October 14, 2013
Asked just 10 years ago what he thought about online learning’s potential in higher education, Nick Little admits that he probably would have written off the idea as inappropriate for his institution.
“The answer would have been, ‘We’re a traditional university and we don’t feel that we want to operate in the distance learning [arena],” says Little, assistant director of executive development programs for the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management at Michigan State University.
Fast forward to 2013 and Little—like many other higher education professors and administrators—has changed his tune. In some cases the movement is being driven by corporations that want well-educated, up-to-date supply chain professionals on their teams, but that don’t necessarily want to send them offsite to complete executive education seminars or post-graduate studies.
“Companies want employees to be able to handle the coursework on their own schedules, and in small doses,” says Little, who is also a member of the APICS Education & Research Foundation.
Coupled with an overall explosion in the use of distance learning across most disciplines, these and other user demands have pushed schools like Michigan State to join the online education revolution. “Our view of distance education has changed 180 degrees over the last 10 years,” says Little. “We now see that—when done properly—online is a good way to connect both with students and with companies.”
Responding to these trends, the school has started developing online supply chain programs that are customized for individual companies. Sometimes the offerings include a “hybrid” approach that finds students studying independently online and spending a day in the classroom for reinforcement and to garner feedback from a “live” instructor.
Michigan State University also offers a Master of Science in Supply Chain Management, roughly one-third of which is administered online (and the remainder in residential periods). In addition, the university has a series of five supply chain certificate programs that are taught by the same faculty that teaches the master’s program.
Reflecting on his own 180-degree distance learning turnaround, Little says the proposition became harder to ignore as workforce mobility and transportability gained popularity over the last few years. “Distance learning programs can be completed while a student is traveling, working, or just staying up all night,” says Little. “This is a good thing from both the student’s and employer’s perspective.”
6.7 Million Students Can’t Be Wrong
Little’s change of heart on the distance learning front certainly isn’t unique. Whereas online education was once thought of as a cumbersome, untested alternative to “real classroom learning,” the delivery method has since gained respect and prowess—to the point where it has attracted over 6.7 million students to sign up for online courses.
A study by the Babson Survey Research Group titled “Changing Course: 10 Years of Tracking Online Education,” reported on distance learning’s continuing, robust growth across a wide range of institutions. During the fall of 2011, for example, 6.7 million students took at least one online course, an increase of 570,000 students over 2010.
Thirty-two percent of higher education students now take at least one course online, Babson reports, and 77 percent of academic leaders rate the learning outcomes in online education as the “same or superior” to those in face-to-face classes.
Advancements in technology have also helped buoy distance education’s reputation and accelerated its usage. Videoconferencing equipment, collaborative software, and Internet bandwidth itself has improved to the point where technological glitches and other distractions can be kept to a minimum.
“We’re at the point where you can gather people from remote locations and/or different countries in an online meeting space where communication and sharing can take place,” says Rick Blasgen, president and CEO of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals (CSCMP).
“Everything is much faster and smoother thanks to increased bandwidth and improved technology tools.”
Karen Collins, senior executive, onsite education, for the Institute for Supply Management (ISM), says that 100 percent online executive certificates from Arizona State University and Michigan State, as well as the University of San Diego’s blended option (combining both online and traditional coursework), stand out as three examples of how far supply chain distance education has come over the last few years.
Within the corporate training environment, Collins says the web’s versatility allows institutions to think outside of the box and use online education as prerequisites to deliver live, onsite courses; provide quick refresher courses; and to connect geographically dispersed students and instructors. ISM, for its part, offers over 130 supply chain-related online courses for both corporations and individuals.
“The fact that you can use online education as a method to provide education to smaller groups that are geographically dispersed makes the delivery method especially attractive,” says Collins, who sees foundational courses in procurement, legal issues, inventory management, demand planning, and supplier financial analysis as five areas that are particularly conducive to online training.
“These are areas of the supply chain profession where ‘practice’ is not necessarily required to learn the skill,” says Collins.
Adding Legitimacy and Validity Online
As online education has expanded, the number of distance education options offered by groups like CSCMP, ISM, and APICS has grown exponentially. “We basically just keep expanding our offerings as new topics come up in an effort to build out our distance learning platform,” says Blasgen.
Along with the SCPro certification option, for example, CSCMP also offers a 12-episode Supply Chain Management Essentials platform and a series of 45- to 60-minute interactive online learning segments on topics like supply and demand planning. “We continue to add to those as the industry demands and as we come up with hot topics,” Blasgen says.
At Rutgers Business School in New Brunswick, N.J., Don Klock, professor of supply chain management, reports that the institution is going to launch an online master of supply chain management in 2013. And while Klock says online education “still isn’t as good as being in the classroom,” he notes that distance options are improving and they aren’t going away anytime soon.
“Online is a good alternative for those students who don’t want to go into a classroom,” Klock points out. “I don’t see [distance education] going through the roof, but there is a niche out there for these types of students.”
The full-time supply chain professional who wants to earn his or her masters degree in supply chain without having to visit a classroom, for example, can leverage online education options in ways that weren’t previously available. And as the online revolution continues, the concerns over validity and rigor of such coursework have waned.
In fact, Klock says employers have started looking closely at accreditation versus the educational delivery method. “We polled our Rutgers advisory board recently and found that as long as the school and program is accredited, then they support it,” he says.
Supply chain certificates have not always been as embraced, according to Klock. “Some companies didn’t support certificates at all because the programs weren’t accredited—basically saying that if the education didn’t end in a degree, they weren’t supporting it.” Other members of Rutgers’ advisory board took a different stance and said that if a student wanted to enhance his or her knowledge via a certification, by all means “go for it.”
The Road Ahead
Even if certain supply chain programs don’t take the “100 percent online” route, expect to see most of them incorporating at least some level of distance learning into their curricula. Blended solutions that combine some in-person coursework and some online offerings, for example, will likely gather steam as the nation’s larger universities continue moving into the digital education space.
“It just doesn’t make sense to set up a classroom training event for three people,” says ISM’s Collins. “That’s where online supplementation comes in and helps to fill in the gaps.”
Going forward, Little sees online supply chain education branching out to include skills and knowledge that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with traditional supply chain coursework.
For example, he says instructors in his department are looking at how existing, online strategic leadership and management programs might go hand-in-hand with Michigan State University’s supply chain offerings. Creating those types of crossovers is much easier in the online world versus the traditional, classroom-based educational setting, says Little.
“When it comes to management skills like negotiation, individual classes can be used from one certificate to the next, for example, to give students a faster track to a broader knowledge base,” says Little. “And because strategy and leadership are also very important in supply chain, it just makes sense to blend the two. Those are the types of crossovers that we’re seeing today and they’re already proving themselves to be very effective.”
About the author
Bridget McCrea is a Contributing Editor for Supply Chain Management Review
and Logistics Management
based in Clearwater, Fla. She has covered the transportation and supply chain space since 1996, and has covered all aspects of the industry for Logistics Management
and Supply Chain Management Review
. Contact Bridget McCrea