Robert Sutton on "felt accountability"

Robert Sutton, Professor of Management science at the Stanford Engineering School

Bob Sutton teaches the psychology of management at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where he uses NovoEd to create a blended classroom combining elements of online and traditional teaching. One of the advantages of NovoEd’s online learning platform, Sutton explains, is that it helps to engender “felt accountability” in the classroom. We sat down with Professor Sutton to discuss NovoEd, online training, and the importance of accountability.


1. You’ve said in the past, including in your book Scaling Up Excellence, that “felt accountability” is a key condition for driving excellence in the classroom and the workplace. What is “felt accountability”?

It’s a feeling that I’m obligated to you and you’re obligated to me. It is also sort of a group characteristic. What that means is that, If you look at the pattern of interaction, the group tends to do what they say and tends to say what they do.

2. How do you use NovoEd to engender that mentality?

That’s one of the advantages of NovoEd’s online learning platform compared to other platforms. I use NovoEd in my class. We use the platform to encourage interaction and accountability through peer reviews, peer feedback, team formation, and communication with [the TAs and instructors]. I think it does encourage accountability. At least it encourages our definition of accountability, which is creating teams and organizations where you feel like “you own the place and the place owns you.”

The [other] advantage of NovoEd is that it allows me, as the leader of the class, to see what’s going on. Through the activity feed, I can see if students have completed their assignments or have commented on others’ assignments. And students can do the same with me, too. It is a means for strengthening those social ties and feelings of obligation. I have used other online platforms, and they weren’t as amenable to doing that as NovoEd.

3. Would you say that NovoEd creates an accountability infrastructure?

Structure is just links. The most important thing is the behavior. NovoEd is both displaying it and doing it in such a way that people can see it. That’s what I like about NovoEd.

As an example, for my final exam, which has been on NovoEd for three or four years now, my course assistants will go through and comment on the students’ papers. Everyone can see the comments and that allows them [the students] to calibrate. That also creates a little peer pressure. Everyone sees the comments on their papers, not just me. It’s a different dynamic — it’s more public.

4. Is it possible to create a feeling of accountability in online corporate training and executive education?

Yes, there is a place for that in both corporate training and executive education, especially if it’s emotionally engaging and related to what people actually do on the job.

I’m currently involved in some online executive education, and what we’ve noticed is that if you just sort of push out content as education, then [executives] might learn something. But if you have someone giving them just a little bit of feedback, to the extent that they feel a connection to a live human being and with each other, that’s a lot more effective for their learning.

Going back to the earliest days of NovoEd, I do think that’s what impressed me about the platform. Chuck and Amin [the founders of NovoEd] were looking at ways to create some emotional engagement, some skin in the game. It’s the difference between active versus passive learning after all. When there’s a little social connection, it’s much more effective.

5. You’ve also used NovoEd to launch a massive open online course, Scaling Up Your Venture Without Screwing Up. Does the dynamic change when you’re using the platform to hold tens of thousands of people accountable?

I was cynical at first. I thought my teaching partner Huggy Rao was wasting his time. But 27,000 people enrolled in the first class, and we had a very high retention rate. Something like 60% of the people who took the class finished. I was very impressed with how good it looked online. The other thing I was impressed by was how good the best of the final projects were. That was so satisfying in a bunch of different ways. We’ve had people writing to tell us how what we did has impacted their start-ups.

6. What have your experiences on NovoEd taught you about running effective online courses?

The design principle that we’ve learned is that, if you have just a little human touch, that makes a difference. If you can have just two office hours where you talk to the students, then they see me waving at them live, as opposed to the canned lectures, it’s amazing how much it makes them feel more connected. It makes them feel less alienated.