Future of Online Executive Education shaped by the pandemic crisis

Gennadii Miroshnikov

Business education, and in particular Executive Education programs offered by business schools, took a significant blow from the situation associated with the coronavirus pandemic (Byrne, 2020). Nearly half of the US business school deans responding to a survey conducted by higher-education consulting and digital marketing firm Eduvantis believe that the health crisis caused by COVID-19 will accelerate the closure of business schools (Allen, 2020). Michael Horn in his Educated, Disrupted report on Disruption 2020: A Virtual Symposium, rated the damage up to 20% of revenue (Horn, 2020) and a more detailed report by UNICON’S Benchmarking Committee (UNICON, 2020) confirmed the significant negative consequences of this event.

It is important to note that before the pandemic, the Executive Education market was one of the fastest-growing. For instance, UK Executive Education enrollment was expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.8% in the next 5 years until 2023 (Bloomberg, 2019; Ken Research, 2019). While applications have been falling for MBA degrees, figures from the UK’s Chartered Association of Business Schools (CABS) show that nearly nine-in-10 business schools are forecasting that their executive education business will grow over the next five years (CABS, 2017). Seb Murray in his article ‘What Next For Executive Education?’ quoting Andrew Crisp, the owner of Carrington Crisp “Executive education is the most exciting part of business education at the moment and is likely to remain so for many years to come” (Murray, 2019). The international university consortium for executive education (Unicon), which represents more than 100 business schools offering this kind of teaching, suggests the total market is worth about $2bn and has grown by 20 percent over the past five years. 

One of the main reasons Executive Education is in demand is a constant need to update skills to remain relevant in a rapidly evolving workplace. According to PwC’s 2017 CEO survey (PwC, 2017), 77% of chief executives report that a scarcity of people with key skills is the biggest threat to their businesses. A study conducted by AACSB, Chief Learning Officer magazine, and Human Capital Media, noted that lifelong learning is a crucial part of an organization’s talent strategy since it gives employees the skills they need to remain relevant while building organizational loyalty and encouraging retention (AACSB, 2018). 

As business education in general, Executive Education is dominated by face to face programs. According to the UNICON Benchmarking committee report, small business schools offer only 2.3% of programs online, bigger schools – 10%. The largest long-term impact of COVID-19 on executive education is likely to involve online educational delivery (Bisoux, 2020; Abdel-Meguid, 2020; Business Because, 2020; AACSB, 2020). 74% of respondents of the Eduvantis survey said their courses would be offered at least slightly more towards distance learning, but only 17% said courses at their schools would be “tilted substantially more” towards distance learning. There are different concerns regarding a more radical adoption of online delivery despite some of its benefits including environmental impact (Roy, Potter, Yarrow, Smith, 2005). As one of the examples is a comparison of offline vs. online delivery with visiting a new place vs. watching a video (Lau, Yang, Dasgupta, 2020). Mike Malefakis, an associate vice-dean at Wharton Executive Education, says “The ‘netflixisation’ of executive education is going to happen”, referring to the way the streaming-media company has challenged the dominance of traditional broadcasters “But there is a difference between the deep learning we can provide and superficial learning” (Moules, 2019). It seems to be the main concern for business schools is ensuring that the online courses provide the same quality and level of experience to participants as traditional face to face programmes. One of my colleagues compared attending Executive Education programmes with a VIP travel tour, including accommodation in a 5-star hotel, dining in the best restaurants of the city and professors of history or geography as private tour guides (for whom such events are a source of extra income) who directly on the spot tell and show about certain events or historical figures. The most frequently repeated adjectives used by organisers to describe their Executive Education programs are top-class, impressive, and exciting. Another factor of the importance of “experience” for the participants of Executive Education programs is that some of them receive participation as a reward from their employers and this sometimes creates a ‘holiday mood’ and appropriate expectations. To preserve these characteristics when transferring delivery to the virtual space, simple “onlinification” of face-to-face lectures will not result in positive experiences for participants. Dominik Lukes in his article (Lukes, 2020) looked at the challenges of moving events online from the perspective of different types of affordances. His findings are pretty much applicable to the situation with Executive Education.

A holistic approach should be the main principle in the implementation and expansion of online delivery of programs, which is still a new field for most business schools. This approach should include training of lecturers, research in the field of adaptation of pedagogical methods and customer experience, redesign, careful selection and implementation of the necessary systems and technological solutions, a continuous cycle of analysis of results, and adjustments. Creating working groups consisting of professionals from academics, learning designers, customer experience teams, market specialists, analytics, and learning technologists will be a decisive factor for success.

During the weakening of some senses, the others intensify. In the case of online delivery, the loss of physical contact is replaced by an increase in the requirements for visual contact, both between the participants and the lecturer, the participant and peers, as well as the content. One of the catalysts for rapidly increasing requirements for video is the development of HD standards and the growth of content producers and the quality of their work on video platforms such as YouTube, Vimeo, Youku, etc. Video bloggers install lighting equipment, a green screen for recording, use video production software, and special effects that can work even on mobile devices. Thus, a lecturer sitting in a poorly lit, cluttered room recording a lecture through the camera of his laptop and struggling to switch between PowerPoint and other applications, loses dramatically from the viewpoint of visual quality. The charisma of the lecturer, fluent use of basic applications for recording video and conducting video lectures, a smooth transition from presentation to answering questions from the chat, conducting quick polls and confidence in front of the camera (along with understanding the principles of creating a video composition where light, appearance, and background have important value) become new mandatory characteristics for the faculty and should be included in the training. For redesigning traditional lectures, the most common solution is splitting long lectures and mixing them with other activities (Q&A, group discussions, etc.) (Moldoveanu, Mihnea, Narayandas, 2018).

Going further, the next critical moment will be the enhancement of the learning experience, using new systems, applications, and tools and based on pedagogical models. Underpinned by constructivism and collaborative learning theories, new virtual learning environments could include group editing of shared documents, group project works and discussions, and even immersive learning using AR and VR (INSEAD, 2020; University of Cambridge, 2020). The latter can also solve the problem of learner distraction, since wearing VR glasses may allow learners to better focus on lectures or case studies watching via this device, but it will be effective only if the VR learning experience is seamlessly integrated into the whole programme and its connection with the programme objectives is clearly indicated. Otherwise, it will remain in the memory of the participants as one hour of playing with an exquisite toy.

Thus, the most important factor here is the organic integration of these elements in the educational process, the development of interfaces for the smooth interaction of systems. It becomes clear that a single system (only VLE / LMS, online library or Video Conference System) is unlikely to become a solution to the problem, and at the moment those solutions that call themselves integrated and multifunctional have not been widely adopted and implemented, and rapidly increasing requirements and expectations make me believe that there will always be something missing in these solutions. It will also be important that business schools address accessibility issues, providing equal opportunity for participating in the program.

Post-pandemic reality is likely to change international travelling at least for a while, which means that business schools need to be prepared for fewer participants attending their face-to-face programs, and these programs should provide an opportunity to participate online with the deployment of blended auditoriums and labs (similar examples already exist using Zoom Rooms, Mashme, etc.). At the same time, blended learning spaces should not cause a feeling that online participation is a cheap version of face to face programs. And here the question arises of creating a fundamentally new level of quality for online delivery of programs. In contrast to the large number of MOOCs where participants often have a sense of being lost, lonely, having a gap between a participant and their peers and often even the organisers of the course, effective online delivery should create a sense of concern and promote social networking, creating favourable conditions for reinforcement of learning. Online facilitation should be designed in a way to ensure a smooth start of the program, with an explanation of the main aspects of participation, necessary assistance in preparation, and advice. As an opposite to generic, dry emails, the concept of a personal assistant and consultant, available any day, flexible in using the most convenient means of communication (email, phone, WhatsApp, etc.) should come. Bullet points on how to access should be replaced by instructions in several formats, video with subtitles and audio-transcription, as well as a text version. Participants should be offered an opportunity of training on how to use the system (especially when new technologies and applications are involved) before the programme starts (and not at the last moment), the ability to set reminders and calendar invites in different formats. Training and tips on how to combine work and study, how to study effectively from home or office will also be very useful. The same concept of a personal assistant for the first point of contact, accessible at a convenient time, and solving logistic and technical problems (interacting with responsible teams) should be maintained throughout the program. At the same time, during the program, the role of an online facilitator or learning manager arises, welcoming participants, representing lecturers, taking questions from the chat, and taking responsibility for smooth inter-sessions activities, group work, and creating communities within the audience. Understanding the audience by this facilitator (knowing who is who, their background, the main reasons for participating in the program, expectations). This role holder must be a subject matter expert in the programme topic as it is critical for the overall success, for creating an effective Community of Practice (Lee, 2018) and facilitating communication and collaboration even after the programme ends. An indisputable advantage will be to find ways to support their participants after the programme finishes by organising coaching, helping with the implementation of acquired knowledge and skills in their organisations.

Another highly important criteria for organizing virtual spaces is a data-driven approach, the ability to get and analyse data from different sources: educational activities, data from CRM systems regarding participating engagements and interests, data from the university websites, social networks, and digital marketing platforms. The ability to consolidate data obtained from multiple sources will allow both to improve and personalise training, and to stimulate relevant customer interest with other educational products (Westerbeck, 2019).

As a consequence, caused by the COVID-19 outbreak, unemployment is likely to turn into a short-term educational challenge as individuals and organisations will have to consider upskilling and reskilling strategies as a part of their path forward if they are to adapt and evolve (Serrato, 2020). This can create a great opportunity for Executive Education providers and online programs could be the right solution. But how effectively they can use this opportunity depends on how well they begin to prepare now and learn from the current pandemic crisis.

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