Why Executives Embrace the Benefits of Distance LearningPublished: March 10, 2004 in Knowledge@Emory
As distance learning gains a foothold on campus – between 1999 and 2000, 8% of U.S. undergraduates and 10% of graduate students reported taking a distance learning course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – its greatest promise may lie in executive education, where the ability to deliver customized learning at any place and at any time fits the imperatives of the Internet-age workplace.
Distance learning – or “distributed learning” – is estimated to have captured as much as 30% of all corporate training in the U.S., says the U.S. Distance Learning Association, while worldwide revenues in the corporate e-learning market are predicted to surpass $23 billion in 2004, up from less than $2 billion in 1999, according to IDC.
Distance learning can provide convenience and cost-effectiveness when circumstances require busy executives to combine work and education. More importantly, early research suggests there is no significant difference in educational effectiveness between distance learning and face-to-face learning environments, according to Maryam Alavi, professor of decision and information analysis at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. Alavi recently co-authored an article exploring contemporary research into information technology-mediated learning and noted that distance learning environments where students are free to interact with and learn from each other under the teacher’s supervision are considered highly effective.
Alavi writes that new forms of information technology like the Internet facilitate collaborative learning in particular. Collaborative – meaning group or team learning where students learn from each other as well as the teacher – is linked with high levels of student satisfaction but in the past has been limited to face-to-face environments. By using the Internet to mediate interactions between students and teachers, collaborative learning can now be extended over time and distance.
At Emory University’s Goizueta Business School, the innovative use of distance learning technology has helped spawn a whole new MBA program that combines short on-campus learning with Internet-based learning. The end result is that busy business executives from around the globe can successfully overcome time and distance to further their education at Goizueta.
The Modular Executive MBA Program (MEMBA) was designed to double the size of Emory’s executive MBA program by using new technology to offer an even more flexible program than the weekend executive MBA. Aimed at senior-level business executives who find it impossible to return to school full-time or even on weekends – students commute to the program from Egypt, Nigeria, China, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands and South Africa as well as North Carolina, Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida – MEMBA is designed to take maximum advantage of distance learning technology.
The MEMBA program blends one week of intense on-campus classes every quarter with nine weeks of off-campus learning on the Internet.
The format allows students to start and end each class on campus, but delivers the bulk of the learning by distance, challenging teachers like Alavi and Richard Makadok, a professor of organization and management, to seriously rethink the way they teach and structure their classes.
When taught on campus, Makadok’s Business Strategy class is designed to develop diagnostic reasoning skills that can be applied to business strategy dilemmas. To develop these skills, Makadok traditionally relies greatly on case discussions taught with the Socratic method, thus allowing students to share their knowledge and experience with each other.
As Alavi noted in her article, this kind of “collaborative” learning – where a teacher performs more like a learning peer or resource rather than an authority or monitor, and students work together in small groups – is well-suited to the university and graduate school level where students are more experienced, motivated and mature.
But when it came to converting the class to the hybrid on-campus/on-line format, Makadok faced a number of challenges. For instance, how could he preserve the interactive and Socratic features of classroom case discussions? Since many of his students traveled as much as 70% of the time for their jobs, how could he involve them in distance learning when he couldn’t be sure they would have consistent access to the Internet? And with the compressed nature of the two-week residencies, what was the best way to use the face-to-face time?
Makadok’s solution – devised with the assistance of Jason Lemon, director of instructional design for Goizueta – was to redesign his class. With time on campus at such a premium, lectures were mostly shunted to the distance-learning time period. He carefully recorded each lecture, pairing the audio with his PowerPoint classroom slides and converting everything to an on-line multimedia format that could, if necessary, be accessed with just a dial-up Internet connection.
He also determined that time constraints would require him to move some of his case discussions to the distance-learning segment as well. Makadok discarded the idea of a real-time – or synchronous – web conference with everyone on-line at the same time and chose instead to use a message board format – an asynchronous mode where students could log in whenever it was convenient for them. Every couple of days he would post new questions for students to discuss. Every student was able to view all responses posted by the class and comment on comments if need be. Makadok monitored the posted messages and responded to many of them before summarizing the discussion and posting his next set of queries.
Makadok considers the program a success – student feedback rated the course as highly as the classroom offering. While the conversion to the on-line format required a substantial up-front time investment, changes to the content for future classes are now easily incorporated.
An added bonus was how well the on-line case discussions turned out.
“I was spooked about doing on-line case discussion,” Makadok admits. “How could they be campus-quality experiences? It turned out to be a non-issue. Because we eliminated the time constraints of the classroom, the quality and depth of the message board discussion was well above any on-campus case discussion I’ve had. Each case averaged 170 messages. That could never happen on campus.”
The quantity of messages strained Makadok’s ability to keep up – he ended up limiting messages to no more than four sentences – but it played to the strength of his students, who averaged 17 years apiece of business experience. As the number of MEMBA students grows, Makadok expects to add additional restrictions in order to keep discussions manageable. “Every student could have responded to every question and comment. Luckily they didn’t.”
Makadok recently completed teaching his class a second time in the MEMBA format and “it went great – even better than the first time.”
Because his second class was 50% larger, he restricted the frequency of student postings during each case discussion. Students appreciated the more specific guidance about the amount of participation required, Makadok says.
He also smoothed out some deadline conflicts and reduced the overall workload some but Makadok says “honestly what was most different the second time was me. I had gained a lot of confidence. I understood the format better and I had a much clearer idea of what to expect.”
Alavi, whose academic interest is distance learning, was eager to convert her Information Technology and Organization class to the MEMBA format.
“Implementing what you know theoretically is a different experience,” she says. “The question in my mind was not ‘what’ to teach, but ‘how.’ For everything I taught, I had to think whether the topic would benefit more from synchronicity of a face-to-face discussion and feedback or would it benefit more from a longer time period of individual reflection and thinking provided by distance learning? That, in turn, led me to change the sequence of the class material.”
Like Makadok, Alavi conducted case analysis during the distance period and found that keeping up with the posted comments wasn’t always easy. “The task of teaching in a distance format stretches the interaction between teacher and student over a long period of time. Since student work comes at all times, you are teaching in an on-going 24-7 basis.”
Ed Leonard, senior associate dean for academic programs at Goizueta, says teaching over distance requires extra upfront planning. “More than anything, it forces a discipline on you. You just can’t have a lot of surprises. It has to go like clockwork.”
Leonard likes to note that in executive education, half of what students learn they learn from each other. The open-ended nature of case discussions conducted during the distance segment supports that education model as does the fact that MEMBA is attracting more experienced students.
The flexibility of the MEMBA format is striking a chord with executives. The second MEMBA class attracted 50% more students than the previous year.
Jae Schmidt, business manager for the Department of Otolaryngology for Emory Healthcare, could easily have enrolled in the weekend program, but was attracted to the international orientation of MEMBA. “I think business is moving to an international arena and the modular format pulls people from parts of the world I wouldn’t get exposed to.”
Schmidt says the MEMBA format of bookending each distance segment with live teaching is crucial.
“I think pure distance learning doesn’t capture the full array of human communication. By seeing your classmates twice per course, you get to know your fellow students better and so when somebody throws out an idea in an e-mail you can almost hear them saying it in their own voice.”
Schmidt says that during the distance segment his team started exchanging mid-week status reports on assignments and held conference calls every Sunday morning using Internet conferencing software and telephones to revise and edit materials together in real time.
Aside from those fixed interactions, Schmidt says the ability to work when he felt fresh was a real luxury. “I really think distance learning is the way of the future and I think the bookend approach works very, very well.”
The need to project learning over distance is also becoming increasingly vital in the business world, particularly in fast-moving environments where continuously assimilating new information is critical. Professionals like accountants are regularly faced with new regulations, new laws and re-interpretations of old rules that must be assimilated quickly.
At the accounting firm KPMG, real-time web-based conferencing has replaced the firm’s video-conferencing network. Video conferencing required expensive equipment, expensive space and transmission time, and still people had to travel because not every office had a reception site, according to Heather Maitre, director of knowledge-based learning for KPMG.
Using a software product like WebEx or Centra, anyone can log in to a web conference from the computer on their desk. Using a headset, conferees can listen to the presenter while their computer screen is split into smaller boxes. One box might list all the names of the conferees currently on-line. Another box allows participants to type in questions or comments for the presenter, or post instant messages to other conferees. In a larger box, the presenter can project slides that complement the audio.
Like Goizueta, KPMG has a group of instructional designers that work with presenters to format the content and add interactive features – poll questions, surveys, chat sessions – that help add interactivity to the material. The software also provides virtual breakout rooms for small groups to practice new techniques or work through exercises.
Maitre says because her conferences take place in a busy office environment rife with distractions, KPMG has learned to limit sessions to an hour, certainly no more than two. “The biggest problem with virtual classrooms and e-learning is that it is boring. To make it interesting and keep people engaged is the trick. You must get good at that if you want to be successful,” she says.
Surveying their own employees, Maitre says they preferred the interaction features of web conferencing when compared to video conferences. The partners have discovered that web conferencing provides “exponential” savings over video. And KPMG has found that a five-day sales training conference can be cut to two or three days if the salespeople learn the foundation concepts or product information over the web, thus conserving the face-to-face time for teaching presentation skills or other role-playing activities. “Not everything should be used for web conferencing,” Maitre notes, “It’s all about a blended solution.”
At Goizueta, Lemon agrees that distance learning technology is just another tool for professors to deploy, not a replacement for them.
“We are purely using the technology to facilitate the demands of time and space and allow as much flexibility as possible,” Lemon explains. “The goal is for the content experts to remain in control of the content. When faculty enhance their teaching with web materials everybody benefits. Nobody here has said we are replacing the classroom. Instead, we are just enhancing it. What student doesn’t want an enhanced learning environment?”