Translating Masterful Technique into Scalable Systems
We’ve been grappling with a question for years: can we make online learning as good as or better than in-person pedagogy? It’s a high bar, given the pre-eminence in teaching we have seen at some of the world’s top institutions.
The "Esme Way" has been crafted based on years of work Beth Porter and I have led, to make online learning truly excellent. We are making it systematic, high-impact, and something that a wide range of students and faculty at leading universities can engage with – meaning that we can take it to scale and not sacrifice quality or efficacy.
The Problem Isn’t Zoom
First of all, it’s important to separate technology from technique. Great online learning isn’t Zoom (or Teams, or Hangouts, or Webex, or whatever your favourite videocon platform is). Even with that fairly constrained medium, Beth or I are able to make a Zoom class excellent.
We’ve demonstrated just that in recent months under COVID-19, as academic institutions have had a forced migration to hosting classes in Zoom. Here are examples of what some of my students have said:
“It was just like being in a classroom”
“This has been the best digital lecture I’ve had since everything started in March”
“very much enjoyed your presentation”
Let’s call that version zero application of technique “nearly as good as in the classroom.”
Limits of Scalability
We can deliver a high quality online learning experience for 10 or 20 or 50 or 100 students, as long as Beth or I are the ones delivering it (there are of course others who have made the leap to digital, but they are individual practitioners and few and far between).
However, we are employing a refined and evolved technique that’s taken years to develop. Being truly excellent online is different than being truly excellent in the classroom, albeit with some crossovers, so it’s a new set of skills for someone else to acquire. For myself, I’ve been using as much skills that I learned in digital media for NBC and Disney as I have been skills I learned in the classroom.
How can other faculty access the approaches we have created, and acquire this new vocabulary?
Being able to deliver that capability to large numbers of professors would be transformational. As many universities contemplate a virtual or hybrid digital/in-person fall semester, being able to help faculty use Zoom to create an experience “as good as” the classroom would be a quantum leap forward.
So what’s holding back professors making these ad hoc experiences better without our help?
Part of it has to do with focus. Most tenured professors at top universities tend to be research focused, and even if they’re amazing in the classroom, video is a different medium. I had one brutally honest professor tell me that his students only got 20% of the learning from recent video lectures that they would have on campus, and it’s having an impact on pass-rates and student retention. He’s quite concerned about the fall, as are some of his colleagues.
Some professors are worried that in the current environment, students are only getting 20% of the learning that they should.
That’s where we come in. Our toolset of technology and technique can help serve as a bridge for faculty to handle this “Zoom classroom” better, and stave off the quality-of-learning decline that is already emerging in anecdote.
Now take that to the executive education / lifelong learning market. If you’re a busy working professional, you’re paying money and taking precious time out of your day to make time for learning. In which case, you really need skills you can immediately apply to work — the time spent better be worth it. The bar is even higher. Webinars aren’t going to cut it.
How can universities productize excellent online techniques so that they can scale in a repeatable way to thousands of people in different time zones?
The answer is Esme
The answer is Esme Learning. We’ve built a company with people, processes, and technology, that take a great deal of the cognitive burden off of the professor and off the student, to be able to make truly excellent classes – at least as good as in person in terms of learning outcomes.
We use advanced technology in better ways, combining our technology and our capability in using it with research-based teaching methods. Our approach to designing a class is based on a body of academic research around what makes for better learning. We continue to advance this state of the art as researchers, leading to publications in peer-reviewed journals and government-funded science.
The fact that we not only are practitioners, but innovators within online learning, is a big part of what differentiates us from the plethora of skills classes (e.g., LinkedIn Learning) or the purely “edutainment” models that help you feel smart, but don’t actually advance your career (e.g., Masterclass, TED, etc). TED is fantastic, it’s a great way to engage your mind, but listing TED talks that you’ve watched on your resume isn’t going to get you a new job. The career benefit around TED is to the TED speaker, versus the TED consumer. By contrast, we deliver a credential that has direct career impact behind it.
Our academic environment also brings in tools that help you actually have a satisfying and engaging group experience. Learning is better when you do it as part of a team, focused on a project, but that is exactly the capability that most online environments fail to deliver. We’re using new software in new ways to help act as an “AI Coach” for your team project, so that you work better together and develop your leadership skills along with acquiring knowledge around a subject like cyber security, fin tech or AI. You get regular, quantitative, actionable feedback to improve yourself while you are learning.
Beyond just truly excellent
Then we ask ourselves: how can we actually make online learning better than in person? That’s more difficult to achieve, but we are seeing a path towards it. That’s Esme’s long term strategy and the promise we want to deliver over time. The answer comes in bringing to you the ability to learn together with your peers and building a community of people who care about the same kinds of topics, so that you become part of an ecosystem of innovators and entrepreneurs who turn learning into action. You’ll be able to directly link what you’re learning with where you want to take your career, and engaging with our learning experience will accelerate your trajectory to get there. That aspiration takes more time to build but our early experiments have already engaged 15,000 entrepreneurs in over 140 countries, and we now have a platform in Esme Learning that can optimize what that future-learning experience is like. It’s an exciting adventure!