The Online Education Revolution
October 13, 2012
How and where do you get a supply chain education?
A decade ago, that question could be answered fairly simply. People working in logistics or supply chain management went to college for an undergraduate or graduate degree. Then if they were lucky enough to land a job with a company that valued education, they attended executive education courses being offered by one of the universities specializing in this field.
That’s all changed thanks to the internet. And what I had initially perceived to be an evolution in online education, now can be more accurately characterized as a revolution.
A Plethora of Online Options
Two times a year—in our January/February and July/August issues—Supply Chain Management Review runs a special supplement on supply chain education. We feature an article on some timely aspect of supply chain education, followed by a listing of programs and courses being offered by leading universities around the country.
Five years ago when we started these supplements, the great majority of programs listed were delivered in the classroom. So if you wanted to learn more about strategic planning or supply chain finance, you travelled to Michigan State, or University of Tennessee, or Ohio State to spend a week learning about the subject. In some cases, say if your company had a critical mass of students, the professors would come to your facility to deliver the instruction.
The same pretty much held true for degree programs such as a B.S. or MBA in logistics or SCM. You want the degree? You need to pursue it in a classroom setting.
Over the past two years, when we’ve put together our education listings for the magazine, we’ve noticed a huge shift taking place toward online delivery options. Virtually all of the programs now listed—both degree and continuing education—have a major online component. And a number of institutions now offer graduate programs in supply chain and logistics that are totally online.
A parallel development that’s impossible to ignore is the sheer number of online education offerings out there today. The universities not only offer degree and executive education programs online, but also have certification programs in a wide range of supply chain-related subjects. Certifications are a new revenue stream for the universities, who obviously are hurt by the declining demand for the profitable in-classroom executive ed programs. But it’s also a good deal for the students who can gain a level of competency in a certain area—say global sourcing or supply chain operations—that can help advance their careers.
The professional associations have been moving full steam ahead on the online education front as well. Well-knows groups such at ISM, CSCMP, and AST&L now offer a range of online courses and certifications. The same holds true for APICS, which has one of the oldest and most highly regarded certification programs. I’ve long maintained that one of the most important steps that supply chains can to enhance their careers, is to get actively involved in a professional association such as the ones just mentioned. They offer critical networking opportunities that supply cannot be matched anywhere else.
Is Online Revolution a Good Thing?
OK, we’ve argued that online delivery model has emerged into the forefront of supply chain education today. The next question: Is this a good thing?
First, let’s talk about the advantages of online education. I’ve put them into three main categories: universally accessible, readily available, and highly cost effective.
Universally accessible—The internet has had a democratizing effect on supply chain education. Anyone from anywhere who has access to a reliable computer can participate in online education. No longer are the opportunities reserved for those in the country’s major urban and academic areas. The online offerings are there for everyone regardless of location; it’s up to the individual to make the most of them.
Readily available—Do you have less-than-fond memories of that 7:30 A.M. statistics course you took in college? In the online delivery format, you don’t have to worry about such ungodly early classes. If you have a chunk of time at 8:00 one night and noon the next day, that can work! It stands to reason that your comprehension increases proportionately with your physical and mental energy.
Cost effective—This one is obvious (as are all of the advantages, really). With online there are no expenses for travel, meals, books, tips and so forth. While pricing for online educational programs and certifications is not insignificant, it falls well short of comparable in-person options. The same holds true for internal training in the organization. Supply chain employees worldwide can be educated on policies or new initiatives without leaving their desks.
While the advantages of online are clear, this delivery format may fall short of the “live” model in some respects. Let’s consider this in the form of a couple of questions?
Is online as effective as in-person training? I’ve asked several education experts about this and the feeling is that generally no, it is not. But these same experts also note that this is their personal belief, and there is little quantitative evidence showing one approach to be more effective than the other.
My own feeling is that the in-person experience is superior to online for all but the most basic or transactional subject matters. And the reason for this is the presence of a live teacher. Some of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had—both educational and personal—came from teachers in the classroom. The intellectual give-and-take, the anecdotes related, the energy of a classroom, and just sheer physical presence of a good educator cannot be captured online.
Next question: Can you network as effectively online as you can in a traditional classroom setting? Again, my initial response is to say no way. By interacting with fellow students and professors on a regular basis, you build up a network in a community of common interest (in this case, the supply chain) that cannot be duplicated in the online environment.
But wait a minute…I’ve heard of online programs that engage students from literally all over the world in joint initiatives. The students work on a project or problem, pool their collective knowledge and perspectives, and come up with a final report—all done over the Net. That experience is pretty tough to duplicate in a classroom setting.
In reality, the best educational experience probably comes when the classroom and online experience is combined, in effect bring the “best of both worlds” to both student and teacher. Many leading universities are incorporating a hybrid approach in their programs, and from all accounts it’s working beautifully.
What’s Right for You?
Understanding that an online revolution in supply chain education is taking place is instructive in and of itself. But the real value comes from taking advantages of the new opportunities available.
Supply Chain Management Review conducted a webcast recently titled “Opportunities in Online Education.” It was a terrific session that delved into types of online options now available and the relative advantages/disadvantages of online. It also offered tips on figuring out what type of course or program to pursue. The program is available on demand at no charge on our web site. Visit http://www.scmr.com/article/capture_the_opportunities_in_online_education
Our expert panelists came from academia (Nick Little, head of the executive education programs at Michigan State and also president of the APICS Research & Education Foundation), professional associations (Kathleen Hedland, CSCMP’s Director of Education & Research), and industry (Daniel Stanton, the supply chain professional development manager at Caterpillar Logistics).
The webcast is well worth 45 minutes of your time. The information presented was solid, the insights interesting and thought provoking.
One question came up that is likely on the minds of many supply chain professionals, regardless of how long they’ve been in the business: With all of the online options available, how do you know which ones are right for you to invest in?
Kathleen’s answer summed things up well. She emphasized that you first need to ask yourself where do I want to go in my career? Is it a specific discipline or competency in which I want to specialize? Then certification in production management or inventory management might make sense. Am I looking for something broader in scope but less intensive than a full-time degree program? In this case, a broader executive education or certification program that encompasses multiple aspects of SCM may be the answer. Is your ultimate goal to be the CSCO (chief supply chain officer), then think about applying for a full-time MBA program.
The important related question, of course, will the program or degree you pursue be of value to current and potential employees? Put another way, demand and supply should align.
For supply chain professionals, it’s clear that online education is a revolutionary movement worth joining.
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