In today’s blog post, Pekka Mattila recounts his experience of how he and his team at Aalto University Executive Education moved their executive education programs online for the first time, and the lessons they learned along the way.
When it comes to taking learning programs online, no two industries ever approach the process alike.
But that is not to say that one industry cannot learn from the online learning adventures of another – far from it. In fact, the hopes and ambitions of one company with respect to online learning can be remarkably similar to another, regardless of their industries or sectors.
So even when it comes to stories of a single industry transitioning to online learning along with their challenges, experiments and lessons, it helps to listen. Because beyond any one specific industry experience, there are universal takeaways for anyone looking to get started with online learning anywhere!
Today, we look at the story of how one university-backed executive education institution took the big leap to online learning – and flourished!
Meet Pekka Mattila: A Peek into Executive Education
For a discussion on the world of executive education, we couldn’t have found someone better suited than Pekka Mattila, a man with more than a decade of experience in the field.
With a background in behavioural science and social psychology, Pekka has charted a long career in business management, strategic marketing and leadership development. Right now, he’s actively working as a board member in various businesses as well as facilitating, training and coaching executives in programs across Europe, North America and Asia.
But the crux of our story today lies in Pekka’s 11-year experience working as Managing Director at the renowned Aalto University Executive Education Institute (Aalto EE) from 2011 to 2021.
Executive education refers to graduate-level or higher business management programs that are designed to develop knowledge and professional skills for leadership and managerial roles.
Courses in executive education are deemed extremely valuable and are offered by some of the most prestigious institutions around the world. They carry career-changing potential, and participant groups are often made up of highly motivated, ambitious learners.
Perspective Shift: A New Demand for Online Learning
It is the value and prestige carried by traditional executive education programs that for years, kept online learning at bay as an afterthought, a ‘lesser option’.
As Pekka describes it: “In executive education, we’ve always had these ‘class distinctions’ in a way. The top schools and universities had a certain importance attached to them”.
“So when online learning first came about, it wasn’t considered on par with the tradition of reputable business schools. It wasn’t taken very seriously, especially as there was a sentiment that true executives with real promise would prefer to have in-person, in-class learning”.
For a long time, online learning was viewed only as a mode of general professional development rather than an effective means of executive training. The misconception was that online learning was meant solely for larger audiences and therefore couldn’t be focused or customised for a select few.
But when the pandemic hit the world of executive education in 2020, this perception was in for a huge change.
“Suddenly the industry realised that most traditional established players were very poorly prepared for what is to come”, says Pekka. “They didn’t have any online teaching or virtual learning capabilities and there was nothing to show in terms of true online content design”.
Pekka recalls how some of Aalto EE’s most respected American and European partner schools could only respond by having to shut down entire campuses and cancelling and postponing programs because there simply were no online systems in place.
“It was a time when people were more hopeful about things returning back to normal sooner rather than later. So it was viewed as more of an ‘extended summer break, nobody gets hurt’ sort of a situation”, he recounts.
But as the world soon found out, the pandemic was to become the new norm. Adjustment, rather than patience, was needed. Moreover, the nature of executive education and the persistence of its participants were such that there was no time to be lost: it is essential for many in their MBA programs to graduate on time.
And so began Pekka’s and the executive education industry’s first experiments with online learning.
Starting Out with Online Learning: The Challenges
While Aalto EE did have a few online executive education programs to offer, they neither made up the institute’s main business nor were full-fledged in scope.
As a result, the team at Aalto EE started out by bringing on-board new members who specialised in different elements of online learning. They learned fast and started building new executive education programs together.
But as with any process of trial and error, there were early missteps.
“One mistake that we realised much later was that we were trying to transfer all the materials and content of the in-class experience directly into the digital learning experience”, explains Pekka.
But over the course of time, Pekka and his team soon saw success by opting to take the ‘strip down to basics and build anew’ approach instead. Content design works very differently in online learning settings. So what the old executive education programs needed was a substantial overhaul, this time building with the basics of online pedagogy in mind instead.
The team also tried to resolve a number of concerns by executive education faculty members who were suddenly having to not only move their lectures online but also – at times – pre-record them.
“There were natural concerns about having to teach without faces to look at, or in-class energy to feed off of. Some faculty members were also camera-conscious and found the recording process intimidating”, Pekka recalls.
But over time, as the benefits of this new online learning arrangement were established, these concerns were eventually put to rest.
Pekka recalls one particularly successful example.
“Many professors were frustrated when they realised that their classes contained learners from multitudes of levels. There were learners with a professional understanding of a subject, ranging all the way to learners who were intimidated by it. So there was a sense of “how do you deal with an online class like that”?”, he recalls.
For success stories that make the best of online learning features like this, you need a truly transformed perspective on education.
Another thing you need? A solid online learning platform!
Which, it seems, is easier said than done.
Finding the Perfect Platform – It Ain’t Easy
The team at Aalto EE had a whole different set of adventures when it came to finding the right online learning platform on their journey.
“We looked at multiple alternatives, but at the end of the day, we found that none of them could really accommodate our requirements”, recalls Pekka. “Then there were issues of the online learning solutions being either expensive, or slow, or laggy with frequent log-in issues”.
Pekka talks about a particularly difficult platform experience that led the members of the program teams, who were at the heart of the operations, to start actively disliking the program-building process.
“I remember someone from the team stating that it was time to come to terms with what our learning experience platform really was: just another version of Google Docs. The only difference being that we’d spent a ton of money on it!”, Pekka chuckles. “And while it was an exaggeration, there was definitely a grain of truth in that”.
Pekka and his team had started out the platform-hunting process with the hope of ‘differentiating’ themselves. But they quickly realised that what they truly needed was not only ‘industry-standard’ but the absolute ‘best in industry’.
“We realised that maybe it wasn’t a bad thing that an online learning platform that works for us might be the one that our clients and competitors are using as well. It might even be a positive sign”, Pekka says.
“That’s when we started appreciating industry standards. And realised that instead of customising every last thing ourselves, it might be great to look for a platform that came with its own online learning expertise and was an intuitive experience for customers and participants to use”.
An Executive Education Success Story: Aalto EE’s Lessons
All’s well that ends well, they say.
For all their experiments, trials and errors, Aalto EE’s persistence and willingness to grow and learn with online learning led them to develop an incredibly successful series of online executive education programs.
And today, on the other side of the story, Pekka is thrilled to mention all the ways in which making the ‘the big switch’ has helped them resolve old challenges and make new discoveries.
“In the summer of 2020, we started doing hybrid teaching and it’s an approach we love and have stuck with even today. It gives us a lot of flexibility and makes sure that learning is not interrupted, especially for participants who have responsibilities at home, such as single parents”, he says.
Another valuable thing to come out of the experience was the ability to cater to different learning styles and preferences.
For instance, in executive education, text has always been the traditional means of education. But for some, it has never been the ideal form of learning.
“Especially learners from younger generations who’ve grown up in a world that is more visual and stimulating”, explains Pekka. “So in order to get their full attention, you need to design an entirely different learning experience that offers engagement and variety”.
“And that’s what I like about Claned. You can gamify materials. And you can integrate other forms of media to enhance learning, like podcasts, webcasts and short movies. It allows for more versatility in what you do and how you do it”, he adds.
For Pekka and his team at Aalto EE, the transition from online learning sceptics to whole-hearted adopters is complete. And going by Pekka’s industry insights, most in the world of executive education have followed a similar trajectory.
“I absolutely believe that hybrid and online learning will become the new normal”, says Pekka. “And thanks to this unexpected situation, we have gained whole new perspectives on learning. We have understood how different digital content types can add value to a learning experience and spice things up.”
He adds: “Now that the entire industry is settling into this new norm, I think we will become all the more skilled at trying out new approaches and combining things.”
Ain’t that what online learning is all about!
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