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INSTITUTES' VIRTUAL CLASSROOM OPENS DOORS

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Career advancement for some insurance professionals has just gotten a little easier.

This month the American Institute for CPCU and the Insurance Institute of America started offering two classes over the Internet on a pilot basis, providing a wealth of opportunity for people who have deferred pursuing education and advanced degrees, perhaps because of their location, demanding work and travel schedules, and family obligations.

The online classes aren't meant to replace the classroom versions of 60 or so courses, but they instead will provide an alternative for people who find it difficult to attend classes, according to the Malvern, Pa.-based institutes.

The courses being offered online are INS 22, personal insurance, which is part of a three-course program in general insurance; and CPCU 9, economics, which is part of the 10-course CPCU designation program. Eighteen students are enrolled in each online course.

If the pilot program is successful, the institutes plan to offer the same two online courses this spring, along with INS 23, commercial insurance, and CPCU 6, the legal environment of insurance.

The institutes decided to go online with the two courses for several reasons.

In an increasingly Internet-savvy world, the institutes felt some pressure to compete with colleges, universities and other educational organizations that provide classes or even entire programs online, said Ken Dauscher, the AICPCU's vp of educational services.

Also, while a class using the formal structure may be canceled for a lack of registered students, an "Internet class can pull students together from all over the country," making cancellation unlikely, Mr. Dauscher said.

And in the past five to eight years, the ratio of students studying independently vs. taking formal classes has changed dramatically in favor of independent study, he said. "Increasingly, it's because people feel they're working longer and harder, and they don't want to commit to a special time and a special place. So they go with independent study because it's more flexible."

A telemarketing survey also showed high interest in Internet classes.

Independent study through the Internet offers even more flexibility and enhances learning by providing an environment where students can receive feedback from their instructors and other students. This helps those students with "learning principles or concepts or knowing if they've mastered the material," Mr. Dauscher said.

The advantage of immediate feedback is readily apparent after teaching the CPCU class for only one week, said Jim Sherlock, a principal consultant in the training department at CIGNA Property & Casualty in Philadelphia. Mr. Sherlock, who has been teaching CPCU courses in the classroom for 15 years, is the CPCU 9 instructor.

"You have access to the teacher every day, and that's something I didn't have in the traditional classes. . . . If you have a question while you're reading the book, you can just get into the Internet and post a message for me," he said.

Because he responds to his e-mail every night, Mr. Sherlock said access to the instructor is probably better in the virtual classroom than in a traditional classroom. "With this course, I just take my laptop with me. I could be anywhere in the country and just plug in and I'm in the classroom," he said.

Students taking the online classes first have to go into the institutes' World Wide Web site, www.aicpcu.org. From there, the students use a password to log into a special class site, which contains three sections where the students and instructor communicate. The "assignments" section has the textbook reading assignment and questions for the coming week, the "course work" section has exercises in addition to the textbook assignment, and the "discussion" section provides a forum where students post answers to assignments and respond to other answers.

The virtual class brings more participation, said Mr. Sherlock. "With this, you can't not participate," he said.

Traditional classrooms may have passive students who don't get involved in the discussion despite instructors' techniques to try to get them involved. "Here, you got an assignment, you have something specific you have to do. And the way the class is structured, other students are depending on you getting your work done. So, it's a little motivating in that regard."

Indeed, Mr. Sherlock has found that typically some students have trouble even making it to a traditional class because of other obligations and time constraints. An online class, however, "allows people to sit down and attend the class when it's convenient for them, rather than when it's convenient for me," he said.

However, building social ties on the Internet is no easy task, admits Mr. Dauscher. "The challenges are many because you do have to try to establish a sense of community on the Internet with the students in the class. You have to get them to communicate with each other as well as with the instructor. But it can be done, and it can be done effectively," he said.

Mr. Dauscher added that the institutes expect students will go into the class site at least three times a week to read what's been posted and to add to the discussion.

Another advantage to online learning is that it sharpens the students' writing skills. The writing-intensive nature of the online class is conducive to the writing-intensive CPCU exams, Mr. Sherlock said. "The CPCU exams are written exams, and a course like this is all writing," he said. "We're sitting down and we're writing our ideas out, and that's the structure of the CPCU exam. People get a problem, and they have to write an answer."

Two students taking the other online course, INS 22, are pleased with the experience thus far, though both admit using the Internet has its challenges.

Pamela Orr, a part-time insurance specialist in the Colorado Springs, Colo., regional office of United Services Automobile Assn. and the mother of an 11-year-old boy, said she prefers the traditional class setting, but this semester not enough students registered for an onsite class at USAA.

"A lot of people like the flexibility of the online course, and so far that has been a big plus," Ms. Orr said. "I miss the social interaction, because you're not talking one-on-one, but the instructor has been very encouraging online so far in trying to get you involved in what they call discussions."

Maryloretto Buckley, project manager at the Austin, Texas-based Financial Services Group of Computer Sciences Corp., which sells property and casualty insurance software, is a self-described "techie." She is taking the entire INS series of courses to increase her knowledge and better communicate with her company's business analysts and customers. Ms. Buckley said the online course meshes well with her heavy workload and occasional travel.

"Our teacher so far has done a very good job of answering questions and giving very positive feedback. It's an incentive to keep on reading and keep on doing your homework," Ms. Buckley said. Although the assignments are due Wednesdays, students can turn the homework in ahead of time and get immediate feedback, she added.

However, working online has its own quirks, to which both educators and students must adjust. "There obviously are technical challenges," said Mr. Dauscher. "The software can work very well, but depending on what version Web browser somebody has or who their Internet service provider is, you can find that there are problems there," he said.

Additionally, some companies' system configurations don't use certain computer languages, though only one or two students have encountered problems getting to the institutes' Web site, he said.

The writing-intensive nature of the class also poses a challenge. For example, the institutes had to work with the instructors ahead of time to create lesson plans that take into account the online setting, where communication is based solely on writing, Mr. Dauscher said.

He did note that online classes do not offer other forms of communication, such as body language and eye contact.

"The only thing that's been a little difficult is that once everybody has been (online) and they get the discussion going back and forth, you go in and there's 56 e-mail messages," Ms. Orr said. To get a thorough overview of the course and know the answers to the other educational objectives, she said, it's necessary to read through all the questions and be involved in the discussion.

"During orientation, everybody said it was 'a new experience,' " Ms. Orr recalled. "Now we're just into the second week and I'm much, much quicker and it's much less frustrating, whereas the first week I would say it was a little frustrating," she said.

As the Internet's presence becomes more encompassing, the ability to adjust smoothly to online learning is definitely an asset, but those who prefer the traditional classroom shouldn't worry. "The Internet is an alternative means to study. It's not for everybody, at least not for now. But we're amazed at the level of interest that there is," said Mr. Dauscher.