The pandemic triggered a change to delivery methods and the rise of online learning programs for executives. And although the impact of coronavirus has been greatly reduced, many business schools and training providers are still delivering at least some of their courses remotely using technology.
“We are now in a transition phase of defining what the new normal means for executive education,” says Laura Sivula, Business Area Director of ACCESS (Aalto University Lifewide Learning), part of Aalto University Executive Education in Finland. “Even without the Covid pandemic, it would have been inevitable to revisit learning models and formats sooner than later as the world becomes more digital.”
The shifts in working practices driven by the pandemic have boosted the appeal of online courses for executive education. “People are used to working collaboratively on platforms and mobile devices. Why would education differ so radically from what is normal in the workplace?” asks Sivula.
She believes that online learning is here to stay. “Now after the pandemic we have a better understanding of what works well online and what does not.” She says online learning needs to be meaningful, for example. “There needs to be purpose in both high-intensity live learning experiences and digital content.”
Now that the pandemic is over, and face-to-face teaching has returned, schools are seeing a mix of both online delivery, face-to-face and blended content. “There is still a different market for each approach, with local companies wanting face-to-face or blended delivery, whilst larger, global companies find that either blended or solely online delivery works for them. Each approach has its own benefits,” says Steve Muylle, Associate Dean for Digital Learning at Vlerick Business School in Belgium.
He says the pandemic certainly accelerated the shift that was already occurring to more and more online delivery of executive programs. “This delivery method works especially well for global companies who want to train executives from all around the world, or perhaps do not have the time to travel to a campus,” says Muylle.
“Online can also allow business schools to bring in high-level guest speakers, who usually would not be able to take the time out of their schedule to travel to a campus. This is very valuable for participants.”
Networking and learning trade-offs
But there are clear trade-offs in terms of networking and learning opportunities. “Executive education is all about taking people out of a familiar environment and creating an inspiring space to learn. In our view, this is not entirely possible with purely online formats, since important parts of interpersonal communication cannot be conveyed as effectively as with in-person learning,” says Kai Stenzel, Chief Market Officer at Germany’s Mannheim business School.
So while online delivery has become an established part of the school’s portfolio, Stenzel doubts that online-only programs are the future of executive education. “We are convinced that it is much more about creating high-impact learning journeys,” he says. “This may include online elements, but in-person learning will continue to be indispensable. The vast majority of our participants and partner companies share this view.”
However, Vlerick’s Muylle insists that effective networking can be achieved online, it just has to be effectively designed into the program. “We find that fun, engaging games between participants are a great way to get them networking, as part of the bonding activities,” he says. In addition, participants will often work on different group projects, with joint objectives and assignments which they will work through together.
Making blended learning successful
To make online or blended learning successful, it is very important that participants can fully concentrate on the courses. “Anyone who is still answering emails, taking part in meetings, or preparing meals on the side will not achieve the desired learning success, and this is ultimately money and time wasted both for participants and their employers,” Mannheim's Stenzel says. “That’s why it is important to create an appropriate learning environment and learning journey for online formats and also to effectively monitor learning success.”
Aalto University’s Sivula believes that, in the future, business schools will utilize live interactions more effectively with networking becoming more intentional. “Hybrid programs will increase in popularity, with a combination of maximum immersion in on-site learning and flexibility provided by online content,” she says. “People have different learning styles and preferences, and for many, flexibility in studies is valued.”
She also expects changes to teaching methods in the classroom. “Traditional pedagogical methods such as case discussions, coaching, and role plays need to find new augmented formats in the digital world,” says Sivula. “We often think that digital learning is easier than traditional on-site teaching, but it requires a completely new skillset.”