Opportunities and Challenges of Blended Executive Education for International ProfessionalsWilliam Wisser | Instructional Designer, Harvard University
Executive education aims to engage participants who are already leaders in their industries. When executive education is aimed at an international audience, the impact of the experience on their careers and the fields in which they work is compounded. The opportunity to share insights and learn best practices across diverse contexts makes international executive education a rewarding endeavor for participants and educational institutions.
Most executive education programming is conducted via traditional in-person methods. There are many positive aspects to face-to-face executive education: participants have the opportunity to expand their professional networks, learn from their peers and immerse themselves in the experience. Institutions are able to promote their brand through facilities, faculty and local amenities.
But these experiences hold their own challenges. Immersive programs can be theoretical or out of context, making it difficult to apply the lessons back in workplace. It can also be difficult for participants to find the time to remove themselves from their workplace, and employers and individuals may struggle to afford the costs of an extended stay in an on-site program. Those negative aspects are compounded for international participants, many of whom are shut out of executive education opportunities in the United States due to cost and lack of time, or work in contexts that are vastly different than the domestic context of the host institution.
One solution is to take advantage of the affordances of in-person education while mitigating some of its challenges through a blended learning approach. Blended learning combines what is most effective about face-to-face learning with what works best with online learning. The networking, community building and personal interaction of a face-to-face experience is complemented by the asynchronous reflection, individual exploration and digitally-enhanced learning. Furthermore, the job-embedded nature of a high-quality blended program promotes application of core concepts into local contexts, thereby increasing impact.
There are several opportunities as well as challenges in the construction of a blended executive education program aimed at an international audience.
While online networking opportunities continue to grow in effectiveness and reach, they still cannot compare to the opportunity to engage with a co-located community of peers while grappling with common problems.
A blended approach allows for the creation of peer communities during the in-person experience that are extended and deepened over an extended online period of interaction and engagement. A well-designed blended approach should incorporate ample online opportunities to continue discussions started in the in-person portion of the program through regular assignments, group work and opportunities to reflect on application of program insights.
2. Space and place
The physical institution itself is a powerful draw for executive education participants who might be challenged to find reasons to travel for ongoing learning. The facilities, faculty, institutional brand and local amenities all contribute to the success of the experience. A blended learning approach takes advantage of the physical space of the institution while ensuring the program has the flexibility of time and space necessary for an international audience. An effective blended program will assign the in-person experience early in the program to establish a community among the participants and provide access to resources and framing information.
Access to digitally-enhanced programming internationally can be a challenge. A high-quality blended program does not necessitate technology-advanced learning experiences. However, the educational promise of online simulations, synchronous conferencing and asset creation and sharing can constitute a significant drain on the resources of an international audience with limited internet access. While broadband internet access and powerful computers may be difficult to locate, access to mobile networks continues to expand and is rapidly transforming education more rural locations at home and abroad. Mobile technologies can be successfully employed in executive education to allow participants to be constantly engaged in the experience and with each other through notifications, shared resources and real-time communication.
In any executive education program, time can be the biggest barrier to participation and completion. While the face-to-face portion of a blended experience allows for immersion and focused time on task, participants in an online education experience difficulty finding the time to stay engaged and complete the work.
One potential solution to time-management challenges is to design the experience to be job-embedded. If participants are able to apply their knowledge in real-world settings and bring their daily challenges back into the online classroom they are more likely to engage in the experience. If participants are able to personalize the experience and draw specific meaning from the abstract principles they are learning, the experience will hold ongoing value for them.
The hallmark of an effective blended learning approach to executive education is flexibility. Blended learning provides flexibility of time to complete the work when the demands of the workplace allow. It also provides flexibility in methods of engagement and participation through discussion forums, shared resources and interactive assignments. A high-quality blended learning experience should promote flexibility by allowing participants to engage with the material and each other in a way that allows them to make meaning from the experience that applies to their own context.
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 Scott Kipp, “Mobile Phones, eBooks Turning the Page on Education,” Frontlines Sudan and South Sudan Online Edition, September/October 2011. Accessible at http://www.usaid.gov/news-information/frontlines/sudan-south-sudaneducation/mobile-phones-ebooks-turning-page-education
Author Perspective: Educator