Don’t Press Pause

Within a matter of months our working and learning and development practices have experienced a significant shift online. Vicki Culpin, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Hult Ashridge shares key insights into why the future of corporate learning in virtual environments is here to stay.

The ‘Flipped Classroom’ has been a common feature in schools and universities for many years. Based on various models of both adult and child learning, the learner is seen as needing to spend time actively engaging with the material for it to be both meaningful and ‘sticky’, and so the classroom ‘flips’ – what once was traditionally delivered by a teacher (the transmission of knowledge) is now shared through synchronous and asynchronous online activities such as videos, blogs and discussion groups. That which was conventionally seen as ‘homework’, the application of knowledge, is now the focus of the class activity; the teacher is seen as the facilitator of discussions and applications of concepts rather than the individual who transmits content to students.

This blended approach to learning was firmly grasped by Executive Education providers who are constantly seeking more effective ways to support participants through learning journeys, ensuring that the learning ‘sticks’ and can be applied back in their respective organizations. The pre and post-module online work, the blogs, Ted talks, short articles, and webinars have provided the context and material for high quality and high impact face-to-face courses, where participants are supported through the application of content – What works in their context? How can they experiment with these tools and techniques? How does this fit with their reality? How can this be applied?

But, that was six months ago. From the beginning of this year, Executive Education providers have been transforming their face-to-face programs to 100% online – no longer the blended flipped classroom approach, but a fully virtual offering, covering both the content and the process, the tools, theories and techniques, and facilitating the conversations, the learning groups, the coaching conversations and supporting the behavioral change back at work.

Necessity is the mother of invention

There is little doubt that currently, this move was indeed necessary, and as a result, there are some incredibly innovative, creative, and powerful virtual learning journeys offered by Executive Education providers across the world. And yet, there is still some reticence from organizations to make the switch from a blended approach to a fully online program.

“Blended learning is powerfully effective, so shouldn’t we just postpone programs until face-to-face returns?”

“Virtual platforms are great for compliance training, and for individuals to share documents and information, but we only get real behavior change when participants are together, interacting and networking in a physical classroom.”

“So much design and thought are put into face-to-face adult learning experiences to maximize ROI (Return on Investment) and virtual learning is seen as the ‘poor relation’ – a stop-gap until the ‘real’ program is available.”

Does any of this sound familiar? As soon as circumstances allow we will, I am sure, be in a position to once again fully embrace the face-to-face classroom experience, but this is a long time to press the pause button - pause the development of your employees at a time when the demand for and retention of talent has never been more business-critical and pause the support of individuals in your organization when mental health, resilience, and well-being has never been so important.

Not only is there a real business risk in postponing learning and development at this critical time, but the belief that a virtual program can never replace face-to-face experiences for high impact, high learning transfer behavior change is just not true. In 2017, Ashridge Executive Education conducted a piece of research, to see whether leaders really can learn how to lead and whether they can develop the competences, resilience, and resourcefulness to step up to the challenges of leadership through learning that is online. Crucially, we wanted to know whether the learning gained (measured after three months back at work) through the experiential behavioral simulation in face-to-face training could be replicated in a fully virtual environment.

The research found that an experiential, highly behavioral simulation, delivered entirely online (including use of actors, formal and informal feedback and practice with TV and radio interviews) delivered exactly the same level of behavior change, after three months, as both a face-to-face and a blended approach. Not only is virtual delivery of learning and development currently a necessity, but it can also be as effective as face-to-face programs, even for highly experiential simulations focusing on behavior change.

Maybe the world will go back to the ‘old’ normal post-COVID-19, or maybe we will have a ‘new’ normal. Maybe the world of business will embrace the Flipped Classroom and use the virtual environment for meetings that involve the transmission of information, and reserve face-to-face events for relationship building, networking, and human to human connections. Maybe it will, but it doesn’t need to. And we shouldn’t wait.

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Vicki Culpin is a Professor of Organizational Behaviour at Hult Ashridge Executive Education. She specializes in well-being research, specifically related to memory and sleep. Vicki also researches and teaches in the field of adult pedagogy, specifically in relation to learning transfer and how to make learning experiences ‘sticky’.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School 
Ashridge Executive Education