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Online Education 2.0: Where are we Headed? In conversation with Audrey Witters, Stanford Executive Ed

In an exclusive interview with Audrey Witters, Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Education

“Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”
– John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Kennedy’s words from 1961 couldn’t be more relevant to the world of business and management 50 years later. As industries and businesses are evolving, at such a pace, it becomes critical for senior management to build transformative skills which could help them in becoming a better leader. Online executive education is emerging out to be one of the most sought channel of developing these skills.

We interviewed Audrey Witters Managing Director, Online & Entrepreneurship Programs at Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Education, to share her views on future and trends in online executive education.
(*This is an auto generated transcript)

Following are the few key highlights from the interview:

Can you tell us some of the key initiatives as Managing Director, Online & Entrepreneurship Programs at Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Education?

One thing that’s sort of been really important to me all the way through is, uh, is a sense of community. So, uh, I started working on the Internet in the early nineties, and it was brand new and most people hadn’t heard of it. And my father said, do you really want to take a career in this? I think the Internet is just a, it’s just a fad and it’s going to go away.

Um, but I, I really loved when I saw right away, like how people could be connected in a way that was so different from being in a room together and it didn’t have to be synchronous and it didn’t have to be in the same place. And the beginning of this was just bulletin boards and message boards and things like that. Um, at one point I was product manager of a, this is funny of the Internet game on, on AOL in fact. And we were one of the first games that actually had a, a community, uh, surrounding the game itself. And this has been really exciting to me. This is something that I do also not online with, uh, uh, with various groups in my physical community, right? The kid’s soccer team or whatever. I will always try to get people to come together. I think there is a really strong magic and bringing people from different backgrounds and different cultures, um, and just who have different perspectives together and, and helping them learn from and celebrate with each other.

So I really loved the idea when we first came up with, uh, with the lead program and the Stanford executive education approach to online learning that it was going to include a really strong social component. This was something that’s very important to the on campus executive education programs that we run. And it’s something that people were pretty skeptical about, right? Can you really do that in online learning with moocs? There’s community but it’s pretty superficial in most cases. And we wanted to create something that was deep and meaningful and that’s been really, really the most rewarding part of, uh, of this journey for me.

Sure. So the Stanford GSB, right. As you know, there’s a pretty strong band and when we wanted to move online, the, there were a lot of constituencies that we had among the faculty and the alumni who were very, very cautious, um, because they, they didn’t want to sell out. Right? They didn’t want to cheapen the brand. They didn’t want anybody to be able to say, oh yeah, no, I have sort of like a Stanford Mba. Um, and so that was sort of a challenge. At the beginning. We weren’t quite as free as maybe some other universities have been. We were a little bit more constrained, but in fact, I think that is what ended up making us, pushing us to create such an impactful and powerful, uh, online learning experience. Um, I think that, I think that the resistance to newness and change also has allowed us to really think about how our, how our curriculum, uh, can best help other organizations.

I think that it’s come in if you have a successful organization to find resistance to, uh, to new things and back, a lot of organizations fail because they cannot, cannot adapt quickly enough to disruption. And so we were sort of, uh, sort of meta consumers of the curriculum that we were putting out along the way. So, so this was really fantastic. Um, I think the other big thing that was a challenge for us, but then again is also something that’s been really fantastic and rewarding is we made something that was pretty unique. Um, we were pushed back by our stakeholders to make sure that what we pre put forward was something that was high touch, which was sort of antithetical to most of how people thought about online education at that time. We were pushed back to make sure that it was academically rigorous. Um, and we were, and we were pushed back to make sure that it was something that was really aligned with our brand.

And so when we looked at the sort of other things that existed at the time with online education, none of the models that were out there fit those criteria. And so we had to make something that was completely new, which was a lot of work, right? It was, it was, there was no template to follow. There was no best practice, every single aspect of the program, every decision that we made along the way. And of course, you know, we’re an academic institution, decisions are primarily made by consensus. So there’s a lot of debate around every single thing. Um, and this was, this was a lot of work and it was really hard and I think, like I said, it pushed us to create something that really is unique and powerful and wasn’t as constrained by, uh, by other things that were going on. Um, I think the last thing that was a big challenge was the market. Uh, we had, again, it’s very unique product and it didn’t fit into any category that already existed. So

In addition to thinking about the curriculum and the structure and the technology and the, and the, the right audience and how we were going to build community, and then trying to figure out how to, how to educate the market and persuade them to, you know, to think about this product in a new way, to think about a executive education in a new way, we had to explain this whole category, right? And it’s not quite an Mba and it’s not a MOOC, and that’s what the market understood at that time. And it’s sort of neither fish nor fowl. So that was a, that was a challenge. And I think that what we found is, um, is that the best way for us to tell our story is to let our participants and our faculty talk about their experiences. And that’s how we met that challenge. Uh, but I think we still, you know, we still struggle a little bit with that. We’re where we’re, uh, the market will try to sometimes pigeon hole us, you know, into, into this same category as other online courses that aren’t as, as high touch as, as what we provide.

How is online executive program at Stanford different from any other program?

We were tasked with creating an online program that was high touch and academically rigorous. And the, the things that we decided to do to make, to meet those needs were, I think there were two or three big things that we did to make that happen that were unique at the time. And some of them remain pretty unique. So the first one was, like I said, I have a really strong affinity for creating communities. And so we decided that we needed to have a, a pretty significant application process that we needed to be really thoughtful and curating the group of people that we allowed into the program to ensure that everybody was adding value, that everybody was similarly motivated, that everybody would elevate the discussion by being at the table. Um, so I think that is and remains pretty unique.

Uh, we, we, we have an application process that includes, um, video interviews and essays and recommendations from ones, um, typically from one’s manager so that we can make sure that we’re, we’re creating a space that is really deep social learning, that every time you talk to the other folks going to want to network with them more, you’re going to want to listen to what they say and understand how they’re interpreting the material, um, and then share back how, uh, how you can help them with your perspective. So that’s really important and I think it’s pretty unique. A second.Yeah.

The power from online learning versus being somewhere face to face is that you have the ability to integrate it into your, into your work. So there’s a flexibility that is just sort of convenient for people that comes from online learning for sure. But there’s also along with that, an opportunity to watch a video and then go and do that presentation and then come back and watch that video again and say, how did I, how did I do what that professor said I should do in that meeting? And, and, and where did I not, you know, where do I not kind of come through as, as much as I’d hoped. And let me think about why I struggled with that concept. Um, so there’s, there’s a really powerful opportunity to iteratively learn and that’s true in all online learning, but most of the time you’re sort of left to do that by yourself.

And well, we have made available to people is the opportunity to have that discussion with somebody who is an expert in for instance, communication. So I go and I have that experience and I come back and I say, my Gosh, professor, you know, and there’s a, there’s a live session with the professor as well as there are a course facilitators that work closely with our faculty, um, to deliver the course content and then just provide individual feedback and coaching to the participants. So after I have that place that a experience where I’ve had, uh, had, uh, this worked super, super well, but this, I, I struggled with, you know, can you help me understand how to do this and somebody can help me explore what my experience was so that I can I improve the next time around as I think that’s really powerful. Um, and that manifested two ways.

So we have the, the course facilitators for each code, uh, each course that will, uh, that will provide feedback on the assignments as well as, um, discussions on the message boards and things like this, um, regarding how people are utilizing the material. And also each of the courses involves a couple of live sessions with our faculty, uh, which give the participants the opportunity to directly ask the professor to dive deeper into one area or another, or to help them with a question where they’re struggling to apply the material in their context. So I think those are still things that are very, um, very unique to our program. Other, other schools have started to adopt the, uh, that, that synchronous live session, um, uh, format. But I think that, I think that when you combine that with the other aspects that we’ve provided, it’s, it’s even even stronger. Each of those pieces amplifies the impact to the participant.

Why have executive programs been slower in adapting technology?

So I think this is interesting because it’s actually not my experience at Stanford. I think that, I think first of all that I think technology has not, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in, in this sort of disruption that is going to come to the Higher Ed Industry. So yeah, there are flip classrooms and yeah, there are online degrees. Um, but I still think most people, especially the people who are in, in, in line to try to do something like a Stanford Mba, they want to come to Stanford and get a Stanford Mba. Uh, and, and so I think there’s a lot more disruption to come. And I, and I think that there’s experimentation in executive education as well as in, uh, is in the degree space. Um, and I, I think there’s been a lot of missteps, uh, in both. I think there’s a lot of learning still to be had. I think the success has, like I said, it’s, it’s a lot more to come. We’re still early, I think in, in what’s going to happen here. And I think that executive education is actually probably gonna learn faster than the, than the degree programs because we can, we can iterate faster. We can, uh, we can make smaller bets, um, and it’s less, uh problematic for a school to have one executive program that doesn’t quite work out the way you hoped it would then to have an entire class, uh, sort of fail as ends in a, uh, in a degree. Right. Um, but, but overall, I still feel like the, everybody has a lot to learn. It’s not the case in my opinion that, uh, that degree programs are, you know, halfway there or further than that as far as what will happen. I think flipped classrooms are, are great and, and, and there’s a lot more to come in, in the next several years.

How should institutions work at learning design & online student journey in executive education?

So I think that the institutions in general have accepted the value of executive education. They understand that if somebody is going to be successful as a leader in their company, that there are external perspectives that need to be brought to that person, that even they have the best MBA in the world 15 or 20 years ago now that they’ve gained their, uh, their wisdom from their working experience and the, they need to have a new injection of learning and, and, and broaden their perspectives. So I think in general, the thoughts that most institutions that we work with have about executive education in general are, are, are spot on. I think when we get into online learning, the institutions are a little behind, um, in, in their thinking about it. I think that most of the, I don’t want to say most, a lot of the organizations that we work with will at least initially come to us with the perception that the leaders at the top of the organization should come to Stanford for a week or two weeks or however long.

And then if you go down in the ranks and you get to maybe mid managers, this is where, uh, online learning might be appropriate. Um, and I think this is a really, really unfortunate misperception because, uh, it’s based on when online learning couldn’t be interactive, you know, when it was just a bunch of videos that I watched. And so it was more related to skills training or um, a male learned c++, or I’m going to have some sort of compliance training. So My, you know, uh, anti sexual harassment training or something would be online. I think that’s still kind of the, the, the stereotype that a lot of these organizations have about online learning. And I think that, um, technology has really moved beyond that and, and are thinking as far as course design and, and, uh, and delivery has really moved beyond that. And now that we can connect virtually, I mean, this is, this is how we can, this is how you and I are doing this interview. Um, this is how we do most of our work is sitting at our computer. Um, so I think that the fact that we can have social learning and experiential learning, uh, delivered online actually makes it a very powerful tool for executives at the highest, um, uh, pieces of the org chart. And that’s something that I think is still not fully sunk in, uh, institutionally when they think about executive education.

How are the expectations of businesses and learners changing from executive education?

So I think there’s been a little bit more, um, you know, as you go through different financial cycles, uh, executive learning and professional development tend to be a little bit more of Nice to haves then need to, has an organization’s when they need to tighten their belts. Um, and so I’ve been through a number of those cycles. Um, each time there’s a little bit of pressure, uh, at the end to, um, to provide more specific Roi, um, which is challenging. Um, I think that it’s gone up and down though. I don’t know that I feel that as a really strong trend. I think that we’ve responded to it, we tell the stories of impact. We have, you know, a lot of it is going to what does this person do with their learning? And a lot of that is individual. Um, but we have really powerful stories as, as do, you know, all executive education providers is I think a very proven and well understood value.

It just doesn’t always land well when you have to do layoffs to say I’m going to, you know, invest in, in this sort of thing. Um, the one thing that I, that I do think has changed over my time working in this industry is in general I think individuals are more motivated. So when I started, uh, in executive education, it was, it was almost unheard of for someone to pay for themselves to take an executive education program. Um, I think people stayed at their jobs a lot longer 15 or 20 years ago. I think companies were therefore more invested in the development of their employees. And I think now there are a lot of self motivated individuals coming to executive education. And so the value proposition for an individual maybe in some cases a little bit different from the value proposition for an organization paying for an individual to uh, to receive some sort of professional development.

How can institutions translate iterations, feedbacks and networking into online programs?

I don’t think we translate it into an online program. I think an online program is better at these things. I think that if you’re on camp for 10 years I was at Stanford and we delivered face to face online programs. I attended several as a participant, you know, so that I would understand that experience and, and they’re fantastic and they’re great networking opportunities and you learn a lot and your, your mind is really open during this time. But the specific things that, so their intensive, and I think that we don’t try to replicate that online. We do the opposite. We said this is more sustainable versus intensive and different. What people will gravitate towards different learning models. The learning model online is a lot of work, but it’s over, you know, our program is over the course of the year, and so it’s got to be flexible and malleable and work with someone’s job and someone’s life.

Um, however the other, so, so the face to face programs are for sure more intensive and that’s by design. Um, and we’re not trying to replicate that, but when you talk about something being iterated and people getting personalized and specific feedback to their situations, that’s really hard to do face to face as really a lot easier to do powerfully and meaningfully in an online format where I can, you know, come back week after week over time. Um, the, the personalized feedback that, that I’m going to get is going to be from when I’m trying to apply these concepts in, in my work, in my job, I had this presentation, I have this report, I’m supposed to comment on this strategy and I’m going to use my, my learning from these courses that I’m taking and then I’m going to get feedback from, that’s going to include not only what, what, what the expert has to say, but how it worked for me, what my boss had to say, what my CEO had to say. So I think it’s, it’s, it’s tremendously more powerful and you have then also the ability to, you know, when it’s appropriate to get that feedback on other, you know, I can see what my peer struggled with and how she was able to apply these concepts.

And I can use not only the feedback that I’m getting to me, but the feedback that the experts are giving to, to her, um, in a different context, in a different industry, in a different part of the world. So, so I think those things are, are aware of that power of executive education being moved online really is.

What technologies is Stanford using to ensure networking among learners?

Yeah, so this is something that when we, when we started the program, we were really worried about, um, there was a lot of debate, you know, do people need to be in a room sipping, you know, some Chardonnay or nearly non orders in order to, in order to really network, right. Because it’s awkward and, and, and, uh, when you’re in a room and you’re looking at, and it’s maybe a little easier. Yeah, I’ll, hi. You know, what are you doing? And, and the, and the social interactions and a lot of online courses. In my opinion are quite superficial and that was not the kind of network that we wanted to build. Um, I think that, uh, I think that we therefore approached a lot of things very intentionally. We, so technology wise, we, we tried a number of different, uh, activities, so we had and technologies. So we had a virtual world platform. Uh, it’s evolved, we’ve tried different tools and right now we’re using something called Verbella and so you will log in and you will have an Avatar which will represent you in this world. And this has been fascinating, uh, because it’s sort of weird. So if you’re in a teleconferencing, like if you’re in zoom like this with a hundred people, everybody will come in and they will go into the chat and they will say, hi, this is Audrey from San Jose, California. And everybody will see where everybody else is and you’ll have these very light touch interactions. Um, but then that’s kind of it. It’s sort of weird just start a conversation with somebody in a teleconferencing platform when there’s lots of people in there.

But in a virtual world, it’s a lot more like, uh, because it’s in this 3D space, it’s a lot more like being in a room with people. So you’ll walk over to somebody and you can talk about like, like even you can, and it’s sort of a joke, you’ll talk about their outfit, which they selected instead of purchasing. Um, and, and, and it’s a different kind of sort of casual, easy interaction. Then you tend to get in a, in a teleconferencing platform. So that’s one thing. Um, another one that’s been really great for us is, so Facebook has a, uh, a technology they call workplace and this is like a, like a social network for your, for your, uh, company. And we use it for our participants. And so, uh, everybody will come in and, and post pictures of their family and you can talk about it, but people also will use it now to post, um, I’m going to travel to this in place.

Anybody here, do you want to go grab dinner or coffee? Uh, people will, will post about their successes, where they’ve been able to apply the learnings from the program and there they want to share and be proud of what they’ve done. Uh, people will talk about, um, oh, I needed to talk to somebody who knows about such and such kind of technology or such and such kind of space that are our company is looking at moving in or we need to hire this kind of person or work with this kind of partner. And so that happens asynchronously and that platform and it’s really powerful and it’s great because they’re, the participants are, are in there working together virtually for a year. So there were already used to connecting virtually versus if you’re on campus for a year or a month or a week. And then you have to convert your network to something that is online that you’re going to lose some people in that translation.

And everybody here is, is already used to being far apart from each other. So the network is, is uh, it indoors a lot better. But I will also say that, um, we still didn’t know how well this was going to work. Like we tried a lot of things. We said, how can we foster deep communication, you know, people opening up, people sharing a deeply about themselves. We tried to build that into the individual core structure and the uh, the interactions that were layered on top of that at a program level through orientation and this sort of thing. Um, and the time when we really knew we’d been successful was we had a group of students who on their own decided they were going to create a, a, a celebration at Stanford. And they contacted us, said, how can you help us? We help them book some rooms..

I think we gave them like a dinner. The Dean actually came to speak at it in the end, but when everybody got together, we did, we hiked up to Stanford has this dish, the satellite dish, and you can hike up to it. Um, there’s a group of us that, that hiked up there and people were meeting in real life for the first time. But the vibe, the energy, the feeling of the interactions was like it is for reunion. It was like everybody’s getting back together again. Not like tentative, like when you first, you know, really meet somebody. Uh, and that was when we knew that we had succeeded in making actual meaningful connections between the community members.

How are institutions bringing the element of localization into executive education?

So I think this is an area where we’ve, um, we’ve been really, really lucky because of our faculty. So, so Stanford, uh, business school we’re reminded always by our faculty is it’s a research based institution. We teach frameworks that are based on the faculty research. We expect that they are applicable in all cases. Now that doesn’t mean applicable exactly the same way, right? But what we want participants to take away from our program is, is the underlying frameworks of how they’re gonna Approach, um, strategy or financial analysis or negotiation with the understanding that that framework then will be applied maybe a little bit differently in different contexts. Whether those are cultural or geographical context or industry specific contexts or you know, any, any kind of other variables. There are, faculty are used to teaching to a global audience. We didn’t just achieve a global audience with the online program.

So the, uh, most of the participants, more than half of the participants in our face to face programs come from outside of the, outside of the US a large portion of our Mba classes from outside of the US. Our faculty do a lot of traveling to other countries and working with global  companies. Um, so, so what we don’t try to do as part of our curriculum is tell someone, okay, so this is exactly how you’re going to translate this concept. If you are in Bangkok and this is how you’re going to do it. If you in Detroit, we, we want to have the participants and the students explore that themselves. So okay, so you’re in this different situation, you’re in this different place or this different industry that’s got its own idiosyncrasies. How do you think this framework will change? How do you think you will adapt it to your situation?

And what we want to do is help that person explore that and have their learning include them thinking that through. And, and the way we support that is, is with the Peer Group, right? So, so everybody gets excited about those sorts of, of conversations and wants to say, well, you know, I’m here and this is not exactly where you are, but maybe you could take this piece of my experience and help apply it to your situation. And we’re lucky again that our faculty have, have heard from a lot of people from around the world and can tell a story of, okay, well, you know, a participant that I had two years ago was from there and he told me this story of when he was trying to apply this concept and how he found that it worked well. Uh, so, so I think that’s what we’ve, uh, we’ve primarily done.

What are some of the challenges and trends in online executive education?

I think that our challenges are going to keep evolving I think are the umbrella that I would describe them under his. I think that as technology continues to evolve and change and grow in its place in our lives, we need to make sure that we’re continuing to think about how we can use it to help people learn. Um, I think that that things are going to change really fast. So you’re too invested in, in one particular technology or platform or application or modality of learning that you will potentially miss an area of opportunity. So I think that our strategy is that we need to be spending a good amount of our time thinking about what’s new, how could we use this? How could we use, you know, artificial intelligence or how could we use augmented reality to help executives learn, um, and, and not necessarily in a heavy way where we’re going to go off for two years into a think tank and come back with something really massive but in, um, in a lighter way so that we can be more agile and adaptive and faster.

Um, you know, we already started to do this with, with our, with our virtual world platform. We’re not doing 100% of, of the learning in a virtual platform. That’s, um, it’s not the best way for everybody to learn everything, right? We want the flexibility of, of I’m watching the video when I’m, you know, on an airplane for instance, we have a toe in there, we have a foot in there, we’re tied, we’re, we’re, we’re, we’re paying attention. Um, so that if there are opportunities we can, uh, we can go deeper into that area as is appropriate. Um, that’s not always easy to do in academia. The, the sort of two year think tank approach is what’s, what’s more typical. Um, so we’re really lucky to enjoy the support of, of, of the school and our faculty, which enables us to do this maybe a lot more than, than others.

Yeah, so I think I said this before, I think that the one, there’s cycles and I, and I, and I think the cycles are how much people trust that this is a good investment versus how much proof they need. Um, that there is a specific, you know, maybe a dollar ROI or something like this that’s more objectively measurable. Um, but I think that the biggest trend that I’ve seen, you know, over the last decade and a half is, is a move towards individuals being more motivated. I think that’s probably, um, when I was in high school, right, I imagined that my employer would send me to get an Mba. That’s what people were doing back then. Um, and, and employers don’t do that as much and there’s  eMBA programs and a lot of people will, will, will take that initiative, um, and take that responsibility on their own in addition to their job.

Maybe they’re not even going to tell their boss about it. And that happened first with the, with the MBA programs and that started two and the other degree programs and that started to manifest more across even the shorter executive education programs. That is, that is a big trend that I’m seeing. And I think, I guess the other one would be, I mean, more and more people are including online learning as part of, uh, as part of their educational experience across the board. That’s, that’s true for my kids in middle school as well. Um, I think it’s true in all aspects of our lives. So it’s not really surprising, but it certainly is Um, is a trend.

Envisioning online executive education in 2030?

We can’t imagine what the world is going to be like in 2030. You know, like things change so much. I think that, I think that there will be a lot more use like you said, of, of, of technologies that make us feel more together. Um, whether that’s a virtual reality or augmented reality or something we haven’t thought of yet. Um, I think that something else that, uh, I couldn’t imagine wouldn’t be true in 2030. So we have, you know, we have a phone, um, we call this mobile. I think that’s going to become like having a persistent thing that’s always with you and having more power that you can evoke from that thing. Whether it, we’re calling it a phone then anymore, which is sort of silly already or not I, I’m not going to comment on, but I think that having some sort of persistent access, uh, to, two people, networks, activities, uh, learning anything is going to be, uh, kind of, kind of amazing and, and bigger than we can probably even imagine right now.

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