The idea of setting up a professional education web site grew out of the work of John Petroff, an American economics professor, in Russia and Kazakhstan for USAID (United States Agency for International Development) and the European Commission in the 1990's.
The USAID and EC projects were intended to help these countries upgrade the skills of their professionals in banking and business, in particular. After spending five years on these educational programs, it became apparent that only a very small number of individuals could benefit from these and many similar other programs, at a rather handsome cost to donor countries. A more efficient delivery of education was clearly imperative. Yet the educational programs were conducted in a rather privileged context. A well educated society is one of the rare shining achievements of socialism. Naturally, the emphasis on natural and exact sciences and the neglect of social sciences over 70 years of communism made the soviet educational establishment ill prepared to offer young people the skills needed in emerging market economies.
Teaching methods of the past are also becoming unsustainable. Predominance of oral teaching and oral testing (with few - if any - books and little student initiative) requires a large teaching staff only possible in a command economy. At the turn of the century, scores of universities have already closed, others will close, dismal faculty salaries discourage new entrants to the profession, and as mentioned above, most foreign intervention is ineffective. It is easy to predict a serious educational setback in former soviet countries for generations to come.
Computers and the Internet
The use of computers and internet educational delivery is an obvious - but partial - solution to deal with the oncoming crisis in these countries. One can envision 1) new courses to be written and available to students at a fraction of the time it takes to print and ship textbooks; 2) faculty able to exchange ideas on the web with foreign colleagues and to be propelled to the cutting edge of their disciplines, 3) students accessing this pool of knowledge regardless of handicaps of distance, time and income. Indeed, income, and especially income, because it is a major hurdle in transition economies. Predictions that the cost of computers will equal that of television sets which even poorest families have, is far from farfetched. To be realistic distance education is not a final solution to educational problems. For one thing, a large proportion of students can't learn from books or computers alone: the body chemistry of a teacher and the moral support of a mentor are far superior. This is especially true for a wide range of general knowledge subjects where a teacher makes a topic come alive in ways that no computer can. Internet learning is however most appropriate for highly motivated individuals and for highly technical subjects, i.e. professional education. This is precisely the fields for which Russian professors are lured away from teaching by commercial employment. It is therefore where internet teaching can be most beneficial. What is true for transition economies, is just as true for many other countries of the world.
Upon returning to the United States in 1999, an opportunity arose to become personally and acutely aware of what professional education was available on the net. My wife needed to take some refresher accounting courses. Living on the top of our Catskills mountain, one hour from the nearest college, encouraged us to look for distance education first. The selection was abundant but somewhat confusing (without the possibility to try out, for instance), lightyears away from the web learning promised flexibility in distance and time (with tight semester schedules and/or occasional class presence), with requirements to buy additional disks, videos or books, and above all at an unexpectedly high price. There was also a lot of disorganized accounting teaching from a number of sources that could not lead to any recognizable accreditation. My wife ended up taking the nightly hour drive to classes at Columbia-Green Community College for half the cost of the average accounting course on the internet.
Existing distance education has failed to offer what my wife and many others like her, but less fortunate than her, needed. Some organizations (such as UNext) are reported to have spent in excess of a million dollars for a single course. Justifiably, they count on getting a fair return on their investment by charging for their courses as much as an ivy league university. Moreover, the lack of any accreditation system of distance education and the proprietary secrecy of web teaching bring doubt about its quality, especially for less costly alternatives. For professional education in the United States, the web is currently another vehicle for offering skills and income opportunities to those who have the money to pay. It is widening the information technology divide in the United States. Clearly, the divide is even wider for people in less prosperous countries.
Low cost professional education
But it does not have to be that way. The creation of PEOI is a challenge to prove that professional education can be made available at little or not cost to all that need it. A study by the Sloan Foundation on the profitability of several distance education programs they supported, showed that on-line education is not a cash cow even when exorbitant tuition is charged. Undoubtedly, there are costs. They are of two types: development and delivery. Course development should be amortized over the life of the course which should be almost inifinite, but certainly not included in current operating expenses. Another conclusion of the Sloan Foundation study is that duplicating in class course delivery is as expensive as regular university tuition because of the involvement of instructors and the necessity to make available a range of student services. But that is not what on-line education ought to be because all students do not require an instructor, a library, a cafeteria and other such services. PEOI model is to parcel out and price separately the different services students may need: receiving advice from intructor, having new tests, submitting assignments for grade, taking test, receiving a certificate and having a permanent proof of course completion. Certification is especially costly because of the need to verify student's identity. An average fee of $100 per student per course should be sufficient to cover all recurring operating costs, as shown in proposed budget for 2001 to 2007.
For a student who does not need any of the services other than reading course content and taking on-line existing testing, the monetary aspect is rather straightforward. For a web site that can accommodate eight or ten professional courses, and several hundred students, the cost of 100 Megs of server storage space and 1.5 Gigabyte of traffic is less than $200 per year. Even for an old retired professor, this is practically pocket money. Or putting it another way, the marginal cost of maintaining course content per student is less than a dollar per course, or, relative to the income opportunity generated by the acquire skills, virtually nill.
The major task however resides in placing course content of quality. Rather than spend millions of dollars upfront, PEOI's choice is to subject a course to peer critique and comments. The ideal would be to make each course an open platform for all new refinements to be incorporated, in a similar manner to the medical advice web sites (such as Farminfo.com). Eventually, standards of quality in distance education will evolve. PEOI will be happy to take part in exploring and formulating such standards. The starting point of discussion should at least be a sample for all to see and discuss. And that is precisely what PEOI offers to the higher education community with its on-line courses open to all.
With this background, PEOI was started in January 2000 on the basis of 20 years of experience in computer based learning and teaching finance and economics courses. The obvious choice for the first course to be placed on the web was a course in financial analysis which was first distributed to students in the form of copied lecture notes when teaching at SUNY-Geneseo in the early 1980's, and which had gone through countless revisions and expansions after that. Although in need of revisions, four study guides that used to be distributed on diskettes, were added. Improvements in grammar and style are certainly desirable in much of the text, but getting the web site started will postpone them for a while. By the end of year 2000, the web site had been outfitted with all the needed testing and administrative features.
Professional Education Organization International Fund (PEOI)
In early 2001, the functioning of the web site was thoroughly tested and a decision was made to create the organization itself. On March 5, 2001, PEOI was organized as Professional Education Organization International Fund, with abbreviation of PEOI, in the State of Pennsylvania (see Articles of Incorporation). In April 2001, an employer identification number, a bank account and a request for an IRS letter of determination as public charity got PEOI ready for its day to open for business. The English version of the web site was launched on September 1, 2001. On July 2, 2002, PEOI received its letter of advanced determination from the IRS making PEOI exempt under 501(c)(3). Much of the real challenge (described in Strategy) still lies ahead and achieving the impact PEOI should have for aspiring young people throughout the world rests in the hands of a few funding sources that recognize the importance of the project, and those of a few good men and women who choose to join in the effort to make PEOI a reality.
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