Myths, Busted: The Reality of Developing Leadership Skills Online
November 30, 2020
Managing Director, Online & Entrepreneurship Programs at Stanford Graduate School of Business Executive Education
We are thrilled to have Audrey Witters, Managing Director of Online and Entrepreneurship Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB), contribute to the NovoEd blog. Audrey oversees Stanford’s flagship LEAD online business program, through which she brings GSB’s learning experiences to thousands of business executives each year around the globe. In this post, she shares her unique perspective on the reality of online learning and how it differs from the mythical thinking that she encounters.
Innovation in Executive Education
Five years ago, our team launched the Stanford LEAD Online Business program, with a bold and unique goal: offer an authentic GSB experience in an online format, preserving academic rigor and impact in an immersive, high-touch, and interactive experience. To achieve this, the LEAD program was designed with elements that were not traditionally present in online learning, such as personal feedback, social learning, and situated experiences.
In creating this program, we threw out preconceived notions about the limitations of online learning. Many conflate university-based online learning with massive open online courses, and assume that online learning has limited capacity to develop soft skills. On the contrary, there have been robust advancements and innovations in online based learning since its genesis. Our experience developing the LEAD program not only clarifies the power of online learning, but busts several myths about online learning’s limitations.
Myth #1: Online learning is only good for knowledge acquisition, not soft skills
It’s a commonly held belief that online learning can support knowledge acquisition, such as learning to code in Java, but people become more skeptical about whether an online course can teach them the “soft skills” that are so important for leaders––for instance, how to communicate better or more effectively motivate a team. These are the types of skills that many people don’t feel are a “good fit” for online learning. It’s true that developing soft skills is nuanced, and accurately assessing soft skills requires a human being (at least, right now). Learners need someone with understanding of the skill and experience applying it in a variety of settings to help guide their development efforts. However, the reality is that online learning can meet this need, using a course facilitation model and modern online facilitation tools.
In our Stanford LEAD program, course facilitators provide personal feedback to participants, offering learners constructive and helpful feedback and allowing learners to iterate and improve over time. With this approach, participants feel personally supported, and this increases their motivation to prioritize their coursework. Today’s online learning tools allow courses to incorporate human feedback and allow for the iteration and dialogue that is key to developing soft skills.
Myth #2: Online learning needs to be a solo endeavor
The next misconception about online learning is that it fails to provide a genuinely social experience, compared to in-person education. It’s been well established that learning is best achieved as part of a community. However, to cultivate a true learning community, learners must intrinsically want to connect with one another. You have to continually reinforce connection, creating opportunities for the community to demonstrate its worth to its members, and vice versa. With innovative, thoughtful, and intentional approaches to social learning, community can be an integrally-designed component of the learning journey, with learners gaining from each others’ experiences and perspectives.
We continually reinforce the social elements of our program. The Stanford LEAD program kicks off with a virtual reception; incorporates a multi-week orientation, which is mostly asynchronous on NovoEd; and leverages an integrated, dedicated community space. These components not only introduce participants to each other, but they embed the concepts of social learning and teamwork. The program continues to nurture the community, through extracurricular activities, collaborative assignments, and feedback opportunities. In some ways, the community experience is more powerful online, as there is a more diverse set of participants, including people who might not have been able to travel to an in-person program.
Myth #3: Online learning is a pale approximation of face-to-face training
Lastly, many believe that online learning is lesser than face-to-face learning, that in-person experiences are necessarily superior, but this is yet another myth. There are aspects of online training programs that can, in fact, provide deeper and more impactful learning than in-person programs. Specifically, in a classroom, it isn’t feasible to learn concepts and then apply them in a situational, iterative way, such as actual working environments. Engaging with material in both an online course and a work context brings concepts to life in a way that is often not possible in classroom settings.
The unique promise of online learning is to enable a true learn and apply–and reflect, improve, then reapply–cycle that we ought to view as the gold standard of professional learning. For example, in a communication course, a learner has the opportunity to review and edit an upcoming presentation that they’re giving in their workplace. In a leadership development course, a learner can experiment hosting staff meetings in different settings to observe how one’s environment can impact an interaction. Or, in a change management course, a learner might complete an actual change management plan that they’re developing for their organization. So, the reality is, we can in many cases drive better learning outcomes and impact with online learning than with traditional executive education programs.
Putting It All Together
These new approaches to leveraging online learning aren’t just independently helpful in driving impactful learning––they work together, each amplifying the effects of the others. Course facilitators help catalyze community interaction and help participants make the most of the opportunities for iterative application at work. Participants are able to share their experiences applying concepts with each other and benefit from being exposed to and exchanging ideas about their experiences, challenges, and takeaways. All of this needs to be organized holistically in an intentional way, with the proper planning, technology, and resources allocated to create an effective unifying experience and journey.
We are very proud of the results we’ve achieved over the years; the Stanford LEAD program has been very successful, entering its 12th cohort this year. But we cannot stand still. There are always new learning needs, new forms and methods, new technologies to utilize––all in the service of creating meaningful learning experiences for today’s workforce. We are continuing to innovate with new models and approaches, and I hope to meet you along this journey as well.
About the Author Audrey Witters
Audrey Witters is the Managing Director of Online and Entrepreneurship Executive Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In this role, she has overseen the launch of the flagship Stanford LEAD program, as well as multiple other online products, cumulatively reaching thousands of executives each year. Ms. Witters has been involved in creating and studying online communities since the early 1990s, in contexts ranging from the federal government to online gaming, and is inspired by the idea of using technology to meaningfully connect people from around the world. She has worked in higher education since 2002, and with the recent acceleration of social and networking technologies, she sees tremendous opportunities for high-impact social learning.
Learning experience design is a multidisciplinary approach to training that recognizes that most learning happens, not by instruction, but through experience — so the learner leaves with something to remember.