online_degree.jpgHow does learning occur? How do you know that learning has occurred? What about knowledge? How is knowledge transferred? How are skills acquired? What about wisdom? How do you transfer wisdom? And how do you create good judgment?

I spent 10 years getting three college degrees. I’ve taught myriad college-level courses as an adjunct professor. I’ve spent many weeks over the last decade and a half in Cambridge at Harvard Business School, and I’ve taken more continuing education than I care to remember. And I’m still somewhat mystified as to how learning occurs.

Nonetheless, I have deep doubts as to the efficacy of online learning. There is no doubt that learning, particularly certain types of learning, can occur online. There is also no doubt that a motivated student can be self-taught. Yet it also is true that it is especially easy for an online degree to not be worth the paper it is printed on, for even a well-intentioned student to not get the quality of education that’s available via a full-time, in-residence program.

Call me a glutton for learning, but I’ve attended enough executive education classes at Harvard Business School to qualify as an alumnus. No joke. I can join the Harvard Club if I want, I get endowment solicitations. Heck, I’ve even got an HBS email address. All that said, I can honestly say that the number one source of my learning while there was my fellow students. Yes, the class discussions were great but it was the informal interactions, the hallway conversations that continued after class, the quiet talks that would spontaneously occur at night, the shared stories of woe and triumph, challenge and response. This is why I went, this is how I began to acquire true knowledge, wisdom, and good judgment. The second greatest source of knowledge was the professors themselves; you would be hard put to find a greater concentration of sheer IQ focused on the study of business organization and financial systems. The case studies themselves were frequently interesting and the third greatest source of learning, but mainly they served as a structure to allow for intellectual interaction on a personal level.

Which is what online learning mostly lacks: interaction on a personal level, the type of interaction that I believe is a key component of teaching deep skills and meaningful knowledge transfer. Yes, at its most elementary level, business requires a certain knowledge of basic facts that can be learned by rote, and perhaps online learning (or self-study, a lot less expensive!) can teach you what cap rates are and the role of the Federal Reserve in the financial system and what FASB stands for and how to calculate a mortgage constant and the difference between an LLC and a Sub S Corporation. But at the graduate degree level, can you fully teach wisdom online? Good judgement? Leadership? Decision making? Negotiation? Can you teach someone to be a “Master” of Business Administration strictly online?

Personally, I have my doubts.

(Note: This post was sparked by a June 22, 2009 Wall Street Journal article, “The Jack Welch MBA Coming to the Web.)