Transitioning to Digital Learning

A new report outlines the key steps providers must take to successfully turn in-person classes into online programs.

COVID-19 HAS FORCED universities and other providers to switch most executive education delivery from in-person to virtual formats. A new learning report available from IE Publishing explores the way providers can transition executive leadership programs and other offerings into engaging virtual programs. The report was written by Nick Van Dam, chief learning officer, director of the Center for Corporate Learning Innovation, professor at IE University in Spain, and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; and Katie Coates, senior learning manager with McKinsey & Company.

Van Dam and Coates note that the three biggest obstacles providers face in making the transition to online delivery are the lack of a targeted methodology, a failure to invest in the right technology, and absence of related expertise. Moreover, they warn that converting in-person programs to virtual ones requires more than simply digitizing the existing experience. They write, “A two-day in-person program should not be converted into a 16-hour synchronous learning program.”

In the report, Van Dam and Coates recommend that education providers take five steps to make the smooth transition to digital delivery:

1. Design for the user experience. In terms of online education, a good user experience starts with technology that is easy to access and navigate. Van Dam and Coates write that the user experience also will be improved if programs include a high level of interaction among faculty and peers, a sufficient number of breaks, skilled faculty, relevant content that can be accessed at various times through various mechanisms, and links to real-world challenges.

2. Use evidence-based pedagogy and instructional strategies. Providers should be aware of current research on how people learn, say the authors. For instance, cognitive load theory suggests that a person’s working memory has a limited capacity for retaining information, while neuroscience research emphasizes the importance of repeating and spacing out information. Research on memorization shows that people lose information unless they have opportunities to apply it. “It is important to use a variety of instructional strategies to engage the learners and keep them curious about what is coming next,” write Van Dam and Coates.


3. Enable pedagogy through technology. The authors suggest that instructors take advantage of technology to upload documents before class, ask and answer questions over chat functions, provide private feedback, take polls, assign participants to breakout rooms, and administer quizzes. Instructors also can leverage whiteboards and annotation tools to make introductions and facilitate brainstorming, share screens to allow students to view and discuss content, and take advantage of streaming capabilities to show videos.

4. Advance learning through AI, data, and analytics. By analyzing data from virtual classrooms, write Van Dam and Coates, instructors can improve real-time engagement and enhance the effectiveness of their programs. For instance, instructors can determine how many participants have turned on their cameras, responded in the chat room, or answered poll questions. If providers are using more sophisticated synchronous learning technology platforms with AI capabilities, instructors can analyze the emotions participants are displaying, such as anger, sadness, and surprise. This allows instructors to calculate the level of engagement individually and for the group.

5. Develop a team to ensure excellence of online delivery. The authors note that virtual courses need to be designed by a team of people, including instructional designers, technical producers, subject matter experts, faculty, and teaching assistants. For their part, faculty need to understand the features and functions of the virtual platform; they also need to master an effective online teaching style that includes interacting with participants, building confidence, and leveraging humor.


In the paper, Van Dam and Coates also explore several actions providers can take to convert existing in-person programs into virtual ones:

1. Assess the existing program. Determine if current outcomes are still valid and relevant, as well as what is considered high-value content for learners. In addition, prioritize what elements of the in-person experience should be included in the virtual experience—and what new elements might be added to better suit online delivery.

2. Design the learning program. Providers should capitalize on technology to create blended solutions that contain both synchronous and asynchronous assignments, say the authors. Virtual sessions should be interspersed with self-study, cohort group assignments, and activities that require learners to apply the skills they’re learning. During this phase, the authors say, instructors are most likely to need input from instructional designers who can provide insights about user experience design, evidence-based design principles, and learning strategies.

3. Produce materials. These include master templates, onscreen presentation materials, guides for facilitators and participants, handouts, assessments, and other media.


4. Set up the logistics for program delivery. Create a delivery planning guide that, among other things, allows instructors to set up the program in the learning management system, manage calendars, and schedule guest speakers.

5. Deliver and measure the impact of the new program. It is important, stress Van Dam and Coates, that instructors capture feedback from participants on the perceived effectiveness, usefulness, and quality of the program. Polls or surveys might be sufficient for shorter offerings, but longer programs might require collecting more extensive and detailed feedback.

While Van Dam and Coates believe that virtual learning options can yield the same learning outcomes as in-person programs, they warn that those outcomes will be achieved only when the programs are delivered with the right instructional design strategies, the right technologies, and the right team of faculty and experts. In their conclusion, Van Dam and Coates predict that, ultimately, “the current use of virtual learning programs will continue in the future to complement highly immersive classroom programs with a focus on skill practice, deep problem solving, networking and culture.”