Meeting Matrix

No matter how skilled you are, odds are that some extra coursework in planning would improve your job performance, make your work more intellectually satisfying, and increase your attractiveness to employers.

Unfortunately, professional education isn't free, but it has gotten cheaper with the advent of online learning. If you want specialized instruction, and want it cheap, try a Web-based class. We'll get you started in the right direction.

Point-and-Click Classrooms

More meeting professionals are interested in online education than ever before, say universities and associations, who have met rising demand for Web-based classes with growing programs that cover a wide variety of meeting-related subjects. The reasons for this trend are simple: meeting professionals' jobs are becoming more specialized, and Web-based learning options are a readily available and relatively inexpensive. Plus, planners are increasingly comfortable with the Internet and have better access to the Web than ever before.

The online courses seem to be best suited to busy professionals who have trouble scheduling traditional classroom learning. Sally Crump, meeting coordinator for Abbott Park, IL-based Abbott Laboratories, is typical. "I want to move more into meeting production and planning, but to go further from where I'm at now, I need a degree," she explains. "I don't have time to go to college with everything I have going on." Indeed, with two young children and a schedule that may take her to three different countries in a single month, Crump would be hard-pressed to find the time for classroom learning.

"The level of interest among our members is high for all types of programs that contribute to their lifelong learning," says David Kushner, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) in Chicago. "They are very comfortable with Web-based education." Like some other industry associations, PCMA offers a variety of Web-based classes that cover topics like managing small meetings, and can also prepare students to test for advanced professional designations. PCMA's courses are available to association members as well as the general public.

The Dallas-based industry association Meeting Professionals International (MPI) also offers online learning options designed to meet the educational needs of its members. So far, about 100 meeting planners have used MPI's Web-based preparation courses for the Convention Industry Council's Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) designation. "Our members are interested in earning CMP designations, but many of them live in areas that don't offer the courses needed to prepare for the CMP exam," says Coleman, an independent educator based in Mineral Point, WI, who created MPI's CMP Online Course.

MPI's Web-based CMP preparation course covers the same topics as the CMP exam, says Coleman, complete with reading materials and practice tests. "Most people who have taken the online course use this as their only preparation for the CMP exam," he explains. "But some have taken other classes, too. It depends on the confidence level, and the experience level, of the individual."

Besides online learning options provided by industry associations, many universities also offer meeting-related Web-based classes that are available to the general public.

Professor Computer's Limitations

While the Internet is a valuable new medium for teaching, say educators, there are limits to what can be learned over the Internet, and certain subjects are best taught face-to-face. "We have wine tasting classes and culinary classes," says Patti Shock, professor and chairwoman of the Tourism and Convention Department at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, "but we don't offer them on the Internet. It's kind of hard to teach someone to cook online. Field trips are tough, too."

But for many courses, Shock hastens to add, the Internet is a very effective vehicle for learning. "Distance learning is an excellent option for people who are place-bound or tied to work schedules that won't allow for time in classrooms," she says, "and it will grow and gain acceptance as people become more comfortable with the technology."

Shock says that even though there is less face-to-face interaction with her online students, she sometimes develops a better rapport with them than she does with classroom students. "Sometimes with Web-based classes, I have a better back-and-forth exchange with students. By using e-mail I can take time and answer questions in a lot more detail than I can in a classroom," Shock explains. "And I can go look at my students' personalized Web sites, to get a feeling for their backgrounds."

The main technological hindrance facing Web-based learning is the limited availability of high-speed Internet access. Although most Internet courses can be taken using a telephone modem, Shock says, "Students with high-speed access get into it better than those who have to use telephone modems. Dial-up access can get frustrating. It's slow. But as high-speed access spreads, more people will get into online learning."

While everyone agrees that online learning is a valuable resource, most educators and students admit that face-to-face interaction adds depth to education. Candy Adams, a consultant with Carlsbad, CA-based Trade Show Consulting, has four professional certifications, including a CMP designation. She emphasizes the importance of personal contact. "To me, interaction is everything," Adams says. "Getting to know people who have other areas of expertise is just invaluable for me." All that face time doesn't come cheap: Adams had to budget for over a year to pay for some of her coursework, but she says the experiences have been worth it.