By Mary Teresa Bitti
Since leaving the fashion industry and making the unlikely leap to the nonprofit sector three years ago, Lori Ingram has wasted no time advancing her newfound career.
She has expanded her role as office manager and campaign coordinator with a young, small nonprofit in Bermuda to include that of research developer.
And she did it by getting the training she needed from the comfort of her home, completing – online — the certificate in nonprofit management at the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at University of Illinois at Chicago.
Welcome to the new world of e-learning.
“People are earning Masters degrees and even PhDs entirely online,” says Betha Gutsche, curriculum developer for WebJunction, a nonprofit born out of the Bill & Melinda Gates’ Foundation U.S. Library program in 2003.
The group now serves as a clearinghouse of resources for library staff across the U.S.
“For people with full-time jobs, it is a life saver,” she says.
Key benefits of distance or e-learning, says Gutsche, include less travel, which means lower costs and less need for staff to backfill; expanded reach, both temporally and geographically; and flexible scheduling.
Ingram sees benefits as well.
“Because I live in Bermuda, taking courses usually requires travel, which is at the organization’s expense,” she says. “This is a lot cheaper. It allowed me to work full-time and I was able to apply what I was learning in class to real life work experiences.”
While the University of Illinois was an early adopter of online learning, launching its nonprofit management course in 2000, there now are many online professional development courses geared to the sector that cover everything from fundraising to strategic management to grant-writing.
“You can find everything from one and two day webinars to comprehensive degree programs online,” says John Mudd, associate director of professional education at the Great Cities Institute of the University of Illinois. “You can get in depth or you can get an overview. It’s just a matter of what you are looking for.”
Courses come in a range of formats.
Webinars are online seminars: Participants go to a website that serves as a meeting location, then log in and take part in a presentation with an instructor who talks through the topic.
In some cases, video-streaming attaches a face to the voice, although Gutsche, who has participated in two such webinars, says the technology still has some hiccups.
“In the sessions I’ve been to, there was a time lag between hearing the voice and seeing the facilitator’s lips move and that really bothered me,” she says.
Self-paced, fully-autonomous courses are essentially online do-it-yourself guides.
Synchronous classes require participants to log in at a specified time and participate in a real-time setting with a live instructor and other classmates.
Asynchronous classes allow students to log in when they choose, with interaction occurring on discussion boards, where everyone can share input, learning from fellow students as well as the instructor.
And some courses are a blend of face-to-face encounters with various online components.
There is a lively discussion on the WebJunction message boards where distance-learning students are challenged to discuss the credibility of their online degrees.
For her part, Gutsche says any course, online or offline is only as effective as it is well designed.
“E-learning is not a panacea by any means,” she says. “It seems best to match the learning mode to the type of training to be delivered.”
For example, step-by-step instruction on the use of an application at the time of need is well-suited to a self-paced tutorial with screen-casting, she says.
Multi-session courses, however, may work best as a blend of in-person and online or as a fully-online blend of synchronous and self-paced instruction.
In terms of content, John Mudd says it’s all there.
“To me, there is not much difference in the actual training,” he says. “It’s more in the way you interact. If you’re not comfortable on a computer or you are not good communicating through email or chat, you probably won’t like communicating online.”
The other drawback to e-learning is also one of its key attractions.
“Since many online courses are flexible, and you can do them at any time, it’s easy to put them off,” says Mudd. “You have to be self-motivated to make them work.”
Ingram had no trouble on that front and, in fact, was melancholy when signing off her last class.
“For me, the online experience also brought a sense of camaraderie,” she says. “Nonprofits are such a small sector in Bermuda it’s easy to feel isolated,” she says. “My class allowed me to tap into the experience of people in Africa, India, the Philippines, and the U.S. It was great.”