Distance Learning: Making the World Your Classroom

Tags: Education & Careers

global classroom illustration

Earn a degree without quitting your job? Online supply chain management and logistics programs make it possible, no matter where in the world you are.

Twenty-five million post-secondary students in the United States will be taking classes online by 2015, according to market research firm Ambient Insight. In an increasingly mobile society—and relentlessly tight job market—degree and certificate programs that allow working professionals to keep their jobs and attend class from anywhere are more popular than ever.

In fact, the number of students who take classes exclusively on physical campuses is expected to plummet, from 14.4 million in 2010 to just 4.1 million by 2015, states Ambient Insight's report, The U.S. Market for Self-paced eLearning Products and Services: 2010-2015 Forecast and Analysis.

Distance learning is now an essential component of 21st-century education, particularly for busy logistics and supply chain professionals. These programs are so appealing because they allow flexible class scheduling and variety. Offerings range from live, streaming classes for those who prefer a traditional learning approach, to completely independent modules students can peruse at any convenient time. Some programs consist of both in-person and online components, and many use chat rooms, online forums, or social media to help students feel connected and involved.

Online and In-Person

Generally, a physical presence is not compulsory for distance learning programs, although some schools, such as Michigan State University (MSU), use a hybrid model. Two-thirds of MSU's Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program is conducted on campus, while the other third is completed online.

"On-campus and online learning each present unique challenges," says Nancy M. Taylor, director of the Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program at MSU. "When students are on campus, the challenge is the workload. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 11 days. It's tiring and all-encompassing. The tradeoff is that students obtain a lot of credits in that short time.

"The online portion is also challenging because it demands students stay committed to the work despite outside pressures such as career and family," she adds.

Most MSU master's program students are in their early 30s, and many of them are married with children. To help keep students on course and motivated, MSU parses out its online coursework in 30-day segments, with due dates at the end of each month. "Setting monthly schedules helps students manage the workload without getting overwhelmed," says Taylor.

Beth Wachowiak received an undergrad degree in supply chain management at MSU in 2006. She then joined Kimberly-Clark Corporation, where she has since held several supply chain roles. Her current position as a supply chain development manager involves working directly with customers to maximize supply chain initiatives.

Three years ago, Wachowiak decided to return to school to pursue a master's degree. "My decision was based on a desire for both professional and personal growth," she says. "I want to hold a leadership role eventually, and I feel a master's degree will give me part of what I need to get there—as well as help separate me from the crowd."

Wachowiak didn't want to give up her career, but her on-campus opportunities were limited based on location.

"To attend a traditional university would have required a five-hour drive each weekend for four to five years. Through distance learning, I completed my degree in 19 months, while working full time." Beth Wachowiak, Michigan State University graduate

 "Kimberly-Clark is in Wisconsin, so I had few school options," she says. "To attend a traditional university would require a five-hour drive each weekend for four to five years."

She chose instead to enroll in MSU's Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program. "I was able to complete my degree in 19 months, while working full time," she says.

Like Wachowiak, many MSU students live far from the campus. In fact, only 20 to 30 percent of the school's distance learning students reside in Michigan or surrounding areas. The rest come from farther away, with two or three international students also attending each year.

For Wachowiak, the only drawback to the distance learning program was the lack of daily, in-person interaction with fellow students. But because MSU's program begins with an on-campus component, Wachowiak got to know students and professors in-person first, which made her feel connected despite the distance.

"If you don't make an effort to keep in touch with your cohorts, you lose some of the interactive education advantage, which I've benefitted from enormously," she says.

Another advantage of Wachowiak's distance learning experience was the ability to share real-world scenarios with fellow students, most of whom were working professionals. "Talking about issues we were dealing with on the job enriched our class discussions," she says.

Wachowiak advises other distance learning students to actively participate in online discussions. "Take the time to read the posts and join the exchange," she says. "Otherwise it's easy to put your education on the back burner and focus instead on work and more urgent needs."

Be Prepared

Stephanie Maybore, a supply chain manager at PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Chicago, also enrolled in MSU's Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program. At the time, Maybore spent half her workweek traveling, so weekends were the only time she had to continue her education. She took vacation time to attend the residencies.

"The program required a significant amount of prep-work," she says. "That was difficult, because I was attempting to juggle it with working and traveling. Once I was on campus, the pace was tough, but it was manageable for students who came prepared."

For Maybore, the program's biggest benefit was interacting with a variety of people from other states, companies, and even countries. "I learned about a cross-section of industries, and met people with a broad array of experiences," she says.

"MSU's hybrid model gives students the best of both worlds," she notes. "We have the flexibility of accessing class materials on our own schedules, but we also get to know everyone in person and build relationships. I still tap the network of people I met at MSU for advice or expertise on the job."

Armed for Academics

For other students, such as active military personnel, hybrid programs are not an option.

American Military University (AMU)—a branch of Charles Town, W.Va.-based American Public University System (APUS)—offers an online master's degree in transportation and logistics management.

"Distance learning allows AMU's large military student body to continue their education even when they are serving their country from all over the world," says Dr. Jennifer Batchelor, program director and associate professor of transportation and logistics management at APUS.

Lloyd Knight is one such military student. Now the director of global government operations at UPS, Knight oversees multiple worldwide forwarding programs supporting a wide range of government customers including the Department of Defense, defense contractors, and many government agencies. But before joining UPS, Knight served in the Air Force for 20 years, logging more than 3,000 flight hours on several operational and flight test aircraft including the C-141 Starlifter, C-5 Galaxy, and C-23 Sherpa.

After earning associate's degrees in aircrew operations and human resources management from the Community College of the Air Force, Knight set out in pursuit of a bachelor's degree.

"I was looking for a program that would allow me to take classes wherever I was, and at my own pace," says Knight.

He chose AMU's Transformational Logistics Management program. After earning the degree online, he retired from the Air Force in 2007, then went to work for UPS. "I didn't think I'd ever go back to school after that," he says. "But UPS believes strongly in education, and the more you get, the better.

"So I started working my way up the ladder, but I needed to develop more industry acumen and learn about areas other than aviation," Knight says. "At the same time, the government changed the GI bill, and I became eligible for benefits I hadn't been able to get before. It was too good an opportunity to pass up."

Knight returned to AMU in pursuit of a master's degree in logistics and transportation management. "The program was very flexible, which was invaluable," he says. "During one semester, I was traveling a lot, and ended up doing classwork from Afghanistan, Dubai, Germany, and the United States."

One element of the program Knight enjoyed was working with a well-rounded group of professors and students. "The students were from all over the world, with all kinds of backgrounds. I learned a lot from them," he says. "I may not have received the same exposure and experience at a traditional university."

Like many distance learning programs, AMU's classes feature online bulletins and chat rooms where students are required to post questions or discussion points once a week, as well as respond to other students' posts. "These requirements ensure everyone works with each other and interacts regularly," says Knight. "With traditional classes, that interaction is often limited to the most vocal students only—but this way, everyone is involved."

Stay Disciplined

It takes discipline to be successful at distance learning, Knight says. "You have to make time each week to get the work done, and make sure you monitor yourself," he suggests. "Otherwise you can fall too far behind, and catching up while working full time and traveling can be nearly impossible."

Knight advises students trying to decide on an online university to research their options. "Myriad educational choices are available," he says. "It is a big investment, just like buying a house or a car. Be sure you conduct a proper investigation so you can make the best choice for you."

It's All in the Delivery

The availability of faster, more user-friendly consumer technology has contributed to some growth in distance learning over the past several years. But it's also vital that universities understand how to develop quality online programs, and invest in technology to make courses more interactive and interesting.

"With advances in technology and mobile devices, universities must be able to deliver courses however students want to receive them—whether that's on a desktop or laptop computer, tablet device, or smartphone," says Batchelor.

Some of AMU's technology, for example, allows students to have synchronous discussions online, an important component in keeping them connected and engaged.

"It's vital that students connect with each other and their professors. For distance learning, technology is key to making that happen," says Karen Kukta, senior program coordinator at the University of San Diego (USD), which offers a distance learning master's in supply chain management. USD's program is a hybrid model that requires students to visit the campus five times over two years.

Professors who understand the difference between online and traditional teaching know how to use technology to make the most of online courses. Joel Sutherland, managing director of the Supply Chain Management Institute at USD, helped develop an online MBA course at Lehigh University that trains professors to use technology to make online courses interesting and unique.

"At Lehigh, I prepared online classes using different types of media," says Sutherland. "For some courses, I stood in front of a camera as if I were conducting a regular lecture. Others involved voice-over PowerPoint, or using WebEx to conduct an interactive session.

"Professors should be comfortable with and prepared to use different types of technology to keep online instruction interesting and engaging," he adds. "Studies show you can hold the attention of a student online for only 20 to 25 minutes using a traditional lecture approach. Professors should mix in other methods and technologies to produce the best offering."

Gary LaPoint, assistant professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, agrees. "Faculty members often think they can simply turn a regular class into an online class, but it doesn't work the same way," he says. "They have to design online courses differently; post lectures in smaller chunks, for example, so someone waiting at the airport or taking a lunch break can fit it in."

Syracuse is currently working with instructional designers to ensure they adapt their supply chain curriculum to students' needs. Like MSU and SDU, Syracuse uses a hybrid model, requiring one week of residency at the beginning of each semester.

"On the first day of residency, students take their final exam from the previous semester," says LaPoint. "The next day, they start the new semester."

Syracuse students attend three residencies per year, in January, May, and August. During the residency, students attend four straight days of classes. The rest of the semester is conducted online.

"Most students find the residency valuable," says LaPoint. "It allows them to build camaraderie, and the faculty can get to know them. The residency also provides for discussion and interaction about how the course will play out through the rest of the semester."

"When students are on campus, the challenge is the workload. It's tiring and all-encompassing. The online portion is also challenging. It demands students stay committed despite outside pressures such as career and family." Nancy M. Taylor, director, Master of Science in Supply Chain Management program, MSU

 Isabel Diaz is a logistics program manager at Lockheed Martin. Based on the East Coast, she works with the Navy, supporting a currently deployed fleet of submarines. She joined Lockheed seven years ago, after receiving her bachelor's degree at the University of Maryland. As part of the company's Operations Leadership Development program, Diaz had access to many opportunities, but because she believed earning her master's degree was important to her career development, she began looking into graduate school programs.

"I wanted a program flexible enough to complete on my own time, and that allowed me to advance my career without being tied to a specific location," says Diaz. "But I also wanted some face-to-face interaction. Distance learning can be difficult without it."

Diaz chose the supply chain management program at Syracuse. "The hybrid program offers the best of both worlds," she says. "Students have to be on campus for one week each semester. This allowed me the flexibility to complete most of my work remotely, but also enabled me to meet my professors and classmates in person, which is important because you network and learn through them."

Diaz still reaches out to the students she met at Syracuse. "In the logistics and supply chain field, so much learning comes from real-world examples and experience," she says. "You don't just talk the talk, you walk the walk. It's a huge benefit to be able to apply what you are learning while you are learning it."

While many good logistics and supply chain distance learning programs are available today, growing demand and an increasingly busy and technology-dependent society indicate there is also room for significant growth. In January 2013, U.S. News and World Report released its ranking of the best online graduate business programs. Only five of the top 25 programs currently offer a graduate program in supply chain/logistics management: University of San Diego, Indiana University, Central Michigan University, Penn State, and University of Michigan.

"Distance learning is the way of the future," says Sutherland. "Couple that with the growth expected in the logistics sector over the next few years, and supply chain graduate programs are set to experience significant growth as well."

Universities that can successfully customize online logistics and supply chain graduate programs to meet the needs of busy, tech-savvy professionals will go straight to the head of the class.