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E-Learning’s Evolution

Emerging from the recession, executive-education curricula are delivering more customized learning programs.

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As an industry, executive education has long been considered a bellwether of the nation’s economic health. When times are tough, spending on professional development is one of the first line items cut from bloated budgets. And when tides begin to turn, a rise in corporate education spending can signal a macro-positive trend, as management teams, buoyed by the numbers and worried about losing ground and talent, begin to invest once more.

If that much is true, then the recovery is real. According to the 2012 results of UNICON’s annual survey of executive-education programs, business is up for a second year; 79 percent of schools reported growth in open enrollment and nearly half grew by double digits. Seventy percent of schools reported growth in custom programs, compared with 59 percent last year, and 43 percent saw growth over 10 percent. “The early data here are that schools have rebounded nicely. Whether they’re back to where they were before the downturn, that’s harder to say. But the outlook is positive,” says Bill Scheurer, executive director of UNICON, a global consortium of 105 business-school-based executive education organizations.

Stephen Burnett, associate dean of executive education at the Kellogg School for Management, says he hasn’t seen a full rebound yet. But with the end of the tunnel in sight, the school is beginning to roll out new programs that were on hold during the worst of the downturn. These include a course designed for senior general managers charged with executing a turnaround and a global leadership course for heads of entrepreneurial companies outside the U.S. who want to come in. “I think what you’re going to see is employers saying things are improving and we’re going to be growing faster. But they’ve gone a few years not preparing anybody for the next level, so they’re going to be playing catch-up,” says Burnett, who adds that management development will likely always be a key to retaining top talent.

Emerging from the recession, university executive-education programs are focused on delivering a learning experience tailored to executives’ needs—with more options for shorter sessions and blended solutions, while using new technology and coaching services that allow companies to get the best bang for their educational buck. As companies continue to search for solid, quantifiable return on investment, schools are offering more up-front prep and asking participants to come with lists of targeted goals, so both sides can assess the effectiveness of their learning. One way to deliver pre-program prep and post-program assessment and follow-up is via technology. Wharton, for example, has created “virtual classrooms” with web-based video and software to deliver pre-and post-residential program content and to help participants stay on track once they’re back on the job.

In fact, technology—and the ways in which it is enabling higher learning—is the biggest news this year. Fully 78 percent of schools surveyed by UNICON offered networked or online learning in 2012, up from 59 percent the previous year. Up until recently, online learning tools were fairly limited in application; the static lectures by talking heads, web-based testing material and online chat rooms worked fine for technical skills-based needs, but these fell far short for teaching strategy, leadership and other higher-level and broad-based topics. However, that’s changing at a fast clip.

In the elite business education world, massive open online courses, or MOOCs, are taking off, thanks to startups such as edX, a nonprofit joint venture from Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which currently has 370,000 students enrolled in its fall MOOC courses and two-year-old Coursera, a for-profit, educational-technology company that has signed up more than 33 universities to co-offer classes online. These courses use streaming video, gaming-like entertainment and social media to teach a plethora of subjects to anyone with an Internet connection—anywhere in the world. Elite business schools, such as Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Brown and Duke are all getting on board. “Massive, open, online courses are the educational happening of the moment,” says Mike Malefakis, associate dean for executive education at Columbia Business School. “Everyone wants in—even if they’re not quite sure what they’re getting into.”

​While the jury is clearly out on how well the new media tools will work for executive education, early adopters are hoping their experimentation will give them a competitive advantage going forward. This month, Columbia Business School will launch its first online-only, executive-education course, “Personal Leadership Online,” developed in conjunction with the Institute for Personal Leadership (IPL). The brainchild of Professor Hitendra Wadhwa, who teaches at the business school and was recently named Columbia’s director of e-learning, the 10-to-12-week course will feature more than 24 online modules, each with 30 minutes or more of high-quality video—produced by a former BBC television executive—plus live webinars and other course material. Wadhwa’s goal was to create a self-serve model that enabled busy executives to learn on their own schedules at a price point that would boost open enrollment. The online program, which covers the same material as the in-person cost, comes in at a considerably lower price: $989-$1,899, with the higher-end version offering several more hours of learning, guided interactive exercises with other participants and one-on-one coaching sessions with IPL faculty.

But price isn’t likely to be the main draw for participation from the C-suite, says Malefakis. “Their opportunity costs for coming to a live program are huge. They have their calendars booked 18 months in advance and every half-hour increment is critical,” he notes. “We had several C-suite titles from globally recognized companies sign up for the leadership program, and the issue for them wasn’t the lower price point. It was the barrier of time.”

To be sure, many will still argue that part of the reason for participating in an executive-education program is to have that live campus interaction, the classroom exchange of ideas and, especially, the lasting relationships with cohorts. “That’s one of the criticisms we’ve heard about online learning: that it’s not the same as sitting in a room with likeminded learners,” says Wadhwa. “But today, with social media tools, we can achieve even more than that.”

In a traditional classroom environment, for example, Wadhwa has noticed that some less outgoing students are reluctant to share their views publicly. By contrast, in the pilot program last quarter, participants in online discussions were much more likely to respond to one another’s comments, share views and then follow up later with more responses. Wadhwa says the potential is huge when one considers that future students will also be able to benefit from all the discussion points and perspectives captured up to that point. “When I start [a] new class, I already have some pretty amazing wisdom in the system. That is not doable in the physical space.”

Still, at the moment, the most popular format seems to be a blended learning environment, which uses technology to complement in-person learning rather than replace it. Participants might receive prep material and lectures in advance of their on-campus courses and might have post-program video conference calls or facilitated, online discussions with other alumni as a follow-up. Most executive programs have established a presence via social media. According to UNICON, 85 percent of schools are on LinkedIn and 58 percent have a Facebook page, where current students and alumni from around the world can post comments and responses. Many more are investing in exploration. Babson’s Executive Education program just hired its first full-time e-learning curriculum designer to look at ways to enhance the in-class experience and to design online programs for custom-program clients who want them. But Elaine Eisenman, Babson’s dean of executive education, believes firmly that ultimately, virtual learning, no matter how good the technology, will never replace the in-person experience. “When you bring people together, it’s a fundamental, nonreplicable experience,” she says. “If the goal is learning, you can learn in multiple modalities. If a partial goal is relationship-building—connecting, interacting—you just can’t do that remotely.”

Other ways schools are addressing the time crunch for busy senior executives include introducing shorter courses packed full of curriculum and offering more options for customizing them to individual needs. Kellogg, for example, offers a plethora of three-day classes as alternatives to its three-week programs. Its scholarship program now helps participants to design a longer program by choosing a series of three-day courses that address their unique needs. “So you tell us what your management-development needs are—leadership, finance, strategy, whatever it is—and we’ll suggest four courses you can put together around leadership and the other gaps and you can take those over a longer period of time,” Burnett explains, adding that those who complete the courses designed for them earn executive alumni status, just as they would for a longer stint. “That program has been very successful.”

Scheurer notes that whichever way the economic winds blow in 2013 and beyond, companies and executives will continue to come back because the thought leadership they get through executive-education programs is something they simply can’t get anywhere else. “It allows these companies to compete very effectively by having the latest thinking on whatever topic it might be—whether it’s overall business strategy or a deeper dive into things like branding or pricing. So that’s the core advantage here. We’re at the intersection between scholarship and the business environment. If you want to talk about the secret sauce, that’s really what it is. And that will never change.”

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