It's an article of faith in the new world of work: If you want to keep moving forward, you have to keep learning. More than ever, personal success is about personal growth. That means updating your current skills, acquiring new skills, and adding to the experiences that you have outside of work.
Just a few years ago, being serious about learning meant going to school. Maybe you'd enroll in an MBA program. Maybe you'd attend an executive-education course. Maybe you'd take a class to learn how to operate a new piece of software or to improve your presentation skills. Whatever option you chose, going to school meant leaving your workplace, learning at a pace dictated by your instructors — and, more often than not, spending lots of money.
No longer. Thanks to the Web, there's more freedom than ever to learn what you want — when and how you want to learn it. "Learning should come to you," insists Jason Roberts, 36, CEO of Panmedia Corp., the developer of Learn2.com. "Classrooms kill most learning before it can happen."
This edition of @work shares lessons learned by four businesspeople who learn via the Web. You'll also learn the new rules of online learning and find a guide to the best online-university programs — in short, all of the tools that you need to make the grade.
Learning for a Change
Roll Call: Back in 1995, Kevin A. Krall, now 42, quit his job as a process operator at Kimberly-Clark Corp. He wanted to try his luck on the amateur golf circuit. But after spending a year seeking sponsors and working on his game, Krall gave up golf to pursue a different passion: graphic design. "I fell in love with working on a computer, and I really got into the artistic aspects of it," he says. "I'm a self-taught graphic designer. I knew that if I could get proficient enough and professional enough, my work would eventually find a market."
Core Curriculum: Krall started by designing business cards, site plans, and brochures for small companies, churches, apartment complexes, and self-storage facilities near his home in Austin, Texas. But he didn't yet consider himself a graphic artist — or even a skilled entrepreneur. To get up to speed, he needed to go to school.
But he didn't have time to enroll in courses at a university or design school — he had a business to run — so he looked to the Web. "I had to learn how to work with print shops and service bureaus," he says. "So the first thing I did online was to search for basic information on graphic design and prepress operations. I went in with tunnel vision, but then this door opened and a light came on. I realized that I could learn whatever I wanted to learn."
Since taking those initial steps, Krall has taken more than 40 online courses — most of them through Ziff-Davis University (www.zdu.com). His course work there has included classes on Visual Basic , Photoshop, Internet-business strategy, and electronic commerce. What he learned along the way led him to refocus his business on the Web and on online-community development; to start his own company, CreativeONE (www.creativeone.com); and, recently, to step in as CEO of WebLucent Inc., a Web service geared toward small businesses.
Making the Grade: Krall says that his biggest online-learning challenge involved figuring out what he wanted to learn. The Web can be too much of a good thing. "Stay focused," he advises. "Don't be overwhelmed by the abundance of information online."
Certain physical tools can enrich the online experience, Krall says. For example, if you're exploring a new area of expertise — and especially if you're doing so as a free agent — you'll need to come to terms with the terms used in that field.
Although he found plenty of online dictionaries and glossaries, Krall got a good hard-copy graphic-design dictionary — so he wouldn't have to visit a different Web site every time he needed a definition. "If you don't understand certain terms, you won't learn well," he says. "Don't be afraid to look up unfamiliar words."
Coordinates: Kevin A. Krall, firstname.lastname@example.org
Roll Call: For the last 19 years, Wally Warnke, 47, has worked for Motorola. He now works in its computer-integrated-manufacturing division as a software engineer at a facility in Chandler, Arizona. But Warnke has also worked in the company's maintenance and sustaining-engineering divisions. Which means that he has had to learn new skills continuously — while still on the job. Last fall, Warnke turned to the Web for just-in-time education in a new programming language. "One of our vendors' software uses utilities that are written in Perl," Warnke says. "I needed to modify that software, but I didn't know any Perl."
Core Curriculum: This wasn't the first time that Warnke had tried to learn Perl. Before he turned to the Web, he had read a book on the language, and he had also taken a training seminar offered by Motorola. "But trying to learn something by picking up a book has never worked very well for me," he says. "And unless you're looking at a very narrow technical subject, you can't learn much in a weeklong seminar. Could I learn Perl in three to five days? Not likely."
Then Warnke received an email from Motorola's training organization. The email outlined several courses that were available to employees. Among them was one called "Intro to Perl," offered by DigitalThink Inc. (www.digitalthink.com), a Web-based outfit in San Francisco. Warnke signed up, ordered the course's two recommended books, and began learning Perl.
While he was working his way through the class's assignments and quizzes — and trading emails frequently with his online tutor — he was also working on the utilities that he needed to reprogram in order to do his job. "The only way that I can learn a new language is by writing a lot of programs and feeling my way through how the language works," Warnke says. "So I worked on the programs that I would need on the job while I completed the last part of the course."
Making the Grade: Warnke's experience with the online Perl class was so positive that he's now taking Advanced Perl for the Web. He learned a lot during the first course that he's applying to the current one. Most important, says Warnke, you need to pair online learning with real-world work.
And, advises Warnke, unless you're working on a tight deadline, don't be afraid to take your time. For example, Warnke didn't have to finish learning the Perl utilities by a certain date — but with the help of his online coursework, he was able to learn those utilities in about three weeks. The key was to find a speed that worked for him. "If you jam in too much material too fast, nothing sticks," he says. "But if you take it too slow, the learning gets diluted."
Finally, don't be afraid to ask a few questions. Many online courses feature tutors who lead real-time class sessions or — as with the courses that Warnke took — respond to questions and grade quizzes via email. Warnke says that his tutor usually replied to his emails within 24 hours. DigitalThink also provides a message board where students and tutors can gather to discuss the online-learning experience, to seek help with challenges, and to socialize. "Use all of the resources that the program offers," Warnke says. "If there are instructors, ask them questions."
Coordinates: Wally Warnke, email@example.com
Learning for Life
Roll Call: For more than 25 years, Ronni Bennett worked for New York-based TV programs and media outlets, including the Barbara Walters specials, "20/20," and Lifetime Television. Today she works for CBS Worldwide Inc. in its new-media division. As managing editor for CBS.com, the network's Web site, Bennett spends much of her time exploring how the Web works — and how she can use it to tell stories. But Bennett also uses the Web to blend her personal and professional lives. "For me, learning is not a function that's separate from living," she says. "Learning is just part of being alive. It goes on all the time."
Core Curriculum: Bennett finds that she learns the most when her search for lessons is most focused. The first time she went to the Web to learn something specific, she had dropped a strawberry on a 100-year-old quilt made by her grandmother. She fired up her browser and searched the Net using AltaVista (www.altavista.com). Using tips that she gleaned from Learn2.com (www.learn2.com), Bennett was able to remove the strawberry juice before it stained — and without wrecking the quilt. "The Web helps with day-to-day things that you don't know how to do," she says. "That was when I first thought, 'Maybe everything is on the Web.'"
Last winter, Bennett got bitten by the stock-market bug. But because she'd never invested before, she wanted to learn a few basics before she called a broker. Without even knowing what standard investing terms meant, she checked out the Motley Fool (www.fool.com), downloaded the site's 13-step guide to investing, and began looking at online brokers. "I've started a notebook in which I keep my notes and a list of questions to ask," Bennett says. "As soon as I'm smart enough to ask the right questions, I'll move on to talking with friends — and friends of friends — who have been investing for a long time."
Making the Grade: As a journalist, Bennett is a stickler for details. She recommends that you begin your online-learning quest by consulting recognized and respected sources of Internet-related information, such as ZDNet (www.zdnet.com) and CNet (www.cnet.com). She also suggests that you look carefully at each site before you buy into the lessons that it offers. "If a site doesn't link to other sites, then the people behind it probably think that they know everything, and they probably aren't trustworthy," she says. "Check several sites on the same subject and stick with those that work best for you."
What works for you will depend on how you learn. Bennett's approach to learning is visual and highly organized. She keeps extensive bookmarks and sorts them into folders frequently. She prints out the best information that she finds and — if there's a lot of it — compiles the printouts into binders that are divided into sections. She reads, makes notes in the margins, and highlights what's important to her. "Sometimes it's not easy to read a lot online," she says. "This approach isn't much different from old-style research, but it costs less than buying a lot of books, and it's more up-to-date than books are."
Finally, regardless of whether you're finding information online or tracking it down online, don't just stop at a Web site — go to the people behind it. Two years ago, when Bennett started researching Web design and usability, she found Jakob Nielsen's Web site: useit.com (www.useit.com). His links and advice helped her to find the information that she needed, and she's been an acolyte of his ever since.
"I go to the Web every day to track down facts, but even when I can't find what I'm looking for online, I can usually find the name of someone whom I can call or email," she says. "The Web is still a friendly place. Hunt down an email link and submit a question. Most people love to share their expertise."
Coordinates: Ronni Bennett, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Business of Distance Learning
Roll Call: With a degree in business and accounting from Wake Forest University, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Ken Durand, 33, has been able to work in a variety of fields. After dabbling in HR, in payroll management, and in training, he signed on with Tactics Inc., a database-consulting firm based in Atlanta. About 18 months ago, when Durand was working on a project for Prudential, he decided to go back to school — business school. "If I ever go back into traditional corporate life, it would certainly help to have an MBA," he says. "That's the most functional degree that I could get."
Core Curriculum: Durand knew that he couldn't enroll in a traditional full-time MBA program, complete with a campus, classes, and classmates. He was spending about half his time working on the road, and after being in the work world for 10 years, he couldn't stomach the idea of returning to the classroom and dealing with professor-student relationships. So he looked into business schools that offer online MBA programs, contacted City University (www.cityu.edu), in Bellevue, Washington, talked to an academic adviser about his graduate-education needs, and started class. One year later, Durand is nearly halfway through the program. He expects to get his degree by the end of next year.
While lots of graduate schools claim that they offer distance-learning or online-learning programs, Durand says that several of the schools that he researched simply mail out videotapes of lectures. "When I started looking at actual online class offerings, I found that City University was one of the few places that provides a truly online experience," he says. "It offers a wide range of chat rooms and Web-discussion forums, and professors can set up a chat room for a specific night so that students can discuss class material online."
But the City University program can sometimes be too flexible, Durand says. Students can start classes on the first of any month; to register, they need only call their adviser by the 20th of the previous month. Because students can take any class at almost any time, they might end up having only one or two classmates in a given course — which can limit opportunities for chat sessions, asynchronous discussions on the Web, and other online class activities. "The only thing missing from the program is interaction with other people," Durand says. "I'm willing to give that up because I have plenty of interaction with colleagues at work, but I can see how some people might think that they're missing something."
Making the Grade: Because of that potential for isolation, it's important to leverage the connections that you are able to make. Some instructors can be good about answering questions and offering feedback, but if your instructor is a professional who is working while teaching, he or she might not be as accessible as a full-time teacher. "I don't expect everybody to be at my beck and call, but I am paying them to help me learn," Durand says. "One of my professors was a full-time consultant, and he was on the road quite a bit — so getting in touch with him was always difficult."
If you plan to continue to work full-time while you pursue a degree online, Durand suggests that you make the most of your own time. The responsibility for setting and keeping to a work schedule rests on your shoulders. "I made the mistake in one 10-week course of waiting until week 8 to get started, and things got pretty hairy. Procrastination can kill you," he says. "You have to be very self-disciplined."
You can also make your online MBA part of the Brand Called You. Don't assume that your company will reimburse this type of learning — but if you can sell your boss on the idea, you may become an example to other employees. "I've turned quite a few heads by saying that I'm working on my MBA and that I'm doing it online," Durand says. "It says that you're willing to take a risk, to do something outside the box."
Coordinates: Ken Durand, email@example.com
Heath Row (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate editor at Fast Company, where he's always at the head of his class.
Action Item: Learn by the Book
The wealth of information on the Web can be as much a curse as a blessing. Where do you start? When it comes to designing your curriculum, Peterson's Guide to Distance Learning Programs, along with its online counterpart, LifeLongLearning, are great starting points. Published in cooperation with the University Continuing Education Association, the book profiles almost 900 colleges, universities, and other schools. Each profile details degree programs, delivery methods, and financial-aid information. The sections on educational financing, academic advising, and program selection are especially useful. Of course, hard-copy guides like this one are out of date as soon as they're published — despite Peterson's aggressive revision schedule — so be sure to visit the online version as well.
Coordinates: $26.95. www.petersons.com; www.lifelonglearning.com
Action Item: Gurus in the House!
The dirty secret of higher education is that where you go to school can be less important than the professors with whom you study. There are plenty of second-rate teachers at big-name universities — and plenty of great professors at second-tier schools. Ninth House Network wants to create a virtual learning resource that offers lessons from the word's greatest business gurus.
Produced by a team of educators, software developers, writers, and directors, Ninth House Network brings the teachings of people such as Tom Peters and Ken Blanchard to the Net - and to your desktop. If you reach the network via the Web, you can access resources and join discussions about innovation, creativity, situational leadership, and self-management. If you work for a company that subscribes to the Ninth House Learning Network (part of the Ninth House site), you can participate in learning sessions that use streaming video, real-time skills assessment, and personal tutoring.
Ninth House is more than a Web site. Its approach is firmly rooted in storytelling and online community building — so the learning experience interactive and personal. Its offerings demonstrate that online learning can be a rich, interactive media experience.
Coordinates: Ninth House Network, www.ninthhouse.com
Sidebar: Kill the Classroom
As CEO of Panmedia Corp., the developer of Learn2.com ("the ability utility"), Jason Roberts is working to change how people learn — and how companies use the Web to teach. Roberts, 36, was formerly an engineer at Apple Computer. He has spent the past six years exploring how people use media to share complex information. Learn2.com offers easy-to-follow "2torials" for hundreds of activities — from how to write your representative in Congress to how to house-train a puppy. In an interview, Roberts shared some of the principles that he's developed concerning the design of online learning.
1. Get beyond the classroom. The classroom metaphor is comforting to the people who develop online instruction, but it doesn't work so well for the people who experience it. The metaphor carries lots of baggage: immaturity, test anxiety. It also implies (wrongly) that the learning environment is separate from the working environment.
2. Teach transparently. Even companies that understand the potential of online education fall prey to the "cathedral of knowledge" syndrome. Corporate universities should be delivery mechanisms, not destinations. If you have information to share, get out of the way. Deliver what people need to their desktop and in the context of their work.
3. Teach skills, not concepts. People don't want to learn abstract ideas. They want skills that they can use now. Instead of teaching "quality customer service," break it into a series of skills: "how to make anyone feel welcome," "how to respond to complaints."
4. Test implementation, not assimilation. The ultimate goal of corporate learning isn't to get people to know something — it's to get them to use that knowledge. Most training programs measure retention. Instead, you should set up metrics that kick in after the period of instruction: Ask people to show how they've put their new knowledge to work.
Coordinates: Jason Roberts, email@example.com; Panmedia Corp., www.panmedia.com; Learn2.com, www.learn2.com
Sidebar: How to Learn by Design
Marc Mishkind has spent much of his professional life teaching people how to become better teachers. After earning a master's degree in psychology from Yale in 1984, Mishkind started working with Kaplan Educational Centers, where he became national director of training. In 1994, he took a job at the Learning Company — now part of Mattel Inc. — where he designed and produced such award-winning CD-ROM titles as Score Builder (for the SAT and ACT), Grade Builder, and Math Rabbit Classic.
Mishkind, 37, is now vice president of product development for Yipinet LLC ("Your Interactive Personal Instructor on the Net"), a Los Angeles-based company that focuses on creating high-quality instructional design. Its first product involved a series of online courses offered in conjunction with the California CPA Education Foundation. As the company expands, Yipinet's Web-based Knowledge Hub will offer training in other professions — and also in business skills such as project management and sales.
What makes Yipinet's courses different? For one thing, course development starts by pairing experts with instructional designers to create interactive curricula. "Online learners are facing the same problems that people faced when desktop publishing took off," says Mishkind. "Anyone can put up content on the Web — but that's not teaching."
Mishkind also brings to Yipinet a heightened focus on ease of use. The Web site tracks each student's progress and keeps tabs on his or her education credits — even if those credits were earned using another online tool or in an actual classroom. "People need products that are friendly, responsive, and intuitive," Mishkind says.
The company's learning tools are also highly entertaining. Yipinet's senior software architect used to work as technical director for Berkeley Systems's JackNetShow, and he has created a design for Yipinet that is sleek and stylish. "The more senses that you involve, the more people are going to learn," Mishkind says.
Coordinates: Marc Mishkind, firstname.lastname@example.org; Yipinet LLC, www.yipinet.com
A version of this article appeared in the May 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.