and professors using his Pentium computer, with a 28.8-baud modem. He doesn't spend much time lugging books home from the library, because most of the research materials he needs are housed within the university's "virtual library." "As long as I have access to a computer and the Internet, I can complete my assignments anywhere," he says.

But if you're searching for an easy way to get a few letters behind your name, Jenkins says, this isn't it. On average, he spends about 25 hours a week working on school material. Add that to the demands of running a company, and you've got one grueling schedule. On the other hand, Jenkins says, it's easier for him to manage that schedule because he can study when and where he wants. "If I have a big meeting, I go to it, and I don't have to feel guilty that I missed class," he says. "I just do the work that night."

Some purists argue that education should adhere to a Greek ideal: a community of scholars who live and learn together. And others claim that business education, in particular, is less about course work than about the contacts and friendships one makes in school. But Gary Miller, associate vice-president for distance education at Penn State, claims that long-distance students do become part of a community--albeit an electronic one. "You do lose the informal face-to-face," he admits. "But you can get to know someone over the wire."

Not all distance-learning models are predicated on complete isolation, either. Pat Schramm participates in a Wisconsin distance-education pilot program that also has live class meetings once every other month in 72 sites around the state. Schramm is the senior associate of Dane County Private Industry Council, a four-employee nonprofit in Madison; the classes she attends address nonprofit management. Lectures are distributed to all the sites through satellite links. Much of the class material is stored on-line, but Schramm enjoys the live class sessions because she gets a chance to meet others in her field.

Schramm's pilot program is also a bargain, costing just $20 a course. However, many distance-learning courses cost as much as on-campus education. But there are some deals to be had: Penn State still offers its ice-cream-making course for $15 a person. Cohen and Greenfield have a bit more money today, so this year they've enrolled about 15 employees in the course--all at full price.

Joshua Macht is an associate editor at Inc.

Is Distance Learning for You?

According to InterEd, an education-research outfit, you are most likely to succeed in a distance-learning program if--

  • You're self-motivated and good at setting and meeting your own deadlines
  • You use E-mail frequently and find it a satisfactory way to communicate
  • You enjoy spending time by yourself at your computer

Resources: Studying Up on Distance Ed

  • InterEd. If you're interested in distance learning, this Web site should be one of your first stops. Since many distance-learning programs are new, it's important to carefully investigate any program you're considering; InterEd's site includes a list of thoughtful questions to ask. Also particularly helpful: a list of schools with on-line degree programs, along with information on cost, program size, and degrees offered.
  • Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs (Peterson's Publishing, 800-225-0261, 1997, $26.95). This comprehensive guide describes about 750 accredited distance-education programs, at both graduate and undergraduate levels. You can find more information about the guide and about distance learning at www.petersons.com.
  • The University of Wisconsin's clearinghouse of distance-learning information. Go to this site for recently published articles and current terminology.
  • Distance Learning: A Guidebook for System Planning and Implementation, produced in 1995 by Indiana University and revised in 1996. This is an excellent primer on distance learning. You can find an excerpt of the book offered free on-line at www.indiana.edu/~scs/dlprimer.html. The excerpt may be all you need, but you can also purchase the entire work from Indiana University for $39.95 by contacting Rosie Hallatt at 812-855-5323 or rhallatt@indiana.edu.
  • The Monster Under the Bed: How Business Is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit, by Stan Davis and Jim Botkin (Simon & Schuster, 800-223-2348, 1995, $10). Much of this book is based on the premise that if companies are to remain competitive, they must constantly educate and reeducate their employees. Chapter 3 gives an in-depth description of the new technologies that are changing education. Check out page 101 for a discussion of the training challenges that small-company owners face.
  • " Too Cool for School?" Inc.'s October 1996 cover story. Read this article if you're considering on-line education because you'd like to pursue an M.B.A. It examines the experiences of entrepreneurs who seek M.B.A.'s while they're running their companies. What can you expect to gain from an M.B.A. degree? Read " What They Do (and Don't) Teach You in Business School" in the December 1997 issue of Inc.