How will MOOCs impact executive education?

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With things like MOOCs becoming increasingly popular, I was interested to see what the future held for executive learning.  Howard E Horton, President, New England College of Business and Finance (NECB), joined me to discuss the trends in executive education.

Adaptability has been quoted as the key management skill of the current age. Do you think executives do enough to refresh their skillsets?

Executives, like most, require some periodic skillset updates to adapt to the changing nature of their respective industries. Some industries, such as high-technology and healthcare, are evolving more rapidly than other verticals, such as retail and food, but all are experiencing challenges from the rapid pace of information exchange; new patenting and product design; international competition; new government regulation; and a changing workforce as baby-boomers retire.

To adapt to their changing industries, some executives will need to deepen their existing competencies, while others will just need to address some skill gaps. Executives generally need enough leadership skills to set the direction for their organizations or departments and enough knowledge to adequately manage and supervise those who report to them. This may also mean executives looking outside of their own companies to give them new frameworks and points of reference.

Effective executives train as efficient delegators, and so the great berth of executive education programs tend to center on leadership, management, entrepreneurship and organizational development from the theory perspective. However, at New England College of Business and Finance (NECB), we have also provided more specific “practical” management skills to help close the skill gaps some executives face. A great example of this is our course called “Financial Statement Analysis for Non-Financial Managers.”

The research seems to indicate that executives are meeting the challenge to deepen and expand their competencies through both continuing and formal education, with larger companies continuing to commit steady, if not growing, budgetary resources to executive education. The University Consortium for Executive Education (UNICON) reports an increase in executive education programs during the past few years, but since most higher education institutions do not report enrollment figures for non-credit programs, it is a bit hard to ascertain the exact amount. However, there is reportable growth in the number of MBA program graduates and in the number of Executive MBA programs as a subpart of the MBA discipline. In the past decade, graduate degrees awarded in business have increased by 50 percent, with almost 200,000 awarded in 2011 – so this clearly reflects a trend of existing executives pursuing more formal education and others seeking additional education to attain executive level positions.

How will the rise of MOOCs impact executive development and are you
currently offering anything in this format?

I don’t think MOOCs will be much of a factor in executive development and, quite frankly, I am not sure that online courses with 100,000 or more simultaneous students will be any more than a “flash in the pan” a few years from now in higher education, period.

MOOC’s will remain the province of only very highly-branded, elite higher education institutions – and they are useful in that they are pushing the technology envelope to make online learning more compelling and to build in more assessment tools that look at whether students are really learning and achieving. The MOOCs right now are often free, which makes them beneficial to those who can’t afford more traditional forms of education.

But, MOOCs are weaker, educationally, than more targeted online programs in some important fundamental pedagogical elements, such as intensive interaction with faculty; the development of coherent peer learning experiences within a course; and, access to institutional supplemental and explanatory resources, such as librarians and tutors.

These elements all lead to higher levels of content understanding by the course taker and the ability to apply knowledge and not just attain it, which is critical in executive education.

The focus on “applied education” or “problem based learning” is why recent research has shown that in executive education, practices such as job rotations, internships, internal assignments and mentoring are important elements to coincide with classroom instruction, whether online or on ground. I think executives will learn more from an “Undercover Boss” type experience than they will ever learn from a MOOC.

At NECB we have no plans to offer MOOCs. We strive to offer high-quality online courses with an average course size of around 20 students. We also strive to be highly affordable so that companies can utilize their usually sparse tuition reimbursement budgets to get the most education possible for their employees. For example, a Master of Science in Finance at NECB is currently less than $ 16,000 for an employee of one of our corporate partners and slightly more than $20,000 for members of the public at large.

MOOCs will never make up for the fact that elite institutions are charging massive amounts for accredited and recognized graduate level credentials, e.g. the $100,000 MBA. What we need is more institutions like NECB that provide accredited, high-quality, proven, graduate-level education at very affordable prices so that companies can invest in executive development without breaking the bank.

Executive education will evolve to include quite a bit of virtual and blended learning, but we must do it in a way that substantially engages the learner, and facilitates sharing discussions and expertise with peers and experts they can learn from.

Social business and social learning are facilitating tacit knowledge transfer for executives. How do you see explicit course based learning working alongside this?

LinkedIn, which is probably the most subscribed to social network for business people, has an explicit information sharing segment. This and other forms of social networking and List-Serves are ways to keep abreast of major developments in business and to keep one’s ear to the ground. However, these mechanisms are usually not enough, in and of themselves, to form a complete picture for an executive to use as a basis for leadership or decision making – much the same way that Wikipedia might be a good starting point for a research project, but you could never rely on the data you find there without cross-checking against validated sources. Explicit course-based learning is what provides the validation around subject matter and gives the executive more confidence in the information. So I would see social networking as a means to keep abreast of what one needs to learn, rather than a means to learn it.

For example, I recently came across a question on LinkedIn about whether quality is always going to be costly, and how to decide between quality and quantity in a service-ased industry. This question will get a lot of responses from LinkedIn members and some good starting points as to thought process. But, to really answer this question, one needs to delve deeper into the particularities of a specific industry, or look at case studies from a broad range of industries, and that is when you will want to take more explicit courses on the subject matter.

How do you see the future panning out for executive learning?

There will be an increasing recognition that lifelong learning is not so much of an option as a necessity today. Technology will afford many more options for executive learning than the various in-residence stints than executives have spent at traditional business schools. There will be more custom training and more company-wide delivery of executive education through organizations such as BrainShark, which have adapted mechanisms for mass and adaptable uses of PowerPoints. As more digital natives join the executive corps, they will learn more on their own and rely less on subordinates for advisements on decisions. Companies will also see greater value in executive education as they deal with organizational change, the enhanced need for collaboration and succession planning with the upcoming retirement of baby boomers, so they will likely invest more in it.

The nice thing for executive learning is that the mechanisms to attain knowledge keep increasing, so the traditional residential program or traditional campus-based MBA are now just choices and not the only game in town. The use of webinars; on-demand video; Internet distributed PowerPoints and presentations; online courses and programs; List-Serves; and a host of other web-mediated methods eliminate the place and time boundaries that had been typical of all learning, executive or otherwise. While the influx of technology can cause disruptions at other levels of education, executive learning is positioned to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this trend.

Article first published as The Future of Executive Education on Technorati.

9 thoughts on “How will MOOCs impact executive education?

  1. Interesting. I think he's being a little hasty to write off MOOCs so quickly. Anything that generates that level of interest has to be taken seriously.

  2. MOOCs ( Although I do not like to call them MOOC , everybody says so, so I had to use it ) are much better learning tools for adults than younger learners of college age .
    Therefore I send to all 500 executives of Turkey all the infornation about MOOCs free .
    Particularly MIT, Harvard, Stanford .

  3. Companies are already buying so many management training courses from commercial companies whose knowledge is questionable.
    But nobody question the quality of MIT or Harvard or Stanford.
    Since it is free manager just grab it .
    It is a free service from my side too . How much they learn I do not know, but when I meet them personelly they thank by millions .
    Good managers continue to learn . I say learn from cradle to grave .

    • What a great story. Wonderful to hear :) As others have said, I'm not sure there is a downside to offering employees such great free educational opportunities.

  4. I also inform 170 universities in Turkey one by one what is going on, which courses are offerred by MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Princeton etc.
    I urge them " their students should attend these new online courses and university should assess later and award credits too ."

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