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You need to return to the classroom before you can get ahead in your job but you don’t want to quit your current job to do it. Until just a few months ago — if you’re anything like the typical time-challenged supply chain professional, — that would have proved a tough assignment.

But just as there is more than one way to learn there is more than one way to deliver the learning. Colleges are exploring offering transportation and logistics courses online and some schools have opted to offer entire programs over the Internet. This Web-based alternative to education, dubbed the online/virtual campus, is offering knowledge-hungry but time-starved supply chain professionals a new window of opportunity.

In recent months several Canadian colleges have either introduced online courseware or their intentions to do so within the year.

“We did quite a bit of research into the transportation and logistics and manufacturing field and found out that most people who were already working in the industry didn’t want to necessarily leave the industry to go back to school,” says Jody Vinnels, project manager for the Transportation Management Program at Centennial College and program coordinator for Distance Learning.

This winter, Centennial College launched a virtual campus, after running a pilot of two courses in September. The program – which is the first comprehensive online transportation management program in Canada – is geared primarily to professionals who are already working in the field.

“We built a virtual campus that offers every service that would be available to you as a walk-in traditional student,” says Vinnels. “It was something that fit into their schedule because they didn’t have to take time off work, and they could learn skills to move up in their career to managerial positions.”

Through the virtual campus, students are able to submit their application, choose their courses and register for the program using an assigned student ID. Meaning, students can work towards a certificate without having to forfeit their jobs in the industry.

The courses are delivered on the Internet through the services of e-College.com – this is a distance education provider which awarded a grant of U.S. $180,000 to aid in the curriculum development.

Making online education viable has required both students and instructors to rethink the process of learning, particularly as it involves communication.

“In the classroom you might lecture, give handouts, and do overheads, but in the online environment you are going to use discussion, chat, the Internet and online resources,” Vinnels explains. “So, it’s a matter of thinking differently about how you’re going to present and teach your course.”

The shift from the traditional way of learning to the online format does leave some educators concerned about the possibility for a significant decline in interaction – a factor that could make online learning an isolating experience. But Jane Rotering, program designer in the Learning Innovations and Academic Development department at George Brown says that courses online may actually provide more interactivity than the traditional classroom setting. George Brown is developing online courses where students can obtain a certificate in Logistics and Supply Chain Management.

“It’s interesting because a number of studies have shown that if you build the interactivity correctly, you can have more interaction between students and teachers than you would in a normal classroom,” Rotering says. “On the Internet, nobody knows what you look like, what your background is, or what clothes you wear, so people feel a lot freer to participate because of that reason.”

Vinnels agrees, adding that recent technology has made sufficient interaction possible.

“The technologies and the platforms that are being developed online are improving at an unbelievable rate,” Vinnels says. “So really, you’re getting all kinds of interaction and value for your money and learning activities from the online forum.

Not only are the methods of communication different, but also the procedures for testing.

“Generally, there’s a move away from testing in online learning, which makes sense,” says Rotering. “This is why our target market is people who are working in the industry because I may give an assignment related to something about logistics, inventory, or transportation and I will say ‘go into your workplace and find out how it’s done’. It brings the point home a lot more when people can relate it to their every day life.”

Susan Krausz, program co-ordinator for the Supply Chain Management and Logistics program at Humber College says the college plans to offer courses online in September, but she has some concerns about offering entire programs over the Internet.

“There’s a learning part that we’re not sure we’re going to fit in through the Internet – a lot of soft skills that students need to work on that they get from coming to class,” Krausz says. “So, that’s why we’re going to go a little bit slowly and make sure we could incorporate those.”

Garland Chow, associate professor of Logistics and Transportation at the University of British Columbia says implementing an online campus would be very difficult.

“If you’re going to offer someone complete accessibility to a true degree, everyone on campus has to play tango,” he explains. “They all have to be able to offer something because they (students) have to get everything over the Internet.”

He says video screening would be more effective in simulating a lecture hall experience.

“Even though we have lots of facilities here to produce the product that is as close to a realistic classroom lecture, we’d really prefer, as the Internet technology improves, to actually do this via video screening,” he adds.

Rotering says online learning can create a competitive advantage for a company.

There’s so much change happening in logistics and supply chain management now that we can update the material that we’re putting online almost instantly,” she says. “That’s a huge benefit over classroom learning with a book that’s produced once every four or five years.”


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