The Friday Interview: Dr Andy DiPaolo

12 Nov 2004

In a fact-filled, helter-skelter, slide-a-second presentation, Dr Andy DiPaolo (pictured) offered Irish academics attending the Universities Ireland E-learning Symposium at Dublin City University last week a window onto the future of e-learning.

As executive director of Stanford University’s Centre for Professional Development, DiPaolo runs one of the world’s most advanced and successful e-learning organisations. The numbers make inspirational reading – or at least they should – for any university aspiring to develop an ambitious distance education programme: 6,000 students enrolling annually, more than 400 company partners worldwide, more than 275 Stanford graduate programmes delivered via distance learning technologies.

In an interview with, DiPaolo engagingly explains how Stanford complements its on-campus academic programmes with a wide range of online courses running in parallel and aimed primarily at the corporate community. It is a teaching empire that has taken a long time to build.

“We’ve been doing distance education at Stanford for over 30 years,” he notes. “We started with a television network where we supplied programmes to employees of Silicon Valley corporations. Over time, that evolved into satellite television and now the internet. Every year we do 250 credit classes that would lead towards graduate degrees, masters’ degrees in engineering disciplines and upwards of 60 professional education courses. The centre is designed to provide education to the practising engineering/science manager.”

He emphasises that while most of the companies availing of these courses are neighbours of Stanford’s in Silicon Valley, a growing proportion are from outside the US – in particular the fast-growing economies of the Far East. Large technology and engineering firms based in countries such as China, Singapore and Korea are now enrolling their students on courses hosted 6,000 miles away in Stanford and delivered via high-speed broadband.

Whenever Stanford has tried to extend its online franchise to Europe, however, it has been much less successful. DiPaolo sees the rejection of Stanford’s ethos by European businesses as reflective of a disregard for training and professional development in general. Simply put, he believes that US corporations place a much higher value on educating their workforce.

“There’s not a serious mature high-tech firm in the US who won’t pay for you to go to school – every one of them does it,” he asserts. “Christopher Galvin, former CEO of Motorola, once said: ‘Motorola no longer wants to hire engineers with a four-year degree. Instead, we want our employees to have a 40-year degree.'”

DiPaolo believes that e-learning is vehicle to make this happen. The Stanford courses are tailored to an audience of young managers that are looking for ways to fit education into their busy lifestyles. “Talented people who don’t have a degree or certification are not going to quit work to come back to school. They can’t – if you’ve got a family you can’t just give up work for two years without a salary coming in. Unless they can do it through e-learning, they can’t do it at all,” he remarks.

Such is the desire for self-improvement in the US, moreover, that many employers use the carrot of paid-for degrees and qualifications as a means of attracting and retaining key talent. This explains why many US businesses are willing to spend upwards of US$50k to put an employee through a three-year part-time masters degree at Stanford, says DiPaolo.

Such courses may all sound like a brazen money-making exercise but money, he insists, is not the prime object. In general, a university that sees e-learning as a money-making venture is on the wrong track, he feels.

“What we get from the courses is the opportunity to have our faculty members deal with talented students they would otherwise not have in the classroom. Second, the faculty members have an opportunity to share their knowledge more broadly and engage in research collaborations with industry. Yes, we make money but the revenue is fed back into each faculty; it goes back into the academic enterprise.”

The Stanford Centre for Professional Development is just a small part of an increasingly large e-learning ecosystem in the US. There were approximately four million students doing distance-learning courses in 2003 and in 2004 more than 900,000 students enrolled on fully online courses. This is out of a total of 3,700 universities with 15 million students.

Yet it has not all been plain sailing for the e-learning pioneers in the US, which can boast some of the best examples of e-learning but also many high-profile failures. In January 2003, for example, New York University (NYU) shut down its online arm, NYU Online, while, in the same month, Colombia University closed Fathom, its online learning venture into that it had ploughed upwards of US$40m.

Isolating the cause of the failures, DiPaolo says: “With Fathom, there was a mismatch between what people were paying and what they were getting, which was not a Colombia degree but a mixture of qualifications.” He feels the same danger faces another still-solvent online venture: the National Technology University (NTU), which runs courses supplied by a consortium of 30 technology universities.

“When you get your degree it’s not from one of the 30 universities, it’s from the NTU but people don’t know what that means – a fast-track to promotion or first to get fired? Given a choice, if I can a degree from the NTU or a degree from Boston University, Wisconsin or Stanford, I’ll go for the brand name because that means something.”

DiPaolo advocates sticking with a single unified brand covering both online and offline education. This is the approach taken by eCornell, the successful online arm of Cornell University where online students come away with Cornell degrees and certificates that mean something in the marketplace.

Whether it gets it right or wrong, for any modern university, having an e-learning strategy is now a necessity rather than a luxury, he feels. “It’s like the genie has been let out of the bottle. The technology is pervasive. The next generation of kids won’t see computers as computers; they will be the norm, part of their lives. People come with a different set of expectations now. If you’re a ten-year-old who is used to text messaging and gaming and so on and then you walk into a traditional university setting, there’s a mismatch. The challenge is how to use technology to embed it in the learning or to drive the learning.”

For Irish universities looking to develop e-learning strategies, DiPaolo urges them to think beyond Ireland and look at how they could serve the broader international marketplace through for example running courses on Celtic history or another unique cultural aspect.

“I think if you only look at doing e-learning for Irish universities it would probably be a mistake; you need to think in a broader, bigger way where access to higher education in Ireland would be valued by other people around the world.”

By Brian Skelly

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