This interview is a great discussion about the various experiments going on in the world of higher education and how online learning is playing out there.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s introduce our audience to yourself as well as to what you’re doing at Sloan vis-à-vis executive education.
Peter Hirst: I’m the Director of the Executive Education program here at the MIT Sloan School. Essentially, what we do is run short, non-degree courses for individual executives and Senior Managers. We also do this for companies in a more customized mode that really help those organizations and individuals equip themselves with the knowledge and capabilities that they need to succeed in the face of transformational challenges. That ranges from individual entrepreneurs right up to very large companies.
Sramana Mitra: Let me ask you some questions about what’s changing in your world. In the past, people used to go do an Executive Education course at Sloan. They would fly to Cambridge and be residentially based in Cambridge for whatever is the duration of the course. Is that correct?
Peter Hirst: Right. We have everything from two-day courses up to five weeks continuously in the summer. Almost all those courses have been traditionally delivered here at MIT in Cambridge. Actually, it’s probably true about custom courses as well that, more often than not, companies will send their 20 to 30 executives to MIT to take the classroom components of these courses in Cambridge. We’re in an interesting position in relation to that, which is that many of the executives that come to our program are themselves companies that rely heavily on science, technology, innovation, and engineering. That’s very often their background. Coming to MIT campus historically has been a real draw for those people and continues to be so.
Having said that, that of course means that people who, for whatever reason are unable to make that kind of investment of time and be away from office don’t get an opportunity to get access to those programs. It also has implications for how we think about the learning model itself. You’ll know that at MIT, we very much believe in not just knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Our motto, Mens et Manus, is about mind and hand. We’re very much about learning the application of knowledge in the process of learning to the extent that we have people here on campus away from where they’re doing their day-to-day work. That’s great for getting them to be separated from the day-to-day hustle bustle of the work. On the other hand, we have less opportunity to learn by doing.
For a number of years, we were very interested in what are ways we can use technology to extend the learning experience beyond the classroom. Of course, that’s in the area of online digital learning that has become a much more active field.
Sramana Mitra: What does it do to your business model? Of course, the MIT Executive Education courses on campus have traditionally been quite expensive and a good source of revenue for the Sloan school. How has all this changed in delivering the consumption model?
Peter Hirst: There are different approaches and models around online learning and digital learning when we get into those questions. We’ve been really focusing not on the question of how do we achieve massive increases in scale and whether that may introduce possibilities of reduction in cost per student. We’ve been focusing more on still maintaining very engaging and interactive learning experiences and using online technologies such as virtual classrooms, that we’ve been experimenting with, as a way to reduce and even eliminate the need to travel. They’re still very intensive experiences with relatively small groups – perhaps 50 to 100 in one class – which doesn’t really change the cost model. The place that it does save significantly is for the companies who don’t have to spend the time and money on traveling.