CLOSING SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE GAPS THROUGH E-LEARNING AND CONTINUING EDUCATION. While the general economy coughs and sputters along, institutions that offer online education are enjoying good times. “A lot of times people turn to education when times are tough,” says Heather Loughley, director of the Columbus, Ohio, branch of University of Phoenix. “They want to remain competitive or be in a good position when looking for a job, so we’re really busy.” It doesn’t hurt that Columbus is the home of the state’s government offices and the mammoth Ohio State University. “We have lots of government employees in the Columbus area,” Loughley admits. “We definitely have a demand for continuing their education.” Historically Significant Though government employees have never needed added incentive for seeking additional training and education outside of the workplace, the Government Employees Training Act of 1958 provided at least a policy statement: “It is necessary and desirable in the public interest that self-education, self-improvement, and self-training be supplemented and extended by government-sponsored programs for the training of such employees in the performance of official duties and for the development of skills, knowledge and abilities that will best qualify them for performance of official duties.” The act defines the purpose of these continuing education programs as improved public service, dollar savings, and “retention of skilled and efficient government employees abreast of scientific, professional, technical and management developments.” The act also cites fair and equitable treatment of employees and uniform training administration as desirable byproducts. GoLearn The Website GoLearn.gov provides government employees and military personnel with Web-based learning and development courses, as well as many other products and services. In the coming weeks, clients will find course offerings from a wide variety of e-learning content vendors in addition to those currently offered. GoLearn provides comprehensive human capital solutions to assist agencies with each phase of the human resource development lifecycle: >> Client agencies can get help planning their overall strategy. GoLearn will point the way toward developing detailed requirements, constructing an implementation strategy, milestones, and other related planning documents. GoLearn also coordinates the development and communication of your e-learning business case, estimate of costs, impacts on the strategic management of human capital, as well as change management consulting services. >> If you are involved with acquiring support services, GoLearn can provide contracting officers and other technical specialists. It can also help develop task orders, conduct competitions and coordinate activities. And it can manage the post-award work with a certified Project Management Professional. >> And it can manage the post-award work with a certified Project Management Professional to manage and provide oversight for all LMS implementations, and IT system integrations related to human capital system implementations. GoLearn has partnered with various government entities and subject matter experts to compile a library of legally mandated courses in an accurate and intuitive format. Online Offerings Good online programs also abound in the private sector, from high-school diplomas (Kaplan University and others) to master’s degrees (DeVry University and others). But don’t expect the process to be any easier than attending a traditional class. Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council in Washington, D.C. says that, in an online setting, the learner must take responsibility for mastering the material. "You’re home alone and have to motivate yourself. It’s not the same as sitting in a classroom where you have a social support group," says Lambert. If online learning is an option, you should look for testimonials and professional-looking Websites, because lower-standard programs also exist. Beware of any institutions that promise quick and easy degrees, ask for $1,000 or more in tuition up front, and a mailing address that is a post-office box. Some sort of accreditation usually helps. If you’re not sure about a school’s credentials, the U.S. Department of Education maintains a database of accredited schools on its Website, www.ope.ed.gov/accreditation. You can also check the site of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation at www.chea.org. Be sure you formulate clear goals and needs before choosing government training programs. “Increasing your education level is one of the best ways to stay competitive in this economy,” says Loughley. “But many people get stopped because of the obstacle of having to attend a classroom, especially because of work schedules with little flexibility. However, it is possible to get a high-quality education online.” If finances are a problem, answers exist. “Our learners usually source a mix of funding,” Loughley continues. “It depends on the government entity, but anyone looking to go back to school should talk to his or her human resources representative and/or supervisor to find out what their division offers. There are certainly other funding sources, including financial aid for adults, Stafford loans and grants.” If your employer pays for the course(s), it will usually demand that you achieve a certain grade. For instance, a grade of ‘A’ might get you 100 percent funding from you employer; a ‘B’ 90 percent; and so on. In other cases, a ‘C’ or better may be all that’s required for the employer to pay all the fees. “The bottom line is that a student/learner has to perform in the class in order to have it reimbursed,” Loughley observes. Additionally, many institutions actively seek corporations as partners, like Kaplan University. “As a corporate partner, KCE works with you to create customized professional development solutions,” notes the Kaplan Website. “Enjoy the added advantage of tuition savings, personalized support services, and individual course selection options.” Fields of Study The most popular courses among government employees are in the areas of management and support — customer service, leadership, project management, human resources and team building, among others. And online learning is available in all those areas. “We have degree programs in five different areas: business, technology, health care, education, and the social and behavioral sciences,” says Loughley. “The biggest demand is for business degrees.” Some specific mid- and upper-level topics available only at select institutions include: >> Executive Coaching and Mentoring (Federal Consulting Group) >> Executive Education (Brookings Institution) >> Executive Education (Heinz School Carnegie Mellon University) >> Federal Executive Institute (Office of Personnel Management) >> Graduate School, (United States Department of Agriculture) >> Leadership Development Programs (USDA Graduate School) >> Senior Executive Fellows Program (Harvard University) >> Training and Management Assistance (Office of Personnel Management) Another Federal Option University Alliance, the nation’s largest online provider of professional education, and the National Technical Information Service (NTIS) are partnering to offer new professional development and certification opportunities for federal employees. The NTIS, a division of the U. S. Department of Commerce, is the largest central resource for government-funded scientific, technical, engineering and business related information. The agreement, which has an initial term of five years, offers federal employees the opportunity to earn master and professional certificates in the most in-demand business disciplines in the federal government today and save up to 10 percent on their course tuition and fees. The certificate programs, which include specializations such as Six Sigma, project management and supply-chain management, are taught 100 percent online by university faculty and expert instructors from the nation’s top-ranked, accredited institutions. Program details may be found online at www.villanovau.com/ntis. “The NTIS recognizes that ongoing professional education is essential to ensure that federal employees have the most up-to-date skills in their fields,” says Nathan Bisk, chairman of Bisk Education, the parent company of University Alliance. “This agreement helps federal employees advance their careers by earning highly sought-after credentials from prestigious academic institutions. By taking their courses online, they can fit their education around their busy lives and schedules and enjoy significant savings as well.” Shannon Burrington, associate director of the NTIS, agrees the new relationship will benefit federal employees and their employers. “These programs offered by University Alliance are at the leading edge of what federal employees need in terms of their continuing professional education,” says Burrington. “The top-notch technology University Alliance uses to deliver the programs allows our employees the flexibility to further their education with leading universities while tending to the demands of daily life. That is a win-win for everyone involved.” University Alliance offers numerous other certificates in contract management, information systems security, human resources, organizational management, negotiation and international business. All course content is provided by University Alliance’s regionally accredited, top–ranked leaders in online education, including Villanova University, the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business, Thunderbird School of Global Management, and the University of San Francisco. Bisk Education will also offer through the NTIS partnership a certificate in Excellence in Corporate Governance. This program, a joint venture between Tulane University Law School and Bisk Education, is the first online professional education certificate program designed specifically for corporate managers, officers, auditors, legal professionals and others responsible for compliance issues. In addition, Bisk Education will extend to accounting professionals in the federal government workforce special pricing on continuing professional education. Bisk’s CPEasy brand offers multiple programs for continuing professional education for accountants, including courses in taxation, accounting and auditing, regulatory ethics and management — as well as specialized knowledge offerings. Accounting professionals have the option of taking Bisk’s CPE classes 100 percent online, on DVD or CD-ROM, as a standard book-based course, or a combination of any or all three. CPEasy is America’s best selling CPE program, having awarded over 14 million CPE credit hours to public and industry CPAs since its inception in 1971. Technology Oriented Though lagging a bit behind the e-learning technology that major corporations use in-house, online institutions are nonetheless highly dependent on their technology being compatible with both their mission and their students’ abilities. Chat rooms, frequent e-mail exchanges and online message boards are often integral elements of online courses. “We have our own internally designed online ascynchronous system,” University of Phoenix’s Loughley notes. “Facilitators often post lectures, so students/learners can read them online. “In the online classrooms, a lot of ‘discussion’ occurs, so every student has to be actively engaged for the class to work. You would log onto your classroom (depending on the class) three to five days per week, read and answer questions that have been posted by facilitator, as well as respond to comments other people have made in your class. “Very in-depth and lively discussions occur online. In addition, you’re writing papers, preparing presentations and those kinds of things that you post online. It’s very different from the traditional classroom.” Summary Whether you are an employee who wants advance your career, or an administrator who wants to provide continuing online education to your employees, online learning resources are available through both government-sponsored organizations and credible private learning institutions.