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Going the Distance for Business

Say you're a mid-level manager from Des Moines who would like to do your job more effectively. You could miss a week from work to fly to some faraway business school. Or you could spend a few evenings in a networked Wharton "classroom" without leaving town. The Wharton School's Aresty Institute of Executive Education will make the latter option possible this fall through an agreement between Penn and Caliber Learning Network, Inc. Though it's certainly not the first time that the University -- or Wharton -- has experimented with distance learning, Dr. Michael L. Wachter, the interim provost, says that this new collaboration "marks the first major business school initiative by an institution of Penn's stature" and will provide "new ways to strengthen our academic 'reach' in the rapidly expanding educational marketplace."
   "Wharton Direct," as it's named, will begin with a series of highly-interactive business courses aimed at mid-level managers and technical professionals. And unlike some distance-learning programs which are limited to "one-way" learning, it will feature real-time interaction, so students in remote locations can communicate with each other and Wharton faculty through integrated satellite, video-conferencing, and PC networking. Caliber, based in Baltimore, Md., has 43 centers in metropolitan areas throughout the country equipped with multimedia workstations and videoconferencing systems.
   Robert Mittelstaedt, vice dean of executive education and external affairs at Wharton, gives an example of just how interactive a Wharton Direct class could be: A student in Albuquerque who has a question during the professor's lecture could e-mail a teaching assistant based at Penn. The T.A. might respond individually, or, noticing a pattern among questions, suggest that the professor address the confusing point before the entire class. The professor might call on that student, and videoconferencing would make it possible for the rest of the class to see their exchange. In fact, the video screens could be split four ways, allowing up to four people to engage in a face-to-face discussion.
   The tuition -- $2,500 for a six-session Wharton Direct course -- will cost less than a traditional executive-education course, which typically includes lodging. But the most dramatic benefits of distance learning, say Wachter and Mittelstaedt, are the time and travel savings.
   Wharton Direct, which has already generated the interest of companies like Hewlett-Packard and AT&T, could bring in $3-5 million in revenues in its first year, but Mittelstaedt cautions that these figures depend on many factors. "There has been a flight to quality in business education, so the best business schools are in greater demand than ever before," he says. "This [technology] gives us the ability to reach a broader audience than we would otherwise."
   By embracing distance learning, some critics argue, universities risk sacrificing quality for convenience. But Wachter is quick to insist otherwise: "The quality of instruction in this program will be superb; precisely the same standard that the educational marketplace has come to expect from the Wharton School. Courses will be entirely designed and taught by Wharton faculty."
   In addition, enrollment will follow the same criteria as a traditional executive-education course. "It's important to select people to be in the course who need to be there, and who are at a common point in their careers," Mittelstaedt says. With too wide a disparity, "They will end up distracting or boring each other."
   According to Wachter, the Wharton-Caliber collaboration should provide valuable insights that can be applied to other distance-learning models throughout the University. The provost's office is working with all 12 of Penn's schools to develop initiatives to enhance their core academic programs.

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Copyright 1998 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 5/25/98