Session.EDU – E Learning can be Anywear

Morten Solhberg is the founder and CEO of, the first online school of visual communication and new media. Prior to developing three years ago, he served as a professor of advanced digital design at Parson’s School of Design and a senior design consultant for Visual Persuasion in New York In 1994, he was in charge of developing and implementing the visual communication curriculum for University of San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador.

Founded in 1997, has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most respected online new media school, offering courses to wide diversity of students from over 60 countries.

As a professor and businessman, Morten’s provocative and, at times, controversial, views about the quality and accessibility of traditional, brick-and-mortar education have spurred more than a few debates in the field of academia. Based on his own considerable experience learning and teaching in both digital and physical class rooms, Morten contends that e-learning not only improves the effectiveness and efficiency of education. but also increases its access to a greater number and wider diversity of students.

Morten Solhberg talks to ABILITY Magazine about and shares his views about online learning as a democratic, quality-driven alternative to classroom education.

Chet Cooper: What is your back ground and what made you decide to create

Morten Solhberg: I started building from scratch about 4 years ago. I worked as a professor of the University of San Francisco de Quito in Ecuador in South America, where I built a curriculum in visual communication for 100-150 students each year. But it was driving me crazy because I knew I could reach more people than I was actually reaching. There were a lot of people that I couldn’t teach because, faced with different obstacles, they just weren’t able to come to the school. And this is when I started to think about creating a school taught entirely online and accessible to everyone.

CC: How does an online class at work?

MS: Well, first of all, the lectures and classes are not taught in real time. Once they register, our students are granted access to our online program where specific course material and lectures are posted. Students can study at their preferred pace, whenever they like from anywhere in the world. Assignments are posted to an internal discussion area where student/instructor interaction takes place via an e-mail system developed specifically for e-learning. Importantly, unlike traditional classroom education, has been carefully structured so that all students get equal attention and interaction with their instructors, no matter what their experience level or how out spoken they are.

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CC: Is it interactive?

MS: Absolutely. Students have a specific portion of each lesson dedicated solely to email interaction with their instructors, fellow students or administrators, should they have any logistical questions. There is also a community center for all general announcements from instructors or administrators.

CC: Do students have access to their instructors to ask questions?

MS: Yes. Generally we respond within 24 hours. As opposed to many online schools who try to mimic class. room education, we have found that it’s far more efficient and productive if people are allowed to think about what they want to write instead of being tied to an immediate chat environment. Although, we do have chat rooms in multiple languages that students can meet in if they prefer immediate dialogue.

CC: Can a student pick up a phone and talk to an instructor?

MS: Students can pick up the phone and reach an administrator at any time. However, they are not able to reach the professors. When we decided to hire the top academics and professionals in the industry, we had to make a trade off. These are extremely busy, high profile individuals and we have to respect their time and privacy. But, as I mentioned, there is a live chat on the Website.

CC: And what exactly does teach?

MS: We teach three core topics. The first one being the front-end of web development-graphic design and visual communication. We also teach the technology side of new media, such as infrastructure and data base administrator programming. The third category includes e-business skills, basically business strategy and Inter net marketing. Offering these three types of curricula really make a one-stop shop for all Internet-related education.

CC: How long are the programs?

MS: The programs range from three unit to nine unit courses, which typically take an average of six to twelve weeks. It takes about a week to complete a lesson. However, since students can take all the courses at their own pace, this timetable is only a guideline. That is why this school is so ideal for students who work, have families, or who have temporary or permanent disabilities.

CC: How did Sessions get the “edu” at the end of their name?

MS: Well, the “edu” denotes a recognized educational institution. We were extremely fortunate to be granted this domain. The traditional authorities do not have the experience to accredit online schools. We have applied for accreditation with the Distance Learning and Education Council and the National Association of Design, which we expect will be granted by early next year. Right now, our students receive a valued Certificate.

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CC: Do the students who take these courses usually attend a traditional university, as well? Or are they taking the courses only to learn specific skills?

MS: That’s a good question. We have a broad range of students. Many attend traditional universities. Others are taking courses to re-school or re-tool themselves. Some students are completing their education, which they’ve started at another school. But we are beginning to see more and more people pursue their entire education in this online environment.

CC Where are most of your students located?

MS: We have students from over 60 countries right now. Our philosophy is to make it possible for students from all over the world to take courses by recognized thought leaders. The school is completely online our students can take the courses from wherever they are as long as they have access to a computer and the Internet.

CC How are you dealing with the different language barriers?

MS: Well, we’re in the process of translating all our courses into Spanish-which should be available this Fall-but we’re also planning to translate the material into French, German, and three Asian languages within the next three years. We’re teaming up with E-Translate for that project.

CC: How are you incorporating issues of access into your curriculum?

MS: Well, the core concept of how we deliver our -learning is that any individual, no matter what their background, where they are located, or what physical disabilities they are living with, should be able to take courses with us. So as far as that goes, yes. And, techno logically, we are also planning to develop sound-based online courses so that people with visual impairments can access the system.

CC Do you know any students with disabilities who have taken your classes?

MS: Though we do not track the demographics of our students, I personally know of several students with dis abilities who are taking, or have taken, our courses. I know of one student in particular who has been with us for a quite a while-a woman named Karen from Texas who is suffering from a progressive circulatory ailment (see side bar). She had to quit her job and is now taking our certificate program to prepare for a new career as a Website developer. We often get letters from individuals with disabilities who share with us how has changed their lives.

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CC. That’s great. How are you marketing your Website?

MS: Our best marketing tool is our students. They talk about us and this conversation has traveled across borders. In addition, we do use some online advertising programs.

CC What are the pitfalls of distance learning?

MS: Well, I think that it’s important to point out that we’re not trying to mimic the traditional way of learning. We just don’t believe that the traditional model of education is particularly good. Up until now, it has been used because alternatives weren’t available. People have to meet at certain times, in certain places. This puts countless obstacles in the way of opening access to education. What we have done is build a learning model. based on the availability and immediacy of the Internet, by not tying any of our methodology to the traditional model. In developing our online teaching approach, we went through a learning curve. In the beginning we had a very high dropout rate. We eliminated real-time teaching and reduced the dependence on technology. Now almost half of our students come back for additional courses.

CC What are the computer and plug-in requirements for your students?

MS: All our students need is basic Internet access-no plug-ins whatsoever. We don’t use streaming media or Flash in our classes because we realize that not everyone has high-speed modems or broadband access. Stu dents can take our courses with a 28.8 from anywhere in the world. And as we continue to grow, maintaining a minimal technology requirement is extremely important to us we do not want to limit any users out there. The quality, as far as we’re concerned, is based on the curriculum and the instructors that we recruit, not on the gadgets we use.

CC Do you have any career placement systems available to your students?

MS Yes, we have an interactive job line that students can access to ask questions or get career advice. We also partner with a job placement agency called that does an excellent job placing our student after graduation. We also offer portfolio services to help students post their work online for potential employers to see. I know that several of our graduates now work for prominent design studios, Websites and media companies. Some of them have even started their own studios specializing in graphic and web design.

CC Given your success to date, what are your goals for in the future?

MS: We plan to become the leader in e-learning on all levels of new media education. We have already success fully developed a specific methodology that allows us to communicate directly to our users entirely online. Though there has been a lot of experimenting with teaching through computers, these experiments often fail. because we tend to forget that it is not the technology that makes the difference, but rather the content and the methodology that counts when you want to teach someone something in this new medium. And that is where I think really pre vails in the market of online educators. I think that we will be growing very fast based on this established success. To be honest, we hope to be remembered as the guys who figured out e-learning.

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Student Karen Anderson:

Eleven years ago, Karen was the territorial manager for a dental manufacturing company in Texas. Her position required her to travel frequently, and she split time between five states. All of that changed when Karen was diagnosed with a progressive circulatory ailment, a condition that would eventually require her to spend part of each day wired to a machine.

Karen’s condition forced her to go on long term disability. However, her insurance company was unconvinced of her disability and constantly threatened to drop her from the plan. Years later, they offered her an ultimatum, accept their help in finding a new career, or leave the policy. The insurance company would pay for two years of schooling, to equip Karen for living and working with her disability. After that, she was on her own.

Karen began researching careers that interested her, and that she could be successful. She stumbled upon web design, and then, an online school of visual communications and new media. She was drawn to the idea that she could study web design and earn a certificate, without the troublesome commute.

Karen was impressed with’s webpage, but wanted to be sure that the education was legitimate. She researched the credentials of the school and the professors, and acceptance of the courses within the field.

“ really seemed to practice what they preached,” she said. Satisfied that was what she was looking for, she contacted the insurance company. They quickly agreed to pay for the classes. As an added caution. Karen called and spoke with Ian Aronson, the director of education. She told him about her disability and asked if he thought she could do it. “You can do it,” was his response, and Karen enrolled.

Today, Karen is working toward certificates in graphic arts and web design, and is taking other classes outside of her certificate program. She dedicates between one and three hours a day to her course work, which continues to excite her. “I’m the kind of person that likes to be in the top ten percent of whatever I do,” she says. “I have those same aspirations for web design.”

Karen finds that the limitations of an online education are few. She has been successful in developing relationships with her professors, and finds their email responses to her questions are usually very timely. She occasionally logs on to the class chat rooms, where students meet to discuss lessons, and monitors her classmates comments and questions. She is taking additional classes at a local community college, but finds that those offered by are more challenging.

While web design is very different from Karen’s career prior to her disability, it is one that she is pursuing with enthusiasm. She is excited about the newness of the industry and the equal opportunities that it offers to everyone.

“I’m fifty years old,” she says, “but age is not a barrier.” Karen is building a portfolio and hopes that will assist her in finding work within the field of web design. Eventually, she would like to own and operate her own business.

Even after she finds work, she anticipates taking courses to stay on top of the field. Karen knows that web design requires constant attention to new technology and techniques, a willingness to continually educate yourself. She says, “I’m counting on to stay on the leading edge, so that I can stay on the leading edge.”

The fees for courses range from $79 to $329, with discounts for students from developing countries.

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