learning table of elements

I experienced the future of learning…

How it started

I don’t remember when I first heard of NYU Stern Professor Scott Galloway but it must have been through one of his posts on social media. While I don’t always agree with his views, he’s thought provoking and never dull.

Since then, I’ve subscribed to his no mercy/no malice newsletter and often listen to the Pivot podcast where he discusses latest news with tech journalist Kara Swisher. Both are highly recommended!

Disrupting Education

When Prof Galloway published his book Post-Corona, I was especially intrigued by his ideas on the future of education. The current educational system isn’t future-proof, uses outdated methods and saddles students with large debts. It’s ripe for disruption.

In the book, he asks the fundamental question:

Which firm is going to seize on the greatest business opportunity in decades and open tuition-free universities to create new certification programs?

The business model behind this idea is to offer students free education and charge firms who want to recruit these graduates. This shifts the tuition costs from students to firms. No one would incur a life-long debt anymore (although I wouldn’t be surprised if these firms put some kind of pay back clause in the contract).

Food for thought, isn’t it? With a longer life expectancy, life-long learning is a given, and people will probably change their occupation a couple of times during their careers. Adjusting the current learning environment is a must.

The future in action

In the meantime, prof Galloway has started an educational company called Section4. It offers “intensive, real-world, and immediately applicable online courses taught by top professors to help you level up in your career” at an affordable price.

So when I received an invite to one of the Strategy Sprints (as courses are called), I decided to sign up and see if this company has indeed created an ideal learning experience that’s fit for the future.

I was looking forward to get a refresher on strategy, and to experience what a strategy class looks like these days. It’s been a while since I saw a classroom on the inside. Of course, I wasn’t attending in-person, as the learning delivery method uses a virtual learning approach.

Around the same time I read a newsletter by Joel Hansen, who is a Linkedin expert. He was looking for participants to pilot a LinkedIn Storytelling class and because it sounded intriguing, I signed up for that as well.

Because schedules changed, both classes ran right around the same time. Which made for a busy couple of weeks, but also allowed me to compare the immersive, cohort-based learning experiences.

Hybrid learning environment

The Strategy Sprint had hundreds of participants, and the LinkedIn class around thirty. Despite the difference in audience size, it was interesting to see that they rely on the same tools and methods:

  • Online learning environment as a central hub offering modules and workbooks
  • Live zoom sessions
  • Video presentations accompanied by background reading materials
  • Slack channel to ask questions and collaborate with other students
  • Frequent email reminders
  • Certification service (sprint only)

The course modules were released during the week, accompanied by workbook assignments that you complete after each session. In both cases, additional materials were made available in the hub based on student questions.

The learning experience

The pace of these cohort-based courses is fast: the Sprint lasted about 2 weeks and the Linkedin training 3. Within that period you have several online classes, followed by homework. If you have a job and a family, it’s a lot, and you’ll need to reserve enough time to do the work.

Both courses are based on the assumption that you immediately practice what you learn. The Sprint comes with an assignment to run a strategic analysis on a company of your choice, and you complete a portion of that after every module. Once the course is complete, you finalize the assessment and hand in your homework. You’ll receive the certification shortly after the review.

The Linkedin training uses a similar approach, and every module addresses a different aspect of your presence on the network. By the end of the course, you’ve optimized your profile, learned how to write DMs and created a couple of posts.

The pressure-cooker effect helps to complete the assignments. Every session teaches you one more element that you can immediately apply towards the homework. It reinforces what you just learned, and I found that an excellent way to memorize the theory of each class.

Size does matter

Considering the audience size of the Strategy Sprint, the live online sessions felt like a traditional college lecture, where the professor teaches a class by explaining the theory accompanied by slides. The only difference is Zoom.

Students could ask questions, but these had to be raised on Slack beforehand, and the moderator unmuted selected class mates so they could ask their questions. It all felt very scripted, and it wasn’t personal. If you don’t understand something in class, you can’t raise your hand and ask for an explanation.

This was the element I disliked about the Sprint experience: the class was too large for meaningful interaction. To mitigate this somewhat, every student is assigned to a smaller group, led by a teaching assistant. The TA organizes a couple of (voluntary) meetings, where they discuss the content and answer questions, including breakouts where you get to meet a small group of your peers. The TAs are helpful and pleasant to work with, but they are not the professor.

The LinkedIn training group was small enough so that everyone could participate in each live session. It felt very personal. After the first session people chatted on the Slack channel and raised their hands when something wasn’t clear during the live session. In addition, students put suggestions for each other in the chat, which made for pleasant conversation and helpful exchanges.

I made a couple of nice connections with people in this class, which led to follow up meetings. Why? Because it was personal: we had a conversation, that led us to discover a common topic of interest. I’m sure you recognize that from traditional training approaches: the network is as important as the class itself.

Learning for everyone

In principle, I think education should be available to anyone who wants to learn and the internet is a great equalizer. I enjoyed meeting people from so many different backgrounds, and hear their opinions. But that does not necessarily mean that every course should be open to everyone.

One inherent weakness in these public learning offerings is that you usually don’t need a qualification to sign up. Which means that the student body shows a great variety in their understanding of the topic. Some students are graduates with experience, some are beginners and others sit in between.

That difference became clear in feedback sessions. It makes it harder to discuss concepts or bring up opposing theories because some participants simply don’t have the background to participate in the conversation. And that makes it difficult for everyone.

Course organizers have to be more thoughtful about this, to keep sessions engaging for everyone. They could for instance divide students in groups based on their education level or prior experience, and assign different home work to each. Or they could offer additional lectures to help beginners get up to speed with terminology and concepts.

Is this the future of education?

If the future of education is virtual, then these two experiments were pleasant examples in their own way. They are just-in-time learning experiences, fast-paced, and the quality of the content was excellent.

The courses used different support technologies and that’s a weakness – you’re constantly switching between the central hub, Zoom, Slack and email. For homework, you’re expected to use Word and Powerpoint or similar too. For a better experience, the use of a cohesive, integrated learning environment is key.

Both courses cost a couple of hundred dollars. While that isn’t expensive compared to formal college fees in many countries, the amount is still such that they aren’t accessible to a large portion of the global population.

I thought they both offered good value for money, but sign up for a few more and suddenly you’re looking at thousands of dollars. And while in some countries that’s far less than the fee for a formal education, keep in mind that you’re collecting certifications, not a degree. It’s a great way to brush up on knowledge, but it doesn’t yet replace a degree.

The learning experience was completely virtual. Even though there was some personal interaction, there weren’t any in-person events. For these 2 topics I didn’t miss that aspect. But I could see how people with a preference for classroom training might feel this isn’t an approach that’s conducive to acquiring new knowledge. Plus, you have to work harder to network with the people in your class.

Would I do it again?

Absolutely! Overall, I enjoyed the virtual learning experience. I was also surprised by the amount of knowledge you collect in such a short period of time (if you do the work!).

The courses were professionally organized and went off without a hitch.

But this is only one step towards the future of learning. Basically, these are courses that you can just as easily teach in-person as online. It’s not at all a disruption of learning methods, apart from making knowledge acquisition available globally by using technology.

What do you think of the future of learning?

I’m running a poll on Linkedin this week to learn what people like about the future of learning and I hope you’ll leave your opinion. What learning experience do you prefer?

Up next: A new learning experience

Technology plays an important role in the disruption of the learning market. As examples augmented and virtual reality can give people an immersive learning experience that teaches them new skills you can’t easily get in real life.

PS: If you liked this article, subscribe to my Future of Work newsletter. You’ll receive insights, an in-depth analysis plus news highlights in your inbox every other Wednesday.