Marrying Distance and Classroom Education

Distance learning—extending the classroom over time and space using technology—certainly holds appeal for companies looking to keep executives on the cutting edge. In an interview, HBS professor Dorothy Leonard looks at the strengths and weaknesses of the online classroom, and how it can marry with traditional face-to-face teaching.
by Sean Silverthorne

In an interview with HBS Working Knowledge editor Sean Silverthorne, Harvard Business School professor Dorothy Leonard and research assistant Brian DeLacey discuss their research and the recent Adult Learning Workshop held at Harvard Business School.

Silverthorne: A big topic of debate at your adult learning workshop was looking at the strengths and weaknesses of face-to-face education versus online distance learning. But in fact, these two types of education can be quite complementary. Should executives interested in corporate learning be thinking about how can they work together?

Leonard: We don't tend to talk about what should occur face-to-face in small modules of maybe four people together in Iowa, another four people in Michigan, and another twelve people in St. Louis. What should we be doing in the face-to-face modules and nodes, and what should we be doing among the group? I haven't seen people talking about the design that way. That's what we need to get to. If we had the workshop participants together for a week they'd probably come up with a pretty good design.

So, if I were in a corporation I would be considering how I could get the best of both worlds. I think we've gotten to the point where we want hybrid programs. But the question is, how do we design them, and I think we're not very sophisticated yet on this.

SS: One model is to get the group together in a classroom initially, and then, after the group is dispersed, to have them keep coming together online, fostering long-time learning.

One of those things that I took away was what a tremendous challenge it was to try to generate an online discussion in advance of the face-to-face.
— Brian DeLacey

DL: That's one point, yes, but we do that pretty much all the time. That's saying, OK, we have a time period when we have face-to-face and then we have a time period when we communicate. I guess I'm suggesting something else, which is that there might well be an alteration back and forth between the face-to-face and the technology, and there might be ways of designing small groups of people to get together that would be like a network that would come together in a larger sense. You could handle some of the face-to-face dynamics and get the benefits of some of that but also some of the benefits of the technology. Not sequentially, but simultaneously.

SS: Hybridism is an interesting concept. Traditionally, businesses thought about doing distance learning because it saved money or provided logistics benefits. But your suggestion is that it can be a better way of doing things if you really think it through and set it up right.

DL: Yes, but there are advantages to both. If we were really clever we would think about taking advantage of both. You heard in the workshop some of the things that are advantageous to the technology side besides the obvious advantages of asynchronicity and not having to travel. Mediated work, for example. [Increasing] the kinds of people who will feel comfortable contributing. Probably a greater ability is…to deliver materials that can be experienced at different levels.

In other words, going back to the gap between novice and master to allow people to find their own place on that continuum and start to absorb the materials at that level individually. Then having done this work they come together on a common date. This, of course, is what we try to do when we have pre-matriculation programs. People work at their own individual level, get to a certain point, and then come to face-to-face.

Brian DeLacey: One of those things that I took away was what a tremendous challenge it was to try to generate an online discussion in advance of the face-to-face. It jumps out in great contrast to the richness that came out of the face-to-face facilitated discussion. So, although people may look at a hybrid program from a business perspective, thinking we're going to save all these costs if we just do it online, they have to recognize that neither the quality nor the quantity of what comes from that online discussion is ever going to compensate for the costs we're saving. So, if you have a face-to-face, do it first. And then leverage that with follow-up offline discussions to exchange electronic information and high quality content.

SS: One other thing underscored during the conference was that people respond differently to different ways of teaching. Someone in an online environment may be much more willing to contribute to a discussion than in a classroom. They might learn more and actually give back more to the company than they would with a standard teaching method.

People who really like the classroomand the interaction in the classroom are less likely, I think, to enjoy the online.
— Dorothy Leonard

DL: That's not only a matter of teaching style and personality; it could be language. Language is a barrier. I'm teaching in an executive program right now and the Koreans and the Japanese speak very rarely. It's not that they don't have a lot to contribute, it's that they can process the verbal faster than they can verbalize and so they tend to be quite quiet. And that's too bad because we're losing a lot, but if we slow down for them we'll lose some of our native speakers.

SS: What are the characteristics of an effective teacher in an online environment? Can they cross over from a traditional classroom experience, or are these different kinds of teaching?

DL: I don't see any reason why a lot of the characteristics wouldn't be the same because if you understand the basics of how people learn, you will design your program to work on those basics. However, there are people who would be wonderfully articulate and good online who would be flummoxed by some of our face-to-face groups. And it's also true that some people would be very wooden in front of a video camera. There are delivery modes that might be different among the two; the basics of learning should not be.

SS: Have you tried teaching online?

DL: I've only done online in connection with various conferences… . I've done video for a CD and things like that, but an online course, no.

SS: The HBS teaching environment, the case method, is very high energy with lots of interaction. But the online environment limits that kind of direct teacher-student interaction. I wonder if that lack of feedback would throw off some HBS faculty?

DL: I'm not sure they would enjoy it. People who really like the classroom and the interaction in the classroom are less likely, I think, to enjoy the online.

BD: A paraphrase of a great quote that we had from a faculty member is, "It's amazing how much you see with your ears and hear with your eyes in the classroom." You have the visual and auditory environment in the classroom that you don't have online. And so, how do you adapt your teaching style to these differences?

SS: It's like moving almost from a stage actor to a movie actor. You can still deliver a great performance but in a different way.

DL: I just think that there are preferences that people have that would drive them, one way or the other, whether online or in the classroom.

SS: You said that much of learning is about direct experience. Do you see technology advancing to the point where it could play a more substantial role in teaching experience, such as through simulations?

DL: That's a good question. There's this wonderful quote from Peter Senge. He says, "Simulations are the way to go because you have this immediate feedback and it can be delivered anytime anywhere, so you destroyed the barriers of time and distance with simulation."

I'm curious about this very notion of how much we know about what people learn through simulation.
— Dorothy Leonard

To this I would add that obviously simulation could teach a tremendous amount. That's why we use cases. Cases are simulation. The cautions I would have about simulations are two-fold. One, I don't think simulations have to be technology based. You can create a really good simulation with role-playing or a case or whatever. But most people think of them as expensive, big systems and therefore are afraid of trying them. The second caution is that there is some evidence that at least in some simulations that what you learn is to be better at the simulations, and that may or may not help you in a real world situation. In fact I'm trying to find somebody right now to write us a paper on simulation and really review the literature. I'm curious about this very notion of how much we know about what people learn through simulation.

SS: It's like becoming great at taking a written test in school. You deliver a pretty good paper but that doesn't necessarily mean you have learned from the material. You learned what you were supposed to learn, which you parrot back in the paper.

DL: It kind of depends on how interactive this simulation is, I'm sure, and the closer it gets to the experience, obviously, the better. We are using simulations, not just for learning how to fly planes but also in medicine. There are a lot of places where simulation can get you into the experience that you simply can't have physically. I mean we can't go into a blood vein and look at it, but we could actually explore it through simulation. There are ways of flying through the body and looking through the organs which surely does impart a certain amount of understanding and knowledge that you really wouldn't get any other way. So, there are some things that technology is going to enable us to do that we won't be able to do any other way. And to the extent that it's experiential that's where the value lies.

SS: Do you think there's enough work being done in this area?

DL: I don't know. I'm sure that we're not spending enough money on it but that's because it seems so horrendously expensive and the cases are much easier. Cases are easier simulations. I've done a number of multi-media cases and they're closer to the real world in some ways because you have this more auditory environment. The trouble is that (a) they're more expensive, and (b) that they're harder to update. With a paper case I can simply get some stuff off the Web and update it. With a multi-media case I'd have to go back and get some video and so forth, it's harder… . We are beginning to move toward more exercises in simulation here at HBS, but it's slow going because it's expensive to use the technology and it's hard to be sure it's going to be up to date.

At the Business School we are farther removed from the basics of human behavior. You think about the way our knowledge is layered. Somebody, for example, who works in managing technology, which is my field: I draw on marketing, engineering management, and manufacturing. Then go a layer down, to marketing. Marketing goes down to psychology and sociology. So we're far removed from the basics. Human behavior doesn't change that much, whereas business models change if you blink. So, I think the place for simulation also is closest to where the knowledge, the investment, can be amortized over a period of time.