Before coronavirus, the teaching of technology skills and topics such as artificial intelligence and cybersecurity was a growing trend. Today, as much of the world is locked down because of the pandemic and remote working is prevalent, digital knowledge has become even more important.
For the providers of executive education courses for working senior managers, this means rethinking how to improve and expand remote teaching.
Cambridge Judge Business School has “completely redesigned” open-enrolment programs to facilitate the online mode of delivery, says Marie-Ann Kyne, executive director of executive education. “In response, we have seen participant numbers match our pre-COVID-19 numbers. Executives [are] expanding their capabilities in leadership, digital transformation and business resilience,” she says.
Cambridge Judge in the UK puts on more than 30 open courses covering the fundamentals of business management, including the Advanced Leadership Program and Creating High Performing Teams course.
Online executive education has its advantages
Like her peers, Kyne believes that this is not just a blip, but the start of a paradigm shift in how executive education courses are delivered. “We believe that new models of delivery are here to stay.” While online executive education offerings are not new, she says the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated the shift.
She points out that there are distinct advantages to online instruction, such as the flexibility of fitting training around hurried work schedules, as well as widening the school’s guest speaker network and broadening the reach of courses and academic research. “Whilst teaching online is a different experience, we believe it to be of the same quality,” she says.
Peter Stephenson-Wright, UK director of executive education at ESCP Business School, says that “technology has made six years’ progress in the last six months” and forced the institution to respond by adding online courses such as “Beyond Covid-19: Inspiration for Change”, which tackles the key management issues stemming from coronavirus.
“Businesses realize that they need to train a large number of people quickly and across a wide range of locations. Effective online education is now a genuine need, not just the shiny new thing in the marketplace,” says Stephenson-Wright.
He adds: “The paradigm shift is not just in the technology itself; it’s in people, their skills, aptitudes and the way they are able to consume and leverage information. these changes are irreversible.”
He too sees big perks to the online format. For example, it develops participants to operate as natives in the digital workplace we now live in, and the format can be adapted to incentivize collaboration, or personalized to support different levels of experience.
For professors, he says the benefit is flexibility and the chance to reach a global spread of participants without the need for travel, and to cater for a range of time zones. “Online learning has reset the expectation for what an executive education program can offer and achieve,” says Stephenson-Wright.
Sarah Soule, senior associate dean for academic affairs at Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, is also bullish on online learning. “While the move to remote learning was a short-term response caused by the pandemic, it created an opportunity to completely rethink and redesign existing programs, which will have a long-term effect on the future of higher education.”
For example, Stanford’s LEAD online program saw unprecedented interest this year, resulting in the largest cohort to date, featuring participants from 43 countries. “We most certainly are ushering in a new era of learning,” says Soule. “Groups that previously experienced challenges in making in-person education work are finding abundant opportunities, learning from where they are in the world, often at a self-directed pace.” This includes full-time employees and parents.
‘Zoom fatigue’ and more: the limitations of online executive education
As humans are naturally sociable beings, she says there will always be a need for teaching on campus. Online education has its limitations, adds her colleague Ryann Price, director of the Stanford Executive Program. “One of the most salient drawbacks is the potential degradation of innovation. In-person interactions foster creativity and real-time discussions on ideas, curriculum and processes,” he says.
These can be hard to replicate within a Zoom session. However, Stanford faculty have been experimenting with different technologies such as virtual white boards for brainstorming or improvisation exercises designed to bring the right mindset to the session.
Price adds that an increased reliance on video can also lead to “Zoom fatigue”, or the exhaustion that comes with countless hours spent in front of a screen. Additionally, video interactions afford less of an opportunity for casual socializing and networking moments on campus. A final challenge is that educators lack real-time feedback from students’ body language, expressions and other mannerisms that are more identifiable in-person.
Ding Yuan, dean of Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School, says that online education works well for developing technical skills but struggles to spur the soft skills including leadership, communication and strategic thinking. “Experiential learning has been postponed, rather than shifted online.” He adds that, “if judging by learning results, I believe that in-person instruction usually generates a more constructive and positive outcome”.
Online teaching is also “a discounted experience” for faculty, the dean says. “Most professors feel that live classroom teaching usually enables them to give a better performance.” Some professors feel the academic journey online is harder and lonelier too.
Given all these drawbacks, educators agree that the future of executive education will probably be a blend of both online and on-campus instruction. As Cambridge’s Kyne says: “Whilst we use software to simulate ‘real-life’ situations online, it is important to acknowledge that face-to-face learning still has a prominent place in our portfolio.”