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Online Training: Outside the Class

January 1, 2006

By Masha Zager

Real estate education has to be two things: convenient and accessible. That's why Realtor® associations are thinking outside the classroom and expanding their online course offerings.

In response to association demand, commercial vendors have developed a wide variety of prelicensing and continuing education course offerings, and a lot of the continuing education courses are approved for continuing education credit in many states.

Some associations offer vendors’ complete product lines; others offer a limited number and add or delete courses depending on demand and student feedback. For example, the Greater Binghamton Association of Realtors® in Binghamton, N.Y., offers an array of license renewal, appraisal, and continuing education courses from Thomson Computaught; a set of continuing education courses from Dearborn’s REcampus; Realtor® University’s full catalog of designation and continuing education courses; and NAR’s epro courses leading to a certification in online real estate.

Less hassle for members—and you

Convenience isn’t the only factor driving online registrations. As Doug Harrison, director of education for the Dulles Area Association of Realtors® in Leesburg, Va., points out, online education also enables prospective members to get their licenses more quickly. About half of the association’s pre-licensing students last year completed the course online, he says. Online education may also offer a comfort zone of sorts, according to Linda Bardach, director of professional development for the Georgia Association of Realtors® in Atlanta. She speculates that members for whom English is a second language may find online courses less daunting than classroom instruction.

For the most part, though, the appeal of online education is the enormous scheduling flexibility it affords members who “want to fit education into their own timetable,” says Harrison. In the most popular format, students simply log onto Internet-based courses and work through the readings, reference materials, exercises, and quizzes over a certain time period. In an even more flexible variation, students work through the materials offline using a CD-ROM, then upload their work to show that they have successfully completed the course.

Other online formats offer less scheduling flexibility in exchange for more interaction with instructors and other students. For example, in the Graduate, Realtor® Institute (gri) designation course offered by the Tennessee Association of Realtors®, students participate in instructor-led classes using a private online forum as a virtual classroom. For each assignment—such as rewriting a listing presentation, filling out a contract, or developing a prequalification worksheet on a hypothetical client—students are required to answer discussion questions and challenges posed by the instructor and to critique other students’ answers. While each assignment has a fixed deadline, students can post to the forum at any time within that period.

Yet another format is an instructor-led videoconference, which the Georgia Association of Realtors® is planning to use. Through GAR’s video classes, students will log on for scheduled “live” class sessions. Students will get the benefit of a live instructor but can attend from their own home or office, thereby eliminating the hassle of a time-consuming commute.

Working with vendors to offer these prepackaged courses is a simple process. “There isn’t really a downside,” says Harrison. Vendors handle most administrative functions. The association may have to answer students’ technical or substantive questions, but the courses tend to be easy to use and generate few questions. Once students complete a course, the association verifies the completion and processes their credits. Vendors usually provide statistical reports showing how many students have signed up for and completed each course.

Another bonus is the fact that there are no out-of-pocket costs for the association. Rather, associations stand to gain financially because vendors remit a percentage of student fees (usually between 10 percent and 50 percent) to the association. Although vendors recommend course pricing, associations can sometimes negotiate price changes or build in their own administrative fee.

When the old standards won’t do

Prepackaged courses won’t fill every educational need. Sometimes there are local regulations that aren’t covered in these standardized programs. Other times an association may wish to make its online offerings consistent with its classroom training. The Georgia Association of Realtors® worked with Thomson Computaught to customize its online gri course. Within just a couple of months of the April 2005 launch, 51 students had completed online courses. The association paid an upfront development fee to Thomson but recouped the cost in less than a year.

Associations sometimes choose to develop altogether new courses. For example, the Ohio Association of Realtors® developed an ethics course and an agency course (both of which are required core courses in Ohio) and made them accessible to Realtors® who access Realtor® University through the OAR Web site. According to Education Director Tim Lockwood, the courses cost between $6,000 and $9,000 to put online, including the cost of curriculum development.

Growing in popularity

Education directors we interviewed estimate that online courses comprise only between 5 percent and 30 percent of their current course registrations. But they say member response is generally positive and interest in online education is growing as students gain familiarity with it. Charles “Pug” Scoville, who directs TAR’s gri designation program, says the online courses require more student participation than the classroom courses. Bardach says online students score higher on exams than classroom students in equivalent courses.

Still, online education isn’t for everyone and won’t replace classroom education any time soon. Many people learn better through interaction with instructors and other students. Others don’t like spending large blocks of time in front of a computer or are uncomfortable with the amount of reading and test-taking required in online classes.

Administrative issues can also present problems. Association education directors can’t always describe online classes adequately to prospective students, and, depending on the vendor’s policy, associations may not be able to promise refunds if students aren’t satisfied with the class.

All that said, online education is providing an excellent supplement to classroom courses, making learning easier, faster, and more comfortable for many students.

Tips to Get You Started

If you’re considering starting an online education program, here’s some advice from association education directors who’ve been there:

* Survey your members to find out whether there’s a need.

* Be clear about your revenue and service goals.

* Consider several vendors and request competitive offers. Make sure you get live demos
of the courses.

* If a course has been approved by the Association of Real Estate License Law Officials (ARELLO), your state real estate commission will probably approve it for continuing education credit.

* Look for vendors who are willing to work with you to customize courses and who offer administrative support, such as online statistical reports and e-mail notifications of student course completion.

Shop for the Right Vendor

If you’re interested in offering online courses, you’ll have to shop around for the right vendor to help you set up and administer your system. The AEs we interviewed reported positive experiences with several, including:

* Dearborn REcampus—Operated by Dearborn Real Estate Education in Chicago, Dearborn REcampus offers online prelicensing, licensing, home inspection, appraisal, and continuing education courses for real estate practitioners. View demos of two courses at http://www.dearborn.com/recampus/home.asp. For more information, call 800/972-2220, or e-mail realestate@dearborn.com.

* Thomson Computaught—This Marietta, Ga., company provides accredited prelicensing, post-license, continuing education, and appraisal courses in 35 states. It also offers an affiliate program under which brokers, real estate schools, and others with a Web site can earn a percentage on every course completed through their site. For more information, visit http:// www.computaught.com, call 800/860-7479, or e-mail info@computaught.com.

* Internet Crusade—San Diego–based Internet Crusade, a Realtor® Benefitssm partner, offers the online e-pro® certification course sponsored by the National Association of Realtors®. e-pro® is designed to provide real estate professionals with the technology tools to help consumers buy or sell a home. For more information, visit http://www.internetcrusade.com or call 619/283-7302.

* Learning Library—The Toronto-based Learning Library specializes in Web-based education publishing and management and provides personal and professional continuing education, testing, certification, and licensing programs in many languages. Visit http://www.learning library.com to learn more. To set up an account, call 800/694-8674 or e-mail customers.sales@learninglibrary.com