VIEWPOINT: In a recent article in the New York Times Mark Edmundson, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, argued that online education is much over-hyped and much inferior to the classroom variety. Does his argument hold up in the realm of executive education?
When he asks “can online education ever be education of the very best sort?” is he trying to compare apples with eggs? Surely there is a place for online and classroom learning or at least for a blend of the two? Certainly that is our observation at the conclusion of IEDP’s recent research into the online provision of executive education.
Central to his argument in ‘The Trouble with Online Education’ Edmundson makes two critical observations:
“With every class we teach, we need to learn who the people in front of us are. We need to know where they are intellectually, who they are as people and what we can do to help them grow. Teaching, even when you have a group of a hundred students on hand, is a matter of dialogue.”
“Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can…. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.”
If online executive education aimed to stand alone and to replace, either classroom engagement, or experiential learning the Professor would have a strong point, and looking at some of the dated eLearning products still on the market there is certainly some damning evidence to support his case.
His doubts are understandable if founded on the last generation of e-learning solutions, but the design and development of online learning for executives has moved on dramatically and there are now several world class executive education providers committed to the development of online resources to support their wider portfolios with products that offer real value to even the most senior leaders. Wharton Executive Education’s Integrated Learning Technologies and Cranfield School of Management’s Networked Learning at are two leading examples.
Recent headlines of leadership failure tell us that organizations, particularly those with wide global reach, need all the help they can get in strengthening their leadership. So at a time when leadership development professionals are increasingly asked to deliver more with less, often on a global basis, advances in technology, the spread of social media, and Y-generation preferences, suggest that e-learning solutions, that offer physically flexible alternatives to classroom learning must have a major role to play in the future.
IEDP’s research has not yet focused on the efficacy of the new online products that are emerging. Rather as a starting point we have aimed to understand why many senior executives have been reluctant to engage with online leadership development. Sympathy with Professor Edmundson’s views may have something to do with it, but our findings suggest the key barrier is that too many senior executives really have little idea what the latest versions of online learning technologies can actually achieve. The challenge is for their creators and providers to get the message out taking on board the concerns of people such as Professor Edmundson.
* Illustration: The Bash Street Kids and Chalky, from The Beano, D.C.Thompson Ltd.
Professor Edmundson’s article ‘The Trouble with Online Education’
IEDP’s Research into Perceptions of Online Executive Learning
Some innovative online executive education initiatives:
> Columbia Business School Executive Education: Personal Leadership Online
> Cranfield School of Management: Networked Learning
> SkillSoft: Leadership Development
> Thunderbird School of Management: Thunderbird Online
> Wharton Business School: Integrated Learning Technologies