Friday, 16 March 2018

The Practicality of Online Learning

As I suggested almost ten years ago in the book "The Future of Learning: Insights and Innovations from Executive Development”, education has experienced its biggest shift in millennia over the past few years, moving away from the paradigm of a teacher at the front of a classroom imparting their knowledge and being the ‘sage on the stage’.  Facilitation of learning, or the ‘guide on the side’ is how executive education tends to aim at try and make the learning stick, and with the advent of social technologies, there has, of course, been a big shift towards the ‘crowd in the cloud’ where the barriers to imparting knowledge have crumbled and individuals learn from each other, where anyone can set themselves up as an expert and help others on subjects ranging from strategy and corporate responsibility to maths and mentoring.
An important feature of all these learning delivery methodologies (or ‘teaching’) is that they revolve around ‘knowledge’.  Knowledge, of course, is essential, but one doesn’t need a teacher to acquire the knowledge - one can sit quietly with a textbook or one’s favourite websites and read the knowledge.  The way people used to.

What none of these methods are really good at doing is teaching ‘skills’ - both soft skills and hard skills.   They can teach you the theories about teamwork, or influencing skills. You can learn everything about leadership that has ever been written and expose you to great political and business leaders who can explain their own theories on what made them great.  But it is still knowledge.  Knowing the knowledge does not mean you will know how to use it. 
They can teach you the principles of creating a Net Present Value for an investment or developing a strategy for expanding markets, but things would still simply remain theory, with the only practical side being case studies of successful, or unsuccessful situations that other firms have experienced in the past.  With the world of business changing at the pace it is, where some estimates suggest that up to 85% of the jobs in 2030 do not yet exist, reading about the past is not always going to be relevant for the future and the knowledge of a dozen PhD theses will not help a manager actually manage better until they have seen what works when, how and why.
Hult International Business School’s mission is to be the most relevant business school in the world, and there have been many discussions on what ‘relevance’ means.  On the undergraduate program this means preparing students for their future careers, by not just teaching theories and business frameworks (which they do need to know) but, more importantly, giving them a practical experience of applying the knowledge they learn in real-life business challenges with clients ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 brands such as Unilever, Amazon, Ferrari, McLaren, Virgin, UBS and Micron.  What this does is convert the knowledge into skills, the skill of analysing a client’s problem, researching the organisation, the environment and the competition, recommending solutions, delivering those recommendations and thinking about stakeholder management throughout.

Online learning, as we all know, can be an excellent way of transmitting knowledge.  The textbooks of the past can be read online, of course, but the larger publishers have, for a long time, provided an online environment accessible to purchasers of the textbook, where students can go through quizzes and simple games to test their understanding of the materials.
Transmitting lectures online is not new – the Open University in the UK made high-level knowledge on a wide range of subjects available to the entire population by filming academics, predominantly with bushy beards and woolly jumpers (starting, as they did, in 1971), and broadcasting the lectures on the BBC.  Move on almost fifty years and everyone is able to record anything on their phone and post it on YouTube, from lectures on quantum physics from the world’s top universities, to individuals explaining how to calculate a Net Present Value, or use the business model canvas, or change the inner tube on a bicycle.  Once again, however, whilst very useful, this is all about transmitting and imparting knowledge.  But how do we teach skills through online learning?
The acquisition of skills, of course, can only come through practical experience.  It is one thing to know how a piano works, but it takes practice to play it well, converting the knowledge into a skill.
And so it is with all relevant and practical learning – creating opportunities for the student to practice the knowledge they have learned and, in so doing, acquire the skill.
The worldwide web has revolutionised our lives by giving everyone instant access to the world’s knowledge from their mobile phone.  Delivery of that knowledge is through text, pictures, audio and video.  The knowledge can be tested through online quizzes or online submissions (such as reports or videos) can be assessed by peers around the world, showing how the ‘crowd in the cloud’ can be both teacher and student at the same time. 
The challenge for online learning, however, is how to provide the practice needed to turn the knowledge into skills.  How to ensure students are engaging online with a project the way you can be sure they do in the classroom, when they are face-to-face with the client and the mentor.  How to ensure everyone is listening to the brief – in short – how can you be sure that the student through online learning is paying attention and not, for example, on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat or Twitter?  At least in the classroom you can walk around and see what everyone is up to.  And environments like MOOCs are great in theory but have a very low completion rate.  A challenge for educators everywhere is far more urgent for online educators: how to engage the disengaged?
The most common way to engage students in an online practical challenge is through a business simulation, where individuals or teams work on a ‘fake’ challenge and the ‘sim’ regularly gives feedback on their performance via the virtual stakeholders.  Simulations are great for practicing with new-found knowledge in a safe environment where the worst that happens is that you lose the ‘game’. There are no real clients to disappoint and no real cash to lose.  The best sims provide opportunities for blended learning, where the participants have an offline element, such as talking to investors to request funding, or presenting to a board.  This approach can work very well in small, local environments (such as at business school where all the students are in the same building) and whilst the meetings and presentations can take place through a virtual meeting tool such as Skype, GotoMeeting, Citrix or Zoom, it is again too easy for the underperformers to hide, quite literally, off camera.
All of the online media described above are very two-dimensional.  The ultimate goal of online learning is not to recreate the offline experience (mainstream education has also always struggled with the question of how to engage the disengaged and deliver practical learning experiences to scale) but find a consistent way to deliver both knowledge and skills to a large virtual audience and know that it has been received, acquired and absorbed by the students or participants.
Virtual worlds have been a promising opportunity for over 15 years but they have been the preserve of technology evangelists, geeks and early-adopters.  A very large percentage of millennial and Generation Z (such as one would find in an undergraduate student body) are surprisingly, shockingly, ill prepared for online interactions. There is a false but widely held belief that young adults are digital natives and therefore completely comfortable with all technology, when the reality is that many confine themselves to a small selection of apps on their mobile. They don’t necessarily know, for example, how to use Microsoft Office efficiently, or use the shortcuts that will help them use their laptops. They do not always know how to add an email address to their mobile phone and they have not all experienced virtual reality.
In summary, while online learning is a godsend to all of us to quickly clarify confusions and enable self-paced learning for the busy executives, empowers those far from a major seat of learning to experience the wisdom of the world’s greatest thinkers and allows the crowd in the cloud to share their expertise (we are all experts in something in our own little way), it faces the same problems the traditional educational systems have always faced.  Even when we get to the stage that we can implant a chip in our brains which instantly accesses all the knowledge in the world, we still need to learn how to use that knowledge and convert it into a skill. On a personal level, I cannot wait for the chip, and am fascinated to see how the educators of the future will focus on the practical.