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The Four Ages of Online Executive Education

Terry O’Sullivan is Senior Lecturer in Management at The Open University Business School and Director of the school’s Centre of Innovation in Teaching and Learning (InTel).

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We have come a long way from the late 1990s and the first inklings of what the emerging internet might mean for executive education. A model of the efficient transfer of knowledge held sway as delegates were ranged before banks of cathode ray tubes and plugged into programmes of learning. With computers in charge, what could possibly go wrong? This ‘jug and mug’ approach to education is surprisingly persistent, but – while the ‘mugs’ get filled with something -- it tends to evaporate in the heat of management practice.

Pretty soon the potential of connecting learners to one other became apparent. This, if you like, was the second phase of online executive education. Out with digital jugs, in with digital junctures. In the networked economy, joined-up thinking dictated that learning is a social activity. By this second phase, of course, the internet had become much more fun. Not only did it look more inviting than the rudimentary graphical environment of DOS, but software was becoming available that allowed you to talk back at it. The era of Web 2.0, or the ‘read-write’ web was upon us. At last people were beginning to get the hang of what online could do that real life couldn’t. Allowing managers to communicate, work and learn together, wherever they were in the world, across time zones, in synch with their personal schedules, revealed the true potential of online as a medium. It opened up new ways of learning and new ways of understanding learning. Rather than the expert-to-novice transmission of the digital jug, we now began to realise that professionals learn from each other. We kind of knew that all along, but online helped us to see it in action. Suddenly we were witnessing the co-creation of professional knowledge by the people to whom it mattered most. Designing online learning became a matter of creating the right kind of opportunities for people to harness this collective wisdom.

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We are now in a third phase of online executive education. Having established a more or less common view of how knowledge is co-constructed by learners in the early 21st century, providers are now beginning to grasp what technology can reveal about the detailed procedures that contribute to the process. Online is a totally accountable medium. It provides a complete picture of who has been using it, when and for how long. Admittedly, much of this data can only be seen as a proxy for what learners are actually doing. It goes nowhere near the complexity and depth of learning as an activity. But the routine nature of its collection, its objectivity, and the simple fact that there is so much of it makes it irresistible. Learning analytics has thus become an obsession for providers over the last few years as they struggle to make sense of the tidal waves of data that online produces about who is learning and how. The hoped-for juice to be distilled from all this work is ‘science’ to support the creation of more effective and efficient learning experiences. But being a social process, learning is likely to elude universal principles. Certainly, most of the research in learning analytics at the moment seems to be focused on the data collection and hypothesis development side of things, rather than the application of insights into changed practices. The juice looks like it could be a while coming.

Which brings me to the future -- and the fourth phase of online executive education. I predict that the next big thing will be learners doing it for themselves when it comes to analytics, and becoming more judicious as a result. We have recently seen the rise of what trend spotters call ‘the quantified self’ with gadgets such as FitBit and apps that track your fitness, health, wealth and wellbeing. As careers become more fragmented and individualistic, executive education is likely to follow suit. The very devices from which managers access executive education will be giving them feedback on their individual learning behaviours and preferences, informing their judgements about personal and professional development. This will make them tougher, and better, customers – creating new opportunities for providers nimble enough to cater for their needs.

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