January 23, 2004

eValuating eCornell

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For some universities, online learning has proven to be a shaky business venture. Columbia University’s for-profit program, Fathom, was the industry’s largest until its demise in March 2003 after it failed to turn a profit. Cornell’s program, eCornell, has proven itself separate from the pack in its ability to remain successful despite the volatility of online businesses.

In a November release, eCornell said its finances are holding strong — $2.87 million in revenue with $1.73 million in royalties and course payments to Cornell and faculty as well as $1.2 million in the original startup payments to Cornell.


Rob Gearhart, director of academic programs for eCornell, said that when comparing Cornell’s online education to other major distance learning ventures, one should keep in mind that eCornell has largely focused on business education.

Through programs in collaboration with the School of Industrial and Labor Relations as well as the School of Hotel Administration, eCornell offers courses “targeted at business professionals for certificates, not degrees,” Gearhart said.

John L. Neuman, CEO of eCornell, has in the past pointed to this key difference separating eCornell from its competitors in the online learning community.

“eCornell takes a very different approach to online learning,” Neuman said. “Whereas eCornell targets corporate customers for training and certification programs, Fathom seeks a market of individuals who are willing to pay for courses on a variety of subjects.”

This difference has helped set eCornell apart from other ventures since its inception over three years ago in September 2000. Another more recent development at eCornell is its patent-pending teaching method called Learning Molecules.

“There is no intention to license the model,” said Ulises Ali Mejias, director of learning systems design at eCornell and the principal architect behind Learning Molecules. “The patent is a way to protect the model. … It is part of our competitive advantage.”

The model emphasizes specific methods of learning based around a central method of scenario learning, such as case studies, problems and questions. “The patent-pending model can be applied in any online learning setting … it’s a way of producing efficiently,” Gearhart said.

“It’s useful because it establishes a common language with the faculty. … It also allows us to produce content in a cost-efficient way,” Mejias said. “At the same time, it does not compromise teaching methods. In fact, faculty have said that it gets them to think [in different ways].”

The model was established nearly 18 months after eCornell’s inception and has stemmed some concerns over the quality and desirability of online learning. According to Gearhart, the data that eCornell collects shows that most professionals enrolled in eCornell say that the experience is “‘as good if not better’ than taking a course face to face. We feel really positive about that.”

Gearhart went on to say that “most studies find no significant difference with online learning. … At times it can enable a better learning environment.”

It may be no surprise that in light of its success, eCornell is planning to expand to deliver programs in five to nine Cornell units in 2004.

“Currently we are talking to an engineering group and units at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences,” Gearhart said.

Gearhart also said eCornell is considering bringing preparatory courses to undergraduate or recently graduated students, “If an arts student wants to be better prepared for the corporate world … we would create a package for students to help them during their senior year or just after they graduate.” However, he noted that they are still simply “toying with the idea.”

According to the November release, eCornell hopes its assets will allow Cornell to “innovate with instructional methods, expand the number of online programs offered [and] collaborate between and beyond Cornell’s campuses.”

In an editorial appearing in The Sun nearly a year ago, Sun editors wrote that “eCornell and the University should be looking to take the technological aspects of the company that have proven to be effective and implement them within the whole community so that, if eCornell becomes a thing of the past, the University has something to show for the venture.”

It seems that just now, eCornell leadership may be taking steps to make that a reality. “We will have a lot to talk about in the future,” Gearhart said.

Archived article by Brian Kaviar