2017

squaring the circle of corporate professional development

Traditional corporate professional development is stuck between a rock and a hard place. While on-site training is expensive (trainer, venue, travel, accommodation, catering) and bound to a specific time and location, traditional web-based trainings and elearning courses are scalable, but suffer from low didactic quality and thus fail to achieve advanced learning outcomes. Webinars combine advantages and disadvantages of both of these approaches.

What companies need is an effective online learning experience that enables learners to reach learning outcomes on par with the best classroom training – at scale, anytime and anywhere. We believe that asynchronous, active (“lean forward”) learning and social online courses can help to square the circle. That is: achieve advanced learning outcomes at a reasonable price point.

Where Traditional Corporate Professional Development Falls Short

As I have explained in my post about flexible online learning, classroom learning to this day is considered the gold standard of education. Granted, learning in direct interactions with others can be fun. But as everyone who has ever gone to school will know that is not a given. Even it is though, the practical requirement to be present in a particular location at certain point in time makes it more and more difficult to effectively use classroom training in increasingly global companies. Moreover, due to the fact that all of the learning has to take place in one, usually fairly short, block learners can find themselves overwhelmed by all the input. Corporate classroom training often leaves learners with little to no time for digesting content, entering into discussions with other learners or reflecting on what they have learned. While coming together in a group sure is a powerful way of learning, it reveals certain deficits that flexible online education manages to overcome.

Elearning formats promised a more flexible approach, allowing large numbers of learners to learn outside of the classroom. However, it soon became clear that the WBT format is primarily suited to convey knowledge in the form of content. Learners watch videos or read texts in order to learn certain facts or concepts. In addition they usually answer a few multiple choice questions – but that’s about it. This, however, is not enough to understand a topic in depth, acquire new skills or fundamentally change someone’s mindset. This is why traditional elearning is often one-dimensional and neither encouraging nor challenging. Which is why elearning in many companies is still primarily used in the field of compliance, where the learning objectives are relatively straightforward. For learners to reach more advance learning outcomes, however, they need to apply their knowledge in different contexts and discuss value judgments with others. Which is why we need a new kind of corporate professional development.

What Innovative Online Education Has to Offer to Corporate Professional Development

Innovative approaches to effective online learning manage to combine the advantages of both classroom learning and traditional elearning. This approach to online education gives learners the opportunity to work at their own pace while acknowledging the importance of the interaction among peers. Messaging, for example, allows students to exchange and discuss ideas with each other. They can even set up working group chats and thus solve assignments and problems together with their peers. Being part of a community is a key aspect of the learning experience – particularly in the field of greyscale learning.

The Learning Journal provides a room for learners to collectively reflect on different solutions to course assignments and motivates them to engage in active learning. Learners can reward outstanding works of others by giving posts a heart. By following the journals of other users, they can keep track of what is happening inside the community. Many of these features are widely successful aspects of other social networking sites. Now it is time to leverage their potential in the field of online corporate professional development.

Our online courses use a broad range of assignment formats. Learners have to write free text responses, record videos, visualise or develop a concept, answer open-ended discussion questions or participate in an essay competition and post the result of their work in the Learning Journal. The assignments are challenging as well as entertaining, but most importantly: educational. This hands-on approach requires learners to apply what they have learned in many different ways and contexts. Sharing their solutions with others enables them to learn with and from each other.

A New Frontier for Corporate Professional Development in the Digital Age

Corporate Professional Development Matrix

We believe that this innovative approach to online education will be able to overcome the shortcomings of both classroom learning and traditional elearning. In so doing it conveniently places itself in the top right corner of the matrix above. On the one hand it achieves advanced learning outcomes by providing high quality content, challenging assignments and a community of peers in a flexible organisational setup. At the same time the courses are asynchronous and require little to no active supervision by an expert. Hence they are much affordable per participant than classroom instruction.

Combining scalability and affordability in this way allows companies to tackle wholly new challenges using digital learning. On the one hand it will help to make digital solutions succeed across a much broader range of subject areas; specifically in fields where it was previously thought to be ineffective such as communications skills. On the other hand it will help corporate professional development to finally deliver on the often-proclaimed aspiration to create a “learning organisation”. Strategic change management initiatives often require the  (re-)qualification of hundreds or even thousands of employees. On-site training programs provide very limited economies of scale and require a lot of time and resources to plan and implement. Exciting alternative solutions that leverage the potential of online learning more fully such as corporate MOOCs (e.g. Deutsche Telekom’s Magenta MOOC) may allow corporate professional development to finally gain the strategic importance HR departments have long claimed, but found hard to deliver on.

The times they are a changin’…

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video role-play

Our newest feature, video role-play training, is currently undergoing beta-testing and we will begin to roll it out to learners within the next couple of days. Besides answering multiple-choice and written work, learners will be able to record video responses on our platform.

This will be especially useful in the context of courses with a focus on greyscale learning in the broad field of communication skills (leadership, sales etc.). Because becoming great requires practice. The ability to record, replay and record again until the learner is satisfied is one aspect that makes video responses such a powerful tool for effective online learning. In addition, sharing video responses in the Learning Journal enables learners to comment on each other’s work, complement each other or point out things that need improvement.

video role-play

Moving Beyond Multiple Choice Using Video Role-Play Training

Video role-play training assignments thus allow us to teach things online that are often thought of as being hard to teach in a digital format. Namely courses on real-life communication skills where there is no dichotomous black or white. Where there are many right and many wrong answers and many different shades of grey in between.

Examples of such courses are those dealing with topics such as sales, leadership or customer care. Consider one example: a course on leadership. This is exactly one of the “soft” or “human” topics that, as it is often argued, can only be taught well in a face-to-face environment. In a traditional elearning format it often is either all theory or a fairly simple “multiple-choice game”. In web-based training one would, for example, watch a video of two people fighting in the hallway and would then have to respond to a couple of questions that offer a few options to choose from. The user has to choose a course of action – that usually results in stating the obvious.

However, knowing what is the right thing to do and actually doing it, are of course two fundamentally different things. The way we envision online education is that after watching the video, students have to use the camera of their device to formulate and record an original response to the characters in the conflict situation in form of a video comment answering the question: “What would you say now? 30 seconds. GO!”

Assignments such as video role-play training allow students to respond to a complex problem in an infinite number of ways and require them to move from multiple choice to infinite choice. Aggregating the user-generated content in the Learning Journal and letting all learners give each other detailed feedback on the basis of sophisticated grading rubrics can take this one step further.

video role-play training

Life Comes in Many Shades of Grey – Online Learning Should Reflect That

In short: with this feature we want to teach learners complex topics such as leadership by moving beyond simple multiple choice formats. We try to encourage them to bring their context and experience to the table. An old person will respond differently than a young person. A woman differently than a man. Yet all of these different answers may well be correct in their own unique way – or not. And that’s for the learners to discuss and work out together. This approach to effective online learning allows them to be creative and to think outside of the box. It also shows learners that a lot of times, there can be many different ways to solve a problem. This truly embodies what we mean by greyscale learning. We believe that video role-play training can help learners to broaden their horizons and to see the bigger picture of complex topics.

 

 

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We envision learning on iversity as learning in a social network. Therefore, we created a social experience for our users that enables them to interact with each other in ways that they are already familiar with from social networks.

The messaging feature, for example, allows learners to privately communicate with others on the iversity platform through a convenient messenger system – one on one as well as in groups. Learners can message each other regardless of whether or not they attend the same courses. All they need to do to start a conversation, is to search the user directory.

When searching for another user on our platform, learners can identify other learners who are members of the same organisation. This is a useful feature to help facilitate communication among people belonging to the same company. However, an organisation is not visible to non-members. That way only members of the same company can recognise each other as such. This is how we avoid harassment of our users, for example by headhunters or competition. Another way to ensure the learner privacy in a social network is the possibility to block other users in order to prevent spamming and other annoyances.

 

Learning in a Social Network – Messaging Feature

 

The messaging feature also allows for group conversations. Here, learners have the possibility to add new members at any time or leave the conversation if they wish to do so. This allows users to turn to their peers when facing a problem and solve it together as a group. The feature makes it easy to exchange ideas and discuss assignments with more than one person; while keeping the discussion among a select group of peers, instead of the entire course community.  Learners also have the option to name group conversations. This makes it easier for them to distinguish between multiple group chats – because convenience is key.

While the discussions feature is course public and intended solely for exchanging thoughts about the course content, the messaging feature can of course be used for personal chit chat among peers inside our social network.

Community Managers – Facilitators of Learning in a Social Network

A course member can be appointed community manager by the course admin and thus gains access to special messaging functions. He or she can send announcements – email messages that are sent to either all course participants or specific subsets of the group – e.g. in order to draw attention to specific posts that are particularly relevant, helpful or controversial. They can also contribute content of their own in order to provide inspiration or feedback. Through announcements, learners of a course are further encouraged to engage with the course content and to think outside the box. Thus, they help with community management and tutoring. They can provide learners with assistance regarding the substance of the course and help to ensure their successful progress throughout the course, fostering effective online learning in a social network.

Recent Activities in a Course

On the dashboard page, learners can see a short preview of recent activities. Like in the picture below, they can see who joined the course, as well as who posted a comment or an entry to the Learning Journal. Much like the newsfeed feature in other social networks such as Facebook or Twitter, the recent activity overview allows users to see at one glance what is happening in a course. This enables them to find recent contributions, active discussions and to connect with other learners – even when they have been absent from the platform for a couple of days. Seeing other users’ activity is a key motivating factor. Instead of learning in isolation you can see what assignment your colleague has been working on yesterday. This can create a healthy form of competition. It also helps to create a sense of belonging where learners feel that they are part of an active community of peers.

Learning in a Social Network – Recent Activity Feed

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peer review

In order to provide qualitative feedback at scale, it is key to use peer review in online education. Our peer evaluation feature allows course participants to evaluate, provide feedback and score each other’s work.

This is how we can provide all learners with qualitative peer feedback on creative assignments – even when there are thousands of learners in a course. At the same time, peer review exercises provide a valuable change of perspectives. By letting them evaluate each other’s work, learners can put themselves in the instructor’s shoes and look at the concepts taught, as well as the learning outcomes with fresh eyes.Peer Review in Online Education – the Assignment

Peer review in online education can either be done anonymously in a double blind peer review, so that no bias comes in their way. Or in a public peer review, where learners provide feedback on each other’s journal posts.

In a blind peer review procedure the learners’ works are distributed in an arbitrary manner among them. Meaning that the work of a young participant of the course could for example be reviewed by a more experienced learner or vice versa. This ensures that the individual assignments are evaluated by people with different views and experiences to help learners take on new perspectives. As pedagogical research shows, averaging anonymous peer evaluation can be as fair and reliable in terms of quality as anonymous professional grading, and in fact more so than individual evaluation because there is less bias. Thus, peer evaluation provides a way for high quality summative assessment to scale.

Public peer review, on the other hand, enables everyone in the course to quickly find the most interesting pieces of work. This is achieved by filtering the Learning Journal. Learners can comment on the individual journal entries, or click on the “heart-button” to acknowledge entries that are outstanding. When learners write posts on controversial topics that invite disagreement and argumentation, public peer review makes the process of negotiating truth visible.

In any case, challenging one’s own perspective by reviewing somebody else’s work is an important tool that encourages an in-depth understanding of the course material.

Peer Review in Online Education – Grading

 

Fostering Changes of Perspective

Another way of using peer review in order to enhance the advantages of the feature is purposeful heterogenous matching. This principle is based on the matching of participants across different variables such as demographics. After learners take a demographic survey, we match them based on, for example age, gender, race, work experience, level of hierarchy or role. This approach can help learners to see issues from what might be an entirely different perspective. Through heterogenous matching, we try to encourage critical thinking in order for learners to achieve the best possible results for their assignments.

Peer Review in Online Education – Heterogenous Matching

 

Using Peer Review in Online Education for Essay Competitions

In an essay competition, learners create their own paper which is then evaluated by others through anonymous peer review. The essays are ranked according to the results of this evaluation and the learners can share their work with the course. Formulating an essay is a great way of practicing one’s skills. Not just when it comes to writing, but also in critical thinking. At the same time, it encourages learners to think for themselves and to carefully prepare and outline the topic they want to write about. By reviewing and commenting on other people’s essays, these skills are honed even further. This is because learners need to open themselves up to their peers’ perspectives, ways of arguing and styles of writing. Through peer review, it is possible to scale essay competitions because the work is distributed among the learners themselves. In addition, essay competitions provide a healthy way of competing and thus an effective method of motivating learners to achieve outstanding results and to get inspired by extraordinary work.

Peer Review in Online Education – Essay Contest

 

All in all, we believe that peer review in online education can be a very powerful tool. Not only because it allows us to deliver feedback at scale, but also because the process of giving feedback as such is a valuable educational exercise. Letting many different people with just as many different perspectives and ideas evaluate each others work encourages learners to think outside of the box. This confrontation with new perspectives can lead to inspiring results.

 

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Active Learning

As I have explained in my post on online student engagement, active online learning is key when it comes to motivating learners. What do I mean by active? An online course championing “active online learning” should prompt the learner to participate and contribute. One way of doing this is to inject small tasks into learning videos, another common approach is ordinary multiple choice.

Active Online Learning – Showcase IngredientsFor effective online learning to take place, however, online learning has to move beyond making learners dance to the instructor’s tune. Exercises (which are optional) and assignments (which are mandatory) should challenge learners to think for themselves and to come up with their own creative solutions to open-
ended questions. Not just for a few moments, but often a few hours. Learners write essays, prepare presentations, work on designs, spreadsheet models and programming assignments. The idea is to enable, if not encourage, them to think outside the box. And to come up with their own (often unexpected) solutions.

Active Online Learning – Showcase Result

For example one student in the course Design 101 came up with a unique and very creative solution to the following assignment: “Carefully choose a recipe to cook for yourself.”Today, you cook your chosen recipe and share with us a picture of your starting ingredients. Nothing less, nothing more.” You would expect them to use ingredients and kitchen utensils as suggested, right? But this student decided to give the assignment her very own interpretation. She said I”m going to make pancakes. But my pancakes are going to be a bit different. They will be from felt.” Here you see the “ingredients” she decided to use.

What this example illustrates is that the course – instead of simply telling people what a good and creative solution looks like – challenged the learner to think outside the box and come up with her own, brilliant solution. Active online learning should allow for precisely this kind of open-ended experimentation. Instead of simply making people regurgitate information and knowledge, learners should apply it in assignments. This leaves them with both the opportunity to fail as well as to succeed beyond expectation.

Making Active Online Learning Social: The Learning Journal

The next step is to embed these kind of assignments in a social context. In order to do this we have created the so-called Learning Journal. The Learning Journal is an individual course blog that learners can use to share their solutions for the various assignments, take notes and discuss their work with the course community. Learners can »follow« the journals of other users to keep track of new content created by those peers they think stand out from the crowd.

Different layers of privacy settings allow learners to share their posts with no one, other participants in the same course or publicly on the internet. Through public sharing, journals can function as  learning portfolios. These serve as public, linkable proof of the things learners have created and accomplished in a course.

Active Online Learning – Learner Contributions in the Learning Journal

The course journal aggregates the journal posts from all users in the course. Learners can “like” each other’s work simply by clicking on the heart. Of course they can also leave more substantial feedback in prose. The hearts as well as the comments can be used to identify quality in quantity. Learners can also sort their posts either by date (starting with the most recent uploads) or by “most liked”. To easily navigate through specific assignments users can also filter by unit or search for the work of a specific learner.

The Process of Active Online Learning Visualised

An example of the process of active online learning in the course “Visual Thinking for Business”

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