The pedagogy of executive education is changing as business schools use virtual and augmented reality, simulations, neuroscience, and experiential face-to-face experiences.
The latest teaching innovations have been devised in response to the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, the harried schedules of participants in executive courses, and calls for less travel amid growing concerns over the climate. The question for training providers is whether these pedagogical changes can demonstrably improve academic outcomes for executive education participants.
Benoit Arnaud, dean of programs at Edhec Business School in Lille, says the pandemic has ushered in a new era of experimentation in executive teaching. “The Covid period was a fantastic laboratory for edtech innovations. In a few weeks, the impossible became the new normal.” For example, EDHEC developed a “live” case study that enables participants to interact in real-time with the management of an NGO and visit the company’s offices remotely using videoconferencing technology.
Artificial intelligence chatbots
In addition, EDHEC has leveraged artificial intelligence chatbots that can share information with participants on executive programs and answer their queries in real-time. Arnaud highlights the need for efficiency as an important driver of teaching innovations at business school, noting “the lack of time of the executives who have been in a permanent crisis for several years” with the disruptions stemming from the pandemic and now war in Ukraine.
For technological innovations, he says an important driver is the “growing pressure to deliver low-carbon executive education” with remote teaching methods that reduce the need for travel. He says these improvements have led to a clear improvement in the level of satisfaction of executives, who save time, and are able to better balance learning, professional and social activities.
At Essec Business School near Paris, participants use virtual reality (VR) headsets to attend conferences and company networking events without leaving the executive classroom, reducing their carbon footprint and expanding their networking opportunities.
Essec wants to attract a new international audience and increase the diversity in executive courses. On top of VR, simulations are used to test leaders in crisis management mode. “Participants develop a variety of leadership skills and tools in order to work successfully in teams in an increasingly complex environment,” says Elodie Luquet, director of part-time post-experience programs at the French school.
However, Essec believes that digital innovation should be used as a medium, not as an objective. “Digital innovation can be associated with academic performance only if those technologies are offering additional functionalities compared to traditional methods,” says Julien Malaurent, an academic director at the school.
To improve learning outcomes in virtual teaching modes, Essec promotes social interactions and peer-review systems so that executive participants can learn from one another while still maintaining flexibility to arrange their own schedules. “In the end, it results in a better engagement with higher academic outcomes,” says Malaurent.
Tim Sylvester, director of learning design and innovation for executive education at London Business School, agrees. “Virtual spaces and online activities encourage curiosity, reflection and personalization, with self-paced resources supporting continuous learning, both in the flow of work, and in the places that learners learn best,” he says.
Immersive, collaborative learning
He adds this continuous and iterative process of collaborative learning, where executives share their emerging insights and reflections with others, allows the participants to generate new knowledge that’s specific to their own context.
“We see changing demand from our learners for more personalized experiences that go beyond the one-size-fits-all model and enable individual challenges and learning preferences to be met,” Sylvester says. “Self-determined learning is also an emerging factor, as corporations look to learning within the flow of work.”
Locating and understanding the participant in their own context makes the training more relevant, he adds. “You must ensure a clear line of sight from the program learning outcomes, to individual learner performance, to collective performance and organizational impact,” he says, and “consult with corporate clients and faculty to better understand their emerging development agendas. Then experiment and pilot possible approaches”.
In future, executive participants may take their classes in the metaverse, a collective virtual shared space where they are represented by 3D avatars or holographic versions of themselves. “The metaverse craze is also something that we are analyzing. Is this really the future of immersive learning?” asks Edhec’s Arnaud.
The main advantage of a virtual world is that you can do things in it that are impossible or forbidden in the real world. But it is still too early to know exactly how this will play out in executive education, says Arnaud: “Beyond the buzz, what kind of concrete and transformative experiences will we be able to create for our students in the metaverse? We’ll see.”