In the wee hours of the morning, Las Vegas resident Catherine B. Tharin steps out of the role of Super Mom to go online to earn a master’s degree in international construction management. Married with six children, she tries to make time to download assignments before leaving at 4:30 a.m. for her job with Bechtel Group Inc.

On the 90-mile bus ride to the U.S. Energy Dept.’s Nevada Test Site where she works as a construction manager, Tharin studies. "What I like best is working on my own time and at my own pace," she says of her master’s degree program at the University of Florida, the only one in the nation offered online in construction management. Tharin ENRolled last September after looking into traditional programs that, she found, "don’t accommodate the careers of the people who are most likely to participate."

ALTERNATIVE. For busy adults who want more education–without jeopardizing commitments to work, business travel and family–distance education provides an alternative to traditional instruction. Freed from requirements to attend classes at set times, students view courses delivered by closed-circuit television, videocassettes, CD-ROMS–or increasingly, via the Internet. Credit Suisse First Boston Corp. has predicted a $40-billion market by 2005 for Web-based learning alone.

FALL GUY Rudolph & Sletten's Miller sees online course as a great introduction to fall protection. (Photo courtesy of Rudolph & Sletten, Inc.)

Proponents argue that online courses actually do better than traditional instruction at discouraging student passivity and encouraging lifelong learning. Particularly in an interactive, multimedia environment, students often find greater opportunities to learn by actually working through new concepts. Even with relatively low-tech presentations online, they enjoy the freedom to proceed slowly or click past material they already know. Ideally, e-learning also promotes group learning and inquiry via serial
e-mails known as "discussion threads."

Proponents cite studies dating back to 1928, initially focusing on correspondence courses, that show no significant difference in the effectiveness of educational television, two-way teleconferencing and online learning compared to classroom instruction. Yet distance education remains as controversial as ever, par- ticularly with the advent of Internet delivery systems in the mid-1990s, (ENR 11/9/98 p. 10).

Critics not only complain about the particulars of e-learning, such as e-mails that force professors to spend more time on fewer students. Opponents also caution that e-learning threatens to undermine higher education. They charge that episodic, in-and-out, commercialized, superficial learning provided by diploma mills, corporate universities, software vendors and product makers may increasingly supplant traditional universities and become a substitute for a well-balanced education. "We’ll all become vendors of education rather than educators," warns James A. Rodger, head of the Construction Management Dept. at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and president of the Associated Schools of Construction.

ASC drew academics from across the country last month to its Denver conference with the theme "Westward the e-Frontier." Many of the professors hoped to learn to use e-learning to increase campus revenue. Instead, they learned of the difficulties and expense. "I think everyone came here with curiosity and walked away with a severe dose of reality," says Rodger, who urges restraint in adopting e-learning. "It doesn’t appear to be any more or less effective than stand-and-deliver instruction, so why rush to do this?," he asks. As chairman of the task force on distance learning and accreditation issues at the American Council for Construction Education, he plans to issue formal recommendations in July on how and whether to certify online courses.

While academics debate its merits, e-learning continues to gain ground elsewhere in construction. The trend appears too new to gauge its breadth and industry penetration, but dot-coms such as and are expanding continuing education offerings, and construction firms are rolling out their own online corporate training curricula.

SUPER MOM E-learning fits Bechtel manager Tharin.

PERSEVERANCE. In a pilot program begun in March and set for nationwide launch in June, Gilbane Building Co., Providence, plans to operate a virtual university for its 1,500 employees. Beginning with 25 courses on topics ranging from Microsoft Word to construction safety, Gilbane eventually will provide 150 online classes. The $2.3-billion contractor expects to gain from being able to update its online content more quickly and cheaply than print materials. It also anticipates the program will reduce–by as much as half–the time employees spend in corporate classrooms and hotels for training. "I’m not so sure it’s the savings, it’s the efficiency," says Diane FASChing, director of Gilbane University, the firm’s corporate training program.

Rather than expand its information systems department to support that, Gilbane turned to the computer-network servers and expertise of KnowledgePlanet, a Reston, Va.-based consultant. William T. Thompson, the consultant’s lead manager, says Gilbane is an e-learning pioneer. "The construction industry is not really on the radar," he says, noting that most of KnowledgePlanet’s clients are larger corporations. But Gilbane still plans to offer class instruction as well because "the research shows that 80% of folks don’t complete an online course," FASChing says. "The folks most likely to persevere pay attention to detail and organization, and they practice self-discipline and delayed gratification."

E-learning succeeds best when integrated into everyday business practices, according to Baltimore-based Structural Group, a $130-million-a-year concrete contractor with 840 employees nationwide. The company offers 540 courses online, almost all videotaped and produced in-house on topics such as concrete repair and equipment operation. "We’re not aware of any firm in the industry that has as extensive a program as ours," says company spokesman Brian Gallagher. The firm spends $1.5 million annually on training, 10% of that for e-learning. To help integrate e-learning into its business, Structural Group begins construction projects by sending each participant an e-mail with links to online planning tools such as videos.

INVESTMENT. But creating an e-learning curriculum often takes considerably more resources than a videographer’s. San Francisco-based URS Corp. invested 4,000 person-hours over a year’s time to develop an online curriculum in project management for more than 15,000 employees worldwide. The firm’s e-learning consultant, Washington, D.C.-based, put in another 16,000 hours at an undisclosed cost. urs launched the first 18 online courses last month and plans to add 52 by midsummer.

As with any young technology, development costs often run high and consumer acceptance low. "The reason we have more video is that online learning is a relatively new way of delivering training," says John Casazza, senior director of continuing education at the American Society of Civil Engineers, Reston, Va. Producing an eight-to-ten-hour video course of reasonably good quality costs about $15,000, while an online course with comparable content costs three to four times that, he says. Just how much more depends on whether the online version includes static text and images only, or streaming audio and video as well. But whatever the development costs, ASCE’s courses are a relative bargain. Users pay just $99 for an online course in stormwater management compared to $700 or more to register for the same topic in a seminar lasting at least two days, Casazza says.

For engineers bored by seminars but in need of continuing education credits to remain licensed, online learning offers an inexpensive alternative. "Seminars are notorious for low quality and low’re lucky to learn just one thing," says Camille G. Rubeiz, transportation and infrastructure director at the American Iron and Steel Institute, Washington, D.C. Convinced that e-learning transmits knowledge more effectively, AISI plans to create online versions of all its live seminars.

AISI uses e-learning as a high-value, low-cost tool to increase the competency of bridge engineers–and the market for steel. Its second course went up in February, at pdhonline. The format not only saves AISI money, but also helps reach entry-level engineers, too low in the pecking order to obtain permission to travel to live seminars. Unlike any other such site that Rubeiz knows of, AISI lets users click to the end of an online course before making them pay to get credit hours registered.

PRICING. But the quest for revenue motivates much of the e-learning market, although reading the market correctly and determining pricing remains tricky for some vendors. In Walnut Creek, Calif., ClickSafety Inc. expects to be profitable soon. It launched its construction safety curriculum last October and spent $1 million on an online tool to let clients customize the courses. But the firm lowballed its price in February when signing up 304 employees in the San Jose, Calif., office of construction giant Fluor Daniel at $67 each per year for unlimited access.

ClickSafety expected each Fluor employee to sign up for just five-or-so courses rather than the 20 to 30 apiece that many ended up taking so far. "They’re using it more than we thought they would," says Blaine Tomimoto, ClickSafety’s vice president of product development. "We gave them a pretty good discount because we’re trying to get the whole company."

ClickSafety’s animation and streaming videos–for instance, to depict the consequences of a lack of fall protection–get rave reviews even from users who dislike e-learning for personal use. In the Irvine, Calif., construction office of Rudolph & Sletten Inc., which began using the curriculum in February, safety coordinator Brian K. Miller views the courses as "great" introductions to safety basics. Besides freeing up field time for hands-on demonstrations, they lend more instructional consistency so that users, in theory, arrive at the same level of understanding, he says. But after work, he still attends a community college in person to earn a degree. "I’m one of those hands-on, watch-the-teacher persons," says Miller, who turns 32 in June.

While vendors such as ClickSafety try to attract and maintain viewer interest by using streaming video and audio that first require the installation of so-called plug-ins such as Macromedia Flash, other vendors decline to offer anything more than online text and static images. Although frequently lackluster, the simple approach minimizes the online frustrations of dial-up users who lack high-speed Internet access.

HOLDING TIGHT. Consequently, some online course developers are holding off using multimedia dazzle. "We’re going to hold tight for another 12 months until the technology comes around," says Brent A. Craven, chief operations officer of Tampa-based Billed as the industry’s largest Web portal for online continuing education courses for licensed professionals, it began reporting a profit last December after just five months on line. Rather than spend upfront to create courses, RedVector uses freelancers–academics plus company principals–to create and upload content. In return, they receive royalties in the 20% range, from which some earn the equivalent of a full-time salary.

While some Web sites have made the leap to profitability, others have folded for lack of capital. The for-profit AEC Direct went under in February, to the disappointment of its majority investor, the American Institute of Architects, and six other shareholders, including The McGraw-Hill Cos., ENR’s corporate parent.

The site aimed to provide a suite of services including e-learning, its most popular component. AIA plans to revive that component in June and, this time, incorporate just one free multimedia plug-in, RealPlayer. "With a lot of distance education platforms, you’d need at least two or three," says Alla V. Orlova, AIA’s distance education director in Washington, D.C. But though "we’re trying to make our platform very user-friendly," she adds, AIA plans to offer more than just static text written in the hypertext markup language. "I see the advantages of plain HTML, but I think the audience of architects would prefer a lot of visuals," Orlova says.

Considering the resources needed to develop continuing education, AIA relies on approximately 2,000 providers including building product manufacturers, firms and schools to create courses that the group certifies. Online, AIA strictly limits the placement of product logos. "We have more problems with on-site education taught by salesmen used to doing pitches," says Beverly B. Holton, AIA’s continuing education systems manager.

But as AIA and others become more dependent on outside vendors of online continuing education, testing has become an issue. Earlier this year, New York State issued new regulations that affected AIA’s largest provider, McGraw-Hill’s Architectural Record. In the past, the magazine printed answers upside down on the same page as test questions. Next year, New York will require that answers appear on separate pages both online and in print.

With greater potential for cheating, e-learning requires more oversight, observers say. "You need to proctor the test somehow," says Cynthia D. Herleikson, administrator of the Laborers-agc Education and Training Fund in Pomfret Center, Conn. Responsible for training union members in handling hazardous wastes, she advises putting "book knowledge" on the Web while requiring students to visit a training center to see demonstrations and take tests. The fund, a partnership of the Laborers’ International Union of North America and the Associated General Contractors of America, plans to begin offering online courses later this year.

CUES E-learning lacks personal touch, says Badger (top left).

THERAPY. Others agree that testing needs to remain in the classroom. In courses such as conflict resolution, instructors must see if everyone "got it," says Karl F. Borgstrom, executive director of the National Electrical Contractors Association, Bethesda, Md. Most NECA members prefer the touchy-feely aspects of in-person training, he says, based on a recent member survey. NECA still teaches project management, estimating, law and such in seminars. But to save more classroom time for what Borgstrom describes as "group therapy," NECA plans to give homework in advance–on line. By putting off e-learning for now, NECA intends to prevent a repeat of its ill-fated online education venture effort last year when its vendor went bust. "It was a little disaster for us," says NECA spokesman Emilio Rouco.

Despite such occasional "disasters," more industry trade groups now offer e-learning. agc created six project management courses last year for its Online Institute (ENR 3/13/00 p. 39). The Alliance of Continuing Education for Engineers, a joint venture of the American Council of Engineering Companies and the National Society of Professional Engineers, also offers online courses through KeepSmart. And in February, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers launched its Virtual Campus, which offers online master’s programs in information systems, computing and business management through several accredited universities.

Although several universities offer online master’s programs–in mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology and in electrical engineering at Stanford University, among others–other top-flight institutions remain hold-outs, including the College of Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. "Give us another two or three years, and the research may tell us something comprehensive about what works and what does not," says Pamela H. Atkinson, the college’s director of video instruction.

But proponents argue that e-learning democratizes education by putting the resources of top-flight universities within reach of industry professionals such as Lester Stump, a self-employed project manager in Newport, Australia. Under contract still to the Olympic Coordination Authority, he oversaw construction of the noncompetition venues for the 2000 Summer Games. Now he is halfway done with an online master’s program in information technology and cm at the U.K.’s University of Salford. "This course is giving me a competitive edge against my peers. The information is clear with each module and the objectives are achievable," he says. But Stump admits that "my progress has been stunted due to my hectic involvement with the Olympics."

DISCIPLINE. E-learning often forces students to fend more for themselves and rely on e-mailed discussion threads for support. L. Azma Abdullah began Salford’s program last November, yet she has not gotten to know classmates. Working full-time as a contracts manager for Malaysian project consultant gcs Sdn Bhd in Petaling Jaya, she has not participated in the Salford chat rooms. "Due to the time difference, nobody is there when I am online," she says. "But I find the discussions posted in the discussions rooms invaluable." Abdullah says that for all the "danger of falling behind if you don’t exercise some discipline," she ENRolled because "it did not require me to leave my present job."

Salford seeks more students like Stump and Abdullah to justify its use of $750,000 from the U.K. government to develop the online program. The university’s School of Construction and Property Management plans to create the first international collaboration in online construction engineering with U.S. and Chinese schools.

While some schools such as Salford centralize learning development, others leave faculty without much technical support. "I spent about $15,000 to put together a basic structural-design course. I need another $15,000 to clean up the graphics," reports Thomas R. Rogers, chairman of Construction Management at Northern Arizona University. "The investment is significant. It took me 200 hours to make my first decent Flash presentation." Daunted by the expense, professors seek private-sector help. "We’ll take people’s money to help us out," says Richard A. Boser, an assistant professor in industrial technology at Illinois State University and a member of its distance-education committee.

Vendors see opportunity. Arizona State University plans to let Tempe-based vendor Hard Dollar create online Web platforms for asu’s construction courses. Without such help, "it is just not economically feasible for my school to do distance education," says William W. Badger, director of asu’s School of Construction and president of the Hard Dollar Education Council, which includes 23 construction management programs nationwide.

Although promoting the Hard Dollar deal as "a wonderful model of universities and private industry working together," Badger remains skeptical of e-learning. The approach performs miserably, he says, at doing what comes naturally in college classrooms. That includes allowing students to develop leadership and communication skills, network with visiting professionals and professors, and come away inspired by teachers’ demonstrations of passion for subjects. Distance education also prevents teachers from observing and responding to students’ body language, he claims. "Distance education will be as good as in-class instruction when phone sex is as good as being there in person," Badger says.

But for busy industry professionals such as Bechtel’s Tharin, distance education may be the only way to boost career prospects. Working 60 hours per week and rAISIng three school-age children, she sees no way to get a master’s other than online.

Others view distance education as an acceptable way to cover material that they see little use for. "I personally don’t feel that an advanced degree helps in the construction industry, but I want to teach," says Michael M. Holland, 53, president of a San Antonio-based subcontractor and a frequent participant on teams that review accreditations of construction schools.

Holland completed much of his coursework by watching videotapes from Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. Unlike the University of Florida’s distance-education option for a cm degree, Clemson’s program uses videos, not the Web.

Given current bandwidth limits, older technologies remain attractive. Using two-way television, Thomas H. Mills, an associate professor of building construction at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, will teach a distance-education course next fall for the first time. From the main campus in Blacksburg, he will lecture to employees of Clark Construction Group Inc. in Washington, D.C., more than a four-hour drive away. They will sit in a specially outfitted "whitebox" classroom with cameras and lighting.

Mills worries about staying in one place to lecture to the camera: "I’m a nervous kind of person. I have to walk around and tap the board," he says. Like others, he looks forward to when 3-D virtual reality immersion technologies move from military applications into the mainstream, making distance education more spontaneous. Until then, e-learning may remain a distant substitute for the classroom experience.