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You've got employees to hire, a list of clients clamoring for attention and a serious problem with the ladies room on the second floor. You'd love to go back to school to enrich yourself and your business, but frankly, it'd be easier to find an extra million dollars than to find extra time in your day.
We at Entrepreneur understand your needs--you want to keep learning, but in the most efficient manner possible. So we sent our writers into virtual classrooms to find out whether online business classes are worth your time and money. What we found is that, though these classes are far less time-consuming than your typical brick-and-mortar university term, they are often valuable. To find out what subjects we tackled and who got detention in homeroom, read on.
Class: Around the World in 80 Cultures
Where:www.headlight.com(Click on "Business," then "International Etiquette.")
Duration: two to four hours
We technology writers aren't known for our stunning social skills. I'm more likely to write HTML than practice my business etiquette. That's why a virtual class sounds great: I take it on the Internet . . . any time I want to. My virtual class went into (literally) foreign territory for me: "Around the World in 80 Cultures." Business etiquette. Worldwide. Time for a tech hermit to learn some social graces.
Headlight.com was the home of this country-hopping excursion. Headlight acts a lot like a library, collecting business courses created by other providers and organizing them into categories. It also offers features for managers and business owners. You can build and keep team profiles for your employees and check their course progress and transcripts.
Signing up was quick and painless. SkillSoft Corp. (www.skillsoft.com), a developer of technology-based educational products, created the class, but everything is handled through Headlight. Included in the sign-up fee is access to the course for one year. Assigning courses to a team? You'll have to buy the course for each person.
After hitting the "Start" button, I got a course overview. The SkillSoft Course Player interface acts a lot like a regular Web page. You can also take mastery pretests that allow for an accelerated course that skips what you know. This is handy for busy business owners, but I went in for the full experience.
The course spans four sections: "Cultural Roots," "Cultural Mindsets," "Louder Than Words" and "Intercultural Business Protocols." The best parts of the class dealt with real-world situations. Did you know the Zulus have 39 words for green? That you shouldn't send yellow flowers to a European business-woman? (Yellow suggests she's been unfaithful.) That gifts given to Asians should be wrapped in red, not white? (White means bad luck.)
The majority of "Around the World in 80 Cultures" deals with Asian, Arab and Eastern European customs. There were a lot of textbook-style terms, such as "Linear-Active" culture versus "Multi-Active" culture, and short pop quizzes at the end of each section. Dialogues between imaginary businesspeople and a role-playing section livened things up a bit, one advantage a virtual class has over a textbook. As predicted, I spent one hour per day over three days--probably the shortest class I've ever taken.
"Around the World in 80 Cultures" isn't a comprehensive guide to international business protocol, but it's a solid primer. If you're taking a trip abroad or expecting to receive foreign business-people, the information on face-to-face encounters and decision-making styles will come in handy. It didn't turn me into a social business butterfly, but I'll know not to blow my nose in public if I ever go to Japan.
-Amanda C. Kooser
Class: It's About Time!: Managing Your Time Effectively
Where: www.smartplanet.com (in the "Career & Business" section)
Cost: $19.95, but you get one complimentary class when you sign up for free membership at SmartPlanet.
Duration: about 40 minutes
It's panic time, right? "I'm late on this contract proposal, I have a million things to do, the phone won't stop ringing, and I'm going to pull my hair out." If this is you, SmartPlanet.com's time-management course might help.
As a card-carrying procrastinator, I was the poster child for misusing time. I would get bogged down in the tiny details of my daily duties and postpone the big, important ones--precisely because they were really big and important and therefore seemed insurmountable. In short, I was the perfect test case for a class like this: If it could modify my habits, it could help anyone.
Because books, college extension courses and seminars overflow with time-management advice, I didn't know whether SmartPlanet would offer anything new: It does. The class is broken up into 13 sections, each designed to tackle the causes and effects of time waste. The final section even has nifty printable organization lists (to-do list, master list, task-tracking sheet, etc.)
The course begins with a self-assessment quiz to determine how well you manage time (I rated a whopping 30 out of a possible 100). Learning my problem areas was good, as was discovering the causes. For example, I realized I suffered from a lack of planning. Most likely cause? I'd been successful without planning, so I subconsciously decided to launch projects without adequate preparation. The course showed me how to change that.
Other workshops might advise, "Make a calendar," but this course shows how to prioritize tasks, break big projects into smaller ones and plot them on a calendar. It even advised how to choose the right calendar: Is it big enough? Can I carry it around? I found this helpful as a writer who faces deadlines daily.
Because the course is relatively short, it was manageable and easy to fit into an already-packed schedule. At points, however, it felt more like a good PowerPoint presentation than a class. But the format seemed to fit the subject matter--after all, I was studying time management, not quantum physics. And I found the exercises particularly helpful--they forced me to take a specific problem I was facing and break it down using steps I'd been taught. In this area, you'll get out of it as much as you put in.
Dealing with distractions was one area of the class I found lacking. It advised "closing your door" to keep voices, co-workers and fax-machine noise at bay. This won't help cubicle dwellers or those who share a single, tight space.
Still, the class will be valuable to inveterate procrastinators and people who overextend themselves (like me) who stare at the clock at the end of the day wondering where the time went. One of my favorite sections tells you how to say no to more work: "Guilt is not fatal," it reads, "and you'll become more comfortable saying no with practice."
Overall, this class is a good value; its length isn't intimidating, and the cost won't break the bank.
-Nichole L. Torres
Class: Marketing Fundamentals
Cost: $825 plus $60 application fee
Duration: eight weeks
Breaking ranks with my fellow writers, I decided to take a longer, eight-week class called Marketing Fundamentals. A theory course, it not only defines the different marketing types but also explains how marketing works within society and your business. The class is offered through National University, a San Diego-based, private, nonprofit, accredited university, and is facilitated by eCollege, which provides virtual-education technology to institutions.
Registration is somewhat involved and should be completed at least one month prior to your start. Enrollees are billed two weeks before the first day, and tuition must be paid before your first "meeting," or you'll pay a late fee.
Once enrolled, you need to purchase the textbook for the class. Just check the syllabus, then e-mail or call the school to order. It will be shipped to you.
Unlike other virtual classes that allow you to go at your own pace, Marketing Fundamentals is structured with set start and end dates, and it's no cakewalk: A syllabus, homework, a final exam and grades are all administered by an instructor. To successfully complete a longer course like this one, don't try to do the work during business hours. Carve out at least one hour each day of uninterrupted time to devote to it.
While you're more than welcome to read ahead in the textbook and online, the assignments for this class are only available sequentially at regular intervals. The course content is a combination of online reading and discussion, and offline textbook work and research.
What I liked best about the course were the threaded discussions: The instructor posted assignments, and students responded to them and to each other. Students sometimes even worked in virtual teams to complete assignments.
Each week, a different topic was covered, ranging from marketing's role in the global economy and various market segmentation opportunities to new-product development. Even pricing--a perennial head-scratcher for many--was discussed. That section explained things like product/service value that go into determining what to charge. While the online discussion didn't provide how-to instructions, it did give a framework to help you set pricing structures.
Obviously, this is no get-it-and-run course. It takes time, commitment and concentration to complete and is best suited to those who care about the why of marketing as well as the how-to.
-Cynthia E. Griffin
A look at the biggest names in virtual business courses
By Amanda C. Kooser
- Blackboard: Blackboard.com contains thousands of courses in categories ranging from "Higher Education" to "Corporate Training." Instructors use Blackboard to put their own courses online.
- CyberCampus: CyberCampus is provided through Golden Gate University (www.ggu.edu) and offers degrees and professional certificates. Online interaction with instructors and other students gives CyberCampus some of the aspects of a more traditional university environment.
- Headlight: Headlight specializes in business and technology courses and allows an employer to create a team profile and monitor employees' course progress. Some courses are free.
- Learn.com: Learn.com features a broad range of course topics, including Arabic, journalism and the Internet. Like Headlight, some courses are offered free of charge.
- SmartPlanet: SmartPlanet offers over 700 courses covering a variety of subjects. Some are taken on demand, while others are scheduled, instructor-led classes. Learning Advisers can help you select courses.