A strange kind of intimacy

Executive education during a pandemic – and beyond

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

It was in the middle of Cambridge’s 2020 Easter holiday that the UK government announced its first national lockdown, to take place with immediate effect. At the time, many of the University’s students were at home with their families.

But Cambridge also opens its doors to a different kind of learner, someone who wants to develop their executive and professional skills or to expand their intellectual horizons. These courses often take place outside term-time.

For the University’s executive education providers, lockdown, therefore, presented some immediate challenges. It would also, in the ensuing months, reveal new opportunities, culminating in the launch of a new addition to its online education programmes, Cambridge Advance Online.

Executive and professional education at Cambridge

Over the years, the University has developed a rich and varied menu of executive and professional education and lifelong learning opportunities, making its world-class teaching and research available to a very wide audience. You can learn, amongst other things, how to be a better leader, how to manage innovation, how to choose the right technologies and how to put sustainability at the heart of your business.

You can gain professional qualifications in specialisms as diverse as architecture and genomic medicine or assuage your thirst for knowledge through lectures and courses on everything from the history of art to evolutionary biology.

Prior to the pandemic, you could do some of these things online but mostly they happened in Cambridge, where you could learn from some of the world’s leading academics while enjoying the full ‘Cambridge experience’ of wood-panelled dining halls and punting expeditions on the Cam.

The day it changed

When lockdown was announced, many of these courses were in full swing. At the University’s Institute of Continuing Education (ICE), the situation required a rapid and agile response.

Its Head of Continuing Education, Dr James Gazzard, explained: “Obviously, some of our students could just go home but we had people from different countries with us who couldn’t get on a plane straightaway. Literally overnight we switched to a hybrid model of online and in-person delivery. Fortunately, we were able to do that because we already had the people and technology in place.”

Meanwhile, over at the Cambridge Judge Business School, the Entrepreneurship Centre had been all set to deliver a bespoke ‘scale up’ programme for Barclays Bank, designed to help small business clients get to the next level.

Marie-Ann Kyne, Executive Director of Executive Education, said: “We felt very strongly that this was exactly the time when these kinds of businesses most needed to be resilient, to understand what’s in their power to control and what they can still do to grow even in these most challenging of circumstances.”

After a lightning speed and hugely successful pivot to delivering the programme ‘live online’, Barclays asked what else the Cambridge Judge Business School could do to support its small businesses.

Eight weeks later, a brand new self-service ‘Back to Business’ online programme was launched which has since been accessed by more than 4,500 of Barclays’ SME clients, and demonstrating, says Kyne, “the extraordinary reach online can give us.”

Cambridge Judge Business School

Cambridge Judge Business School

Adjusting to a new reality

As the dust settled during April and we were all getting used to new ways of working, phone calls and emails started to come in to all the executive and professional development providers across the University. “Now that we can’t travel, can we defer our course until after the pandemic?” To which the answer quickly became, “Yes, if you want to, but how about doing it online instead?”

Because Cambridge’s executive education providers had already been delivering a proportion of their courses online, they already had the expertise and technologies they needed, including their own virtual learning environments, a platform that allows tutors to deliver all kinds of interactive content, as well as exchange and comment on written work and presentations.

But having the right skills and technology in place is one thing. Switching to full online delivery is quite another – something that was going to take a phenomenal amount of work in a very short space of time.

"In order to turn a face-to-face course into a successful online one, you need to do a lot more than ask your tutors to deliver the same material into their laptops from their back bedrooms," Lindsay Hooper, Executive Director of Education at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) explains.

“We had to completely reinvent each course. We know that learners can’t concentrate for long when looking at a screen. And you can’t always rely on discussion arising naturally as it does in person.”

Gazzard agrees. “If you give people a 50-minute monologue, it just doesn’t work online. It is much more effective for a lecturer to record 30 minutes of content that goes out for the learners to review in advance. You can then use the contact time much more productively in discussion.”

Getting the logistics right is also a vital part of the online experience. “It’s all down to meticulous planning and making sure it’s properly resourced,” says Amanda Bamford, Learning and Development Specialist at IfM Engage, the knowledge transfer arm of the Institute for Manufacturing.

“You always need to have two people delivering the courses. While the tutor is leading the engagement with the students, you need to have someone monitoring the chat and managing the breakout rooms. If you are delivering from home and your broadband dies, it also means you’ve got someone who can step in and save the day.”

Managing different time zones is another challenge. When turning its flagship ‘GOLD for Technology Leaders’ course for Atos into an online programme, the solution, explained Bamford, was to split the cohort into time zones, delivering to “Europe going east in the mornings and Europe going west in the afternoon.”

Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership's new headquarters in Cambridge, a retrofitted sustainable office building which will set new standards for low energy use, carbon emissions and impact on natural resources.

Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall

Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership's new headquarters in Cambridge, a retrofitted sustainable office building which will set new standards for low energy use, carbon emissions and impact on natural resources.

Embracing the upsides

In spite of a proven track record in delivering online courses, some potential clients remained sceptical. “Some were very open to the idea of online delivery, happy to try it and see what happened,” said Hooper, “but others were more resistant, including one client who memorably described themselves as a ‘stick-in-the-mud face-to-facer.”

The sceptics needed convincing that an online course could deliver the same quality experience as residential ‘immersion’. Can you, for example, replicate the networking benefits of meeting other people in person or generate the same kind of creative energy that comes from having a group of people in one room?

Gazzard argues that, if anything, online delivery breaks down barriers: “Prior to COVID, the majority of our students wanted to come to Madingley Hall. For many, the online option felt distant and isolated. But what we’ve seen is the emergence of a strange kind of intimacy. By entering into your tutors’ and peers’ homes, seeing their partners bringing them a cup of tea or a child demanding their attention, you see beyond the professional veneer that we all adopt.”

He also described how students were creating strong bonds with their classmates, providing a supportive environment for those sharing stories of COVID-induced redundancies, sometimes leading directly to job offers from peer learners.

In terms of the online experience, she has also noticed how it allows some of “the quieter voices” to make themselves heard. “In face-to-face sessions, the main form of interaction is speaking out and some people are less comfortable with that. When there are different ways of communicating, such as typing questions, we have found that you can surface more perspectives.”

For Kyne, another advantage is that by breaking the content up into smaller segments, delegates, “get time to reflect between sessions, perhaps implement what they’ve learnt in their workplace and feedback to their tutors.”

Any doubts delegates might have had about a lack of interactivity seem to have been confounded, judging from course feedback. Dorian Xhixho from MuleSoft, attending the Cambridge Judge Business School’s Managing Innovation Strategically Live Online course, is one of those who has been pleasantly surprised by the online experience: “I found [online] to be equal and if not better, in some aspects. For example, participants … were more willing to share and brainstorm ideas, which made the course more lively. In a classroom environment, this may not happen as often, due to the tendency of ‘agreeing’ with your classmates."

What about our “stick-in-the-mud face-to-facer”? Having been persuaded to take the plunge, Hooper says, “the company is now a huge fan to the point where they think remote delivery will be their default model and they want us to help develop some of their other programmes.”

Greater access

An obvious benefit of online delivery, is its capacity to reach more people in further flung places. Cambridge Judge Business School, for example, has noticed an uptick in interest in its courses particularly from South Africa and Nigeria. Marketing Director, Derrick Mabbott, attributes this partly to compatible time zones but also to the fact that if you subtract the cost of travel and accommodation, enrolment becomes a more affordable proposition.

Hooper also points out that it’s not just reducing the price point that increases accessibility. “For people with childcare or other such commitments, travel wasn’t previously an option. Online opens up learning to people – often women – who were previously excluded. Of course, another benefit is that it’s massively reduced our carbon footprint now that we are not flying teams around the world or have participants flying to us.”

While the Cambridge providers are not seeing online as an opportunity to increase the numbers of delegates on a particular course – and thereby diluting the experience – there are occasions where technology can support impressive levels of impact.

Richard Hill, Head of Knowledge and Learning at the Møller Institute, which specialises in leadership development programmes, describes how it was able to reach 70,000 young leaders around the world.

“We have been running a programme with the British Council called Future Leaders Connect. Every year, 50 terrifyingly accomplished young people spend a week in Cambridge learning about leadership. Last year we ran it over three sessions for the tens of thousands of applicants who didn’t make it to the last 50. Although we wouldn’t claim it was the same experience, it meant we were able to transfer knowledge on a heroic scale.”

Møller Institute

Møller Institute

Where do we go from here?

Before the pandemic unfolded, online delivery was already an important component of the University’s executive and professional education and the expectation was that it would become more so over time. COVID-19 has served to accelerate a process that was already underway.

As Richard Leather, Managing Director of the Møller Institute, points out. “Online delivery right now is a function of the fact that we haven't been able to bring people together physically. But that will change.” And when it does, the fact that online has proved itself more than equal to the task, “has changed consumers’ perceptions of online delivery.”

If national lockdowns accelerated a trend, are we likely, as the pandemic recedes, to revert to a more hybrid model? “Absolutely,” says Kyne, “online is a no-brainer now. We’ve had huge success with courses like Rising Women Leaders. It’s a great medium which is opening up access to what we do. But it’s definitely a complement to, not a replacement for, face-to-face.”

She emphasises the importance, for example, of in-person residential courses which “allow you to step away from your day-to-day work pressures and immerse yourself in the course, which can be enormously valuable.”

Hooper concurs, pointing out that face-to-face is particularly effective for certain kinds of activity, particularly those relying on “innovation and co-creation”.

For Gazzard, what all this means is a new flexibility: “If you want to be in a classroom in Cambridge, you will be welcome. You’ll have a brilliant time. If you want to be fully online, you are equally welcome. And if you want to be mainly face-to-face but can’t face travelling on a snowy night in January, you can make a last-minute decision to join online instead.”

As we emerge from the pandemic, the toll it has taken on mental health and wellbeing is becoming all too apparent. "As a social and inclusive activity," says Gazzard, "learning, and the relationship-building that comes with it, will have an increasingly important role to play in building resilience."

But this is not just a COVID story. Gazzard explains that there are other pressures affecting everyone of working age, creating a perfect storm: “Skills’ shelf lives are really short now: you can’t expect to learn something between the ages of 18 and 21 and those skills to last your whole working life.

Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of work – some jobs will disappear and new ones will emerge. All of this means that if you want to be competitive, you’ve got to think about your learning strategy, both as an individual and an employer.”

Introducing Cambridge Advance Online

“In this changing landscape”, says Anna Wood, Managing Director of Cambridge Online Education, “we are seeing a rapidly growing global demand for high quality short courses that give people new skills and capabilities and which can be fitted into busy lives.”

During the last year, the University has been putting in place new plans to address this demand.

This year, Cambridge University Press and Cambridge Assessment are merging to create a single organisation with expertise both in developing teaching materials and in assessing learning outcomes.

This combined educational powerhouse is joining forces with the wider University and its world-leading academics to develop a brand new portfolio of online short courses designed for graduates in the workplace: Cambridge Advance Online.

Professor Richard Prager, Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor on Online Education and Head of the University’s Engineering Department explains that this new initiative "aims to complement the fantastic programmes – both residential and online – already offered across the University, replicating their low student-to-faculty ratios, academically rigorous standards, frequent interactions between learners and tutors and the access they provide to valuable peer networks.”

“This is," says Wood, "an exciting new chapter in the history of the University. We know there is a huge appetite for a Cambridge education. By combining expertise from across the whole University and increasing the number of courses we are able to offer, we can give many more professionals access to Cambridge - and help them to acquire the knowledge and skills they need in their working lives.”

Cambridge Advance Online

• Around 50 online short courses to be launched over the next 4-5 years

• The first four courses start in September 2021

• Courses will be 6-10 weeks in length and run thee or four times a year.

• Each course will comprise six to 10 weeks of part-time learning and will feature original content from Cambridge academics, interactions between peer learners and feedback from course tutors.

• A sector-leading platform, maximising the student experience and learning outcomes

Find out more: read the announcement about Cambridge Advance Online.