It is not so much new technologies that will drive the spread of online executive learning but their clever application. In fact the relevant technologies are relatively mature, what has been missing is the application of astute design and engaging facilitation.
De Baak has focused on this aspect and launched a series of 45 minute facilitated virtual classes. These ‘open’ classes, derived from tailored programs originally created for international organizations, cover core leadership topics such as authenticity, efficiency, communication, collaboration and feedback.
De Baak’s Ulrik Ramsing, who honed his skill as a virtual-class designer and facilitator in the offshore industry, cites the mantra ‘Proactive Pragmatism’ — meaning that learning can always be delivered to meet a client’s preferences and technology should never be a barrier, and furthermore that new virtual class initiatives should be treated as experiments. Organizations should start by taking simple steps rather than attempting to build the all-singing-and-dancing virtual learning solution from the outset.
IEDP’s previous research revealed considerable scepticism amongst senior managers asked about the value of online learning at executive level. This is partly a misconception based on experiences of early e-learning offerings compared to time spent on executive programs. Virtual classes can convert the sceptics. As opposed to static e-learning, they allow participants to interact directly with educators, with the depth and debate of a facilitated physical class and the convenience of not having to travel and some flexibility in terms of scheduling.
Ramsing uses a pyramid to define the audience that virtual classes are best suited for. At the top of the pyramid organizations are prepared to pay for — and senior executives are prepared to make time for — intensive largely face-to-face executive development through coaching and attending ‘physical’ programs. At the base of the pyramid where the organization is keen to promote better practice across perhaps thousands of employees static e-Learning solutions have a place. The focus for virtual classes is the mid-section where perhaps a few hundred managers and potential senior leaders can be offered sophisticated facilitated learning without the need to travel.
He uses another pyramid to illustrate the ratio between ‘content’ and the appropriate number of participants in virtual classes. Complex content involving dialogue around dilemmas sits at the narrower end of the pyramid, where 20 or fewer participants is the ideal, when the content is more about imparting knowledge a higher number of participants can be involved. Or if the content is purely generic e-Learning solutions may be more appropriate than virtual classes.
Central to the de Baak approach is the acknowledgement that although ‘content’ quality is vital, when creating valuable virtual learning experiences it is not paramount. It is more essential that virtual classes take account of people’s lack of patience online and short attention span by prioritising first design, second facilitation, third content and finally technology.
Technology should not be a barrier to a competent virtual class provider. People are now comfortable with the technology and its cost has greatly decreased. Issues to do with system requirements, avoiding firewalls and ensuring smooth uninterrupted delivery can easily be circumvented. Content it goes without saying at this level has to be exemplary - which puts the focus on design and facilitation.
Good virtual class design is about applying the technology so as to best maximise its potential. In many cases this will involve blending virtual with physical classes or at least with physical ‘kick-off’ sessions, providing print documentation and/or links to other content sources, and leveraging the potential for granularity (i.e. modules can be ‘pick-and-mix’ and classes need not be one-size-fits-all).
Applying tested design principles in the use of graphics is also key. For example, where a 30 minute physical presentation might need 15 ‘slides’, 30 minutes delivered ‘virtually’ will need 30, because in a physical session we are kept engaged by the body language of the presenter, online we need to see a screen change every 15-20 seconds to stay with it. And what’s more these 30 ‘slides’ need to be structured so that only small parts of the screen change each time — otherwise for bandwidth reasons the delivery will get clogged-up.
Good facilitation is about understanding how the audience is reacting and adapting appropriately, using tests and polls to gauge reactions and having clear ‘fall back’ strategies when problems arise. Many educators will easily pick up good facilitation techniques, but for some virtual classes the brilliant professor may need a co-pilot.
Launched this summer de Baak’s open virtual classes initially covered:
- Leadership TAO – taking time, making agreements and being observant
- Authenticity – knowing what you stand for makes decisions
- Efficiency - planning, prioritization and getting things done
- Communication – clear-cut, motivational and inspiring action
- Collaboration - creating and developing high-performance teams
De Baak’s virtual classes also continue to be offered as part of tailored programs for corporate clients — often in combination with physical classes, where fundamental theories are covered through the virtual classes that making the time spent physically together all the more valuable.