Sept. 10, 2020

The impact of shifting online

Embracing new technologies and discovering new ways of learning

At Haskayne Executive Education, blended programming, incorporating a mixture of online modules and face to face instruction, has been a strength of ours for several years. As the impact of the coronavirus began to be felt, we used this experience in blended programming to shift to online delivery for the majority of our programs. We will likely continue to deliver our programs virtually for several months to come. In this shift to online learning we have incorporated significant changes to our program design and delivery models. We have updated our learning outcomes and determined how best to meet them, while still providing our learners with an engaging and impactful learning experience in a dynamic, virtual environment.

What is it like to learn online?

What we have learned over the past several months is that online learning is not what it used to be. No longer do online learning modules feature data-heavy slides narrated by a droning voice reciting a prepared script. Technology has rapidly developed – and it’s more than just Zoom! Although Zoom’s ability to host breakout rooms, capture feedback through whiteboards, and integrate chats and polling makes for a rich and dynamic experience. What has shifted most substantially is our thinking and our approach to online learning. All of our programs integrate live, synchronous, workshops with self-directed online modules. The online modules typically focus on content delivery – this is where critical readings are shared and participants work through guided PowerPoints, videos, and related content, taking in new materials and forming a baseline of knowledge. In the live, interactive sessions participants meet with facilitators and their peers, to work through problems, ask questions, complete simulations, and learn from one another in a guided experience. This is often supplemented with one-on-one coaching and mentoring. It is this blend of synchronous and asynchronous environments that provides for a rich, dynamic learning experience. 

Focusing on the “sticky” factor

When we are designing programming, our focus is on providing practical, sustainable learning experiences. We want our learners to conclude a program having seen a significant shift in their knowledge and behaviours. In order to achieve this, we provide opportunities for our learners to get feedback, coaching and insight from their instructors, enabling them to better apply techniques while building confidence and capability. We purposely keep our cohorts small; large group webinars can be useful for content transfer, but true development and dialogue occurs in small groups with the careful guidance of a skilled instructor. Breakout rooms can help to promote dialogue, discussion, and application of learning. They are valuable forums for sharing knowledge amongst participants – and we know that our participants learn the most from one another.

In the past, peer learning would have been achieved through classroom discussions, by working through case studies, or by sharing knowledge in learning teams. This is all still achievable in the online environment. But most learning actually occurred through discussions in the buffet line, or over a coffee at the breaks, as participants interacted with one another in less formal situations. It is harder to replicate these social interactions in the online environment, but not impossible. Digital discussion boards, online networking events, and even virtual happy hours help to provide valuable connections between learners.

We have always implemented a spaced learning approach to our programing, as the brain requires time to consolidate new knowledge from short-term to long-term memory. Distributing smaller chunks of content over a longer period of time results in increased retention. When delivering programs virtually, this is even more important. We are all aware of “Zoom fatigue” – there is simply a much lower threshold for taking in and applying content in an online format. As such, we purposely break live sessions into smaller modules, and space them over several days or weeks. This also enables the immediate application of learning in the workplace, as new concepts and tools are integrated within each learner’s day to day work experience.

The positives of online learning

We have witnessed significant benefits to online learning, at times even above and beyond what we were able to offer in the classroom. One of the most immediate benefits is that learners can work through the self-directed online modules at their own pace, reviewing materials as many times as they like. In the classroom, participants are limited to what they can take in in the moment. However, in the online environment, materials are made accessible long-term, so participants can refresh theory and concepts as they apply them in their professional life.

The online setting has some significant benefits in terms of learner profile as well. The most notable is that the remote setting provides space, safety, and facilities for those with more introverted preferences to contribute in ways they may not have felt comfortable doing in the classroom environment. It also allows us to connect with learners from across Alberta and even around the world. As such, there is more diversity in our cohorts, increased flexibility for those who are living or working away, and a much broader reach and impact.

When we eventually return to in-person programming we will retain many of the benefits we have gathered from online learning. The high energy, high engagement, experiential learning we have nurtured over the past several years will continue. Going forward, all our leadership development programs will continue to be blended, likely to a greater and more sophisticated degree than they have been in the past. And some of our programs will likely continue to be offered fully online. The pandemic has accelerated new ways of learning and new ways of sharing knowledge. We are embracing this as an opportunity to learn and teach in new ways. This is also an opportunity for you to see how far the technology has come and to find out what kind of learning you prefer. This will enable you to better plan your own learning journey, wherever the future of leadership development takes us.


Jim Dewald, Dean of the Haskayne School of Business, argues that online learning is how we are advancing University education.

Leighton Wilks, Associate Dean Teaching and Learning, discusses how Haskayne classes are shifting online for the fall 2020 semester: