First published forbes.com 1/2016. For most business school educators and their corporate clients, the moving frontier of executive education is the online classroom or perhaps MOOCs (massively open online courses). But educators at IESE Business School, overlooking and perhaps taking courage from Barcelona F.C.’s Camp Nou, are racing past this toward what they call “omni-learning.”
Omni-learning continuously and digitally integrates all real and virtual learning sites –classroom, workplace, customers’ premises and beyond.
The concept owes much to data-tracking adaptive feedback systems that have emerged in other industries, for example Fitbit wearables that track health and fitness activity and provide ongoing interaction with peers and feedback to doctors. Or, similarly, Waze (a Google company) which aggregates continuous distributed peer imputs about the state of traffic into knowledge that guides driver choices.
In an IESE Insight position paper “The Road to Omni-Learning: How Digitalization is Changing the Way Executives Learn,” the directors of IESE’s Learning Innovation Unit, Drs Guiseppe Auricchio and Evgeny Kaganer, argue that eLearning is already “a relic” in merely adding an online component to traditional education.
So far use of digital technologies has been merely as instruments that tinker with an educational model that remains bound by the idea of instructor-led classroom-based learning.
But Auricchio and Kaganer anticipate that digital technologies will break the classroom paradigm entirely, allowing something altogether new in executive education: learner-led, peer-oriented, real-time adaptive knowledge acquisition that works seamlessly across all relevant sites and contexts.
I tracked down Giuseppe Auricchio for a one-one interview, here are the highlights:
Auricchio: “When I think executive education program, I don’t think Monday morning. I think ‘the learning experience’ , what is best possible way to achieve the learning outcome — accessing the most appropriate tool at each step?”
“We know a learner has to be motivated in order to learn. Yet we have passive, one-way, top-down delivery. We know a learner needs constant feedback, yet we currently have no way to do this other than an exam.
“Lectures are the worst way to learn. But in an analog world they are the only way to scale. Now digital technology is lifting these constraints, so we can start to do the things we know are right, but which practically and economically have not been feasible.
“Digital technologies will finally allow us to create learning that is much more aligned with the way we know real learning occurs—in situations that are social, collaborative, ongoing, and which personalize learning and assessment and giving the learner some control.”
In the IESE paper the authors explain further: “The number of organizations investing time and resources in alternative learning processes is growing fast. But they treat online learning as an optional extra to gain efficiencies–saving the time that executives spend away from work, and reducing travel costs, so the organization saves money. Meanwhile, the true intention–to improve learning effectiveness–gets lost.
“In your organization, don’t start by asking, “How can we do what we currently do better?” Instead ask, “What could be done at each key stage of the learning process to enhance or optimize the experience for learners, which integrates the respective strengths of online and in-person learning?”
Kaganer and Aurrichio isolate three key features of omni-learning:
- Continuous and Cross-Context. These overlap, and are rooted in the idea that learning must be knitted into an executive’s everyday activities rather than be a standalone event. The range of an executive’s activities and, therefore, physical and virtual learning contexts necessarily spans all the places and situations the executive finds herself in, which all need to be captured and integrated.
- Learner-Led. In formal learning, pathways and learning experiences are preselected by the lecturer or learning designer. In omni-learning, it is anticipated that participants identify and integrate learning moments themselves, including making the choices that personalize each learner’s journey to his own needs.
- Data-driven. The learner-led moments embedded in everyday situations generate a rich data footprint, to be captured, stored and analysed to monitor each learner’s performance and personalize tasks. Crucially, data is not just a record of past activity — the learner’s path data is available to guide future choices. As with Waze, collaborative data feedback will guide best choices each learner can and should make next.
Collaborative data also plays a role in learners’ engagement and motivation. Again drawing on the analogy with Fitbit, the authors say there is a “motivational boost stemming from the ability to visualize one’s progress and to compete with others. Ultimately, this transforms the experience of (staying fit) from a fragmented set of difficult-to-sustain personal commitments to a holistic, social journey integrated into one’s everyday life.”
At present, omni-learning is an aspirational idea not an established practice, with the technology still clunky and buried in stand-alone apps. However IESE Executive Education is currently bootstrapping an engagement with one corporate client that embraces aspects of omni-learning logic, connecting in-class learning with external learning moments, including social and workplace platforms chosen by the learning cohort.
It allows executives to integrate what they are reading, talking about, or observing back into the education program, and make their information and usage data more readily available to all. The totality of activities, both physical and online, of all learners in the group is aggregated for general insight and benefit.
At the same time IESE is updating case studies with multimedia, providing links to relevant news and analysis, embedding Q&A to improve retention, and creating adaptive storylines to stimulate engagement.
When the full-blown vision arrives, omni-learning will go beyond the business school and the beyond any one specific executive program, allowing each executive learner to connect with other and even competing contexts, people, places and practices in an expert-guided but learner-led system.
Success depends on technology progress quickly allowing ease of use and quality of user experience, and according to Auricchio the technology is not too far off at this stage: “Google could pull it all together in six months.”
But progress in this direction involves more than just better technology. It involves a fundamental shift in the way learning is perceived, designed, and used.
Says Aurrichio: “What is harder is changing organizational culture and managerial mindsets inside organizations. The guru-led classroom has been the educational frame for at least 100 years. Omni-learning displaces the classroom and centers learning on the individual learner.
“Consider how most executive development is assembled. The starting point is usually a classroom-based core, augmented by some online component. Contrast that with how other digital products and service are offered today, where user-led experiences span channels and contexts, and which are characterized by user empowerment.”
Employees are being exposed to data-driven adaptive learning in their private lives. With this exposure comes new expectations that will drive what learning should look like at work.
Individuals will take control of their personal learning as an everyday activity integrated into other daily workplace activities, and be ready for options that go beyond simple blended online-offline modes into a set of continuous activities.
Client company or learner perceptions aside, the displaced classroom also implies deep challenges for business schools and other providers of executive development. Not least, the entire foundation of the current business model—billing per contact teaching day—will crumble and have to be rethought.
There will also be challenges to current executive education department programme design processes. Auricchio foresees a far less faculty-led model as learning design shifts from predictive-path “instructional design” to adaptive-path “learning experience design.”
Learning experience design will require a broader spectrum of actors, including a learning community experience manager and possibly data specialists.
At the same time, he remains savvy about the pace and extent of digital disruption in the executive education industry. “’Either-or’ framing is incorrect. It won’t be either online or face-to-face. Either omni-learning or a traditional program. Even with Fitbit we still go the gym!”
“Shopping is still shopping, but not what it was five years ago. It is still about buying a dress, but not as was. It is not just going down the high street. Nor is it just going online. It is about seeing the item, tweeting it to your friends, price comparing it, and getting it delivered. It is a continuous, seamless, online-offline digital experience.”
In the same way, in the next era of executive education the basic functions of teaching, coaching, mentoring, reading etc. will be recognizably fulfilled, both online and off-line. But these will be integrated into a continuous data matrix that will greatly expand options and benefits for learners and corporate purchasers of executive education.