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The Best of the Best
A Report on the MIT Conference on Distance Education and Training Strategies: Lessons From Best Practices

By Ed Arnold / November 2002

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Over a dozen expert panelists from higher education, industry, and government sectors shared their experiences at the MIT Conference on Distance Education and Training Strategies: Lessons From Best Practices conference held on September 24th at the Tang Center at MIT. This all-day conference attracted about 150 learning professionals from the Boston area and beyond, including a panelist who presented virtually from his office in Nairobi, Kenya.

The conference was sponsored by the MIT Industrial Liaison Program (ILP), an association that provides member companies access to MIT resources and activities. Other MIT groups that participated included the Singapore-MIT Alliance, MIT Media Lab, and the MIT Center for Advanced Educational Services. The organizations represented on the panels included Stanford University, Duke Fuqua Business School, African Virtual University, eLearn Magazine, EDS, Microsoft, Merrill Lynch, IBM, and the Department of Defense.

All the panelists spoke from the perspectives of years of practical experience utilizing diverse types of distance education technology such as television, Web-casting, self-paced Web courses, and collaboration tools. Although technical approaches, audiences and content areas differed among these panelists, many had the essential best practices that would well serve any organization in common. These were:
  1. Begin with a clear and worthy strategic mission. Anne Margulies reported that the MIT Open Courseware Initiative would put all MIT course materials available on the Web free of charge in order to serve as a model for university dissemination of knowledge in the Internet age. Even more impressive, Singapore has a national learning strategy because it is entirely dependent on human capital, having no other natural resource—even water—to leverage. For these organizations, distance learning is not a discretionary, intangible "nice-to-have" program, but it is indispensable to its current and future existence.
  2. Deliver content in multiple modes. Students at the Stanford Center for Professional Development (SCPD) have choices in how they receive content: on campus, live broadcast, videotape, or online. In practice, according to Carol Ann Moore, many choose to see it "live" then view it again "off-line." Similarly at Duke-Fuqua, the student experience consists of a blend of "place" (classroom) and "space" (distance learning technology). For the Sloan Consortium, online learning is not learning in isolation, but a mechanism for being connected to a community that learns together. For these organizations, the focus is not deciding whether to choose one form of e-learning versus another to replace classroom learning, but rather how to effectively layer and leverage multiple delivery modes.
  3. Manage the content. For Merrill Lynch, a custom-designed content management system is a necessity for maintaining consistency, eliminating development bottlenecks, and sharing content throughout the company. John Bourne reported that the Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) found its faculty members were nine times as likely to systematically design a course using online instruction. Content is a strategic asset that requires a disciplined approach and appropriate tools, but which pays back with better efficiency and quality.
  4. Design from the audience perspective. Debra Gold, a management development facilitator from IBM made this wry observation about e-learning content tools: "Just because you know how to use a word processor doesn't mean you can write a novel." Instructional quality in many respects is in the eye of the learner. According to Lisa Neal, Editor-in-Chief of eLearn Magazine and consultant at EDS, this requires considering the entire learner experience so students can show up, persist, and succeed, as well as testing the course in a "real" setting with "real" users. Measure of success include student satisfaction and retention, as well as the demand or "pull" for content by learners rather than the amount of content "pushed" at them.
  5. Experiment, adapt, and improve. Steven Eppinger described how MIT's System Design & Management Program (SDM), a program founded in 1996, continues to experiment with its mix of live and asynchronous distance learning. The Sloan-C founded in 1993, has gone through a similar progressive evolution guided by its five pillars of online learning: learning effectiveness, cost effectiveness, access, faculty satisfaction, and student satisfaction. IBM recently tried a 48-hour "Managers Jam" where all 32,000 managers virtually met to share best practices. For these organizations, learning is not a one-time goal or project, but an on-going effort of innovation guided through hands-on practical experience.
  6. Prepare for future technology. Nevin Fouts reported that Duke-Fuqua expects the future learning "space" will be significantly extended via wide-area and local-area wireless technologies to deliver content beyond the home/office to airports, commuter trains, or even the beach. And even within the classroom, Jay Beavers, a research developer from Microsoft, illustrated how future collaboration technology (ConferenceXP) and next generation laptops, (the Tablet PC) might integrate classroom and distance learning experiences. By the way, a short video of this demo is available on the Web (see list below). For these organizations, new technology doesn't replace, but more so, further enhances the interaction between learners, instructors, and content.


  7. It is gratifying to see that such capability continues to advance by serious organizations even during this uncertain economy. For more information on the conference visit the conference Web site.



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