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Best Practice Online Learning

Vlerick’s Benjamin de Wulf discusses the new era of possibility for corporate learning with IEDP


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Business schools are not only helping their clients manage digital transformation, they are also involved in their own transformation as technology makes it possible to move the learning experience out of the classroom and onto the internet and opens up a new era of possibility for corporate learning.

Despite the hype surrounding MOOCs, virtual learning platforms, etc., the question remains to what extent can high quality corporate learning be delivered online – what is lost in moving away from the classroom and what is gained?

While the logistical benefits of online learning are clear, business schools need to answer two types of doubt around the quality. The first comes from existing clients who appreciate the value of traditional classroom programs and have perhaps had bad experiences of sub-standard online training in the past. The second comes from the genuinely confused who struggle to understand where business school programs sit in the ever-expanding ecosystem of online learning.

In our discussion, Benjamin de Wulf, Senior Learning and Development Consultant at Vlerick Business School, was able to shed some light on how one of the pioneers in online executive education has approached the transformation challenge. De Wulf is part of a team developing a portfolio of blended and fully online programs – a team that is focused on developing a pedagogy that is fit for the future as much as on the technology that supports it.

At the top level, this means clearly defining what participants are expected to do better or differently at the end of a learning journey, what changes in behaviour do they and their organization want to witness and how can these be measured. This first priority is expressed well by Vlerick’s Dean, Marion Debruyne “Our role as a business school has evolved from being focused on the transfer of knowledge from faculty to participants to being focused on the crafting of powerful change experiences.”

From this foundation, it is then possible to establish learning objectives – what needs to be unlearned and what to be learned – and to develop learning journeys in which participants take real ownership. De Wulf points to the general trend in progressive organizations towards empowerment and how this fits with empowering people to take responsibility for their own career development.

While the majority of Vlerick’s online programs are ‘blended’ (i.e. they integrate seamlessly an element of face-to-face delivery even if only as an introduction to a largely online program) replicating the sense of engagement experienced in a traditional campus-based program has been a priority. ‘Meaningfulness’ is key to this, which is why establishing expected outcomes at the outset is a prerequisite to the creation of an impactful experience through learning activities online. 

Engagement is stimulated by listening to the concerns and questions of participants and giving them a voice as the program develops. It is not only about exciting participants about the topic but also relating it to their prior knowledge and experience, so in effect personalising the learning to each cohort of learners and to some extent to each individual. Workshops and webinars are constructed, not to deliver lectures or push content, but as places where participants can interact and share their thoughts with the fellow learners.

‘Narrative’ is another key element and one that constitutes a large part of the work done by the Vlerick design team. Narrative is the process by which people are led through a learning journey, through analysis, evaluation, the encouragement of insights, the development of new ideas and on to the eventual application of their learning.

A further aspect to this is that, De Wulf’s team believes in keeping participants’ experience ‘lean’, avoiding an overload of material, while a library of extra content may be provided at the side, keeping the core program focused on the essentials. This has proven effective but does require a delicate balancing act to define the right mix of activities. And it goes without saying that smooth, intuitive, easy to use technology is an essential, and a differentiator from the disappointing online experiences of the past.

These best practices described by De Wulf go a long way to offsetting the disadvantages of online vis-à-vis classroom programs. The benefits of online learning are logistical in terms of time and location and there is a further crucial benefit which Vlerick calls the ‘ripple effect’. This is where the value gained on a program can be transferred back to the workplace aided by the technology, so that the ideal outcome of a learning journey is that the participant, with ongoing support from faculty, becomes an agent of change causing the impact of the program to ripple through their organization.

Learn more about online executive programs at Vlerick Business School:

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