Lessons Learned from Developing an Online Executive Education Program

Posted in News Story

By Luisa Boyarski, Ph.D.

July 21, 2020

Luisa Boyarski is the Associate Director of the Center for Public & Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. This article is about the Center’s Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program, which was launched in 2002 and has more than 1,500 alumni. Summer 2020 was the first time that the Certificate Program was offered as an online course.

It takes time to develop an online program and learning environment where both the students and faculty feel like the experience has been successful. I remember the time when virtual learning was just series of webinars, which were effectively one-directional lecturing. It is our challenge as educators to break away from this mold to create virtual spaces where students can build relationships, network and learn.

At the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, COVID-19 provided the impetus for us to take our Nonprofit Management Executive Certificate Program online for the first time since it was launched in 2002. Our faculty and staff dedicated two months to re-design the Certificate Program in order to make it work in a virtual environment for forty-five students. The students include mid- to senior-level nonprofit leaders, board members, government and foundation grantmakers, as well as others working with nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

While we will continue to refine the program design, the initial offering of the online Certificate Program was a huge success. Some students shared:

  • “The virtual platform can, and does, work.  Even for large groups.”
  • “I’d highly recommend keeping a virtual session available every year, even when things go back to ‘normal’.”
  • “This was my first online learning experience and I was wary that it wouldn’t be as valuable as in-person learning. The program was incredible. I still made good connections and hope to meet them all in person someday. Thank you for all of your hard work and for this transformative experience!”

There are four key lessons that I learned from this experience:

  1. The curriculum must be re-designed;
  2. Ongoing faculty support is critical;
  3. You must intentionally foster a virtual learning community; and
  4. Allow space for organic relationships.

Re-design the Curriculum

No matter how successful your program has been in the past, the online learning environment is different and content must be designed for it specifically. Where you can lecture in a classroom for 30 minutes and keep most students’ attention, you lose them after 10 minutes online. Class times need to be reduced and unstructured time should be added, to allow for students to engage more organically with each other and the faculty.

In order to avoid “Zoom fatigue”, curriculum must be reviewed and re-designed to focus on the most important learning objectives. Classroom interaction needs to be planned in advance, in order to make best use of the limited class time. It is no longer viable to simply “go with the flow.” Most importantly, do not try to replicate the in-person experience. Online learning platforms have multiple ways to engage students, and curriculum should be developed to take advantage of those tools and understand their strengths and weaknesses.

Michael Gellman, who teaches financial management in the Certificate Program, finds that “For myself after pivoting to over 50 web-based classes, the key has been completely re-thinking curriculum design and balancing and encouraging in-class two-way engagement opportunities. Even within web-based classes you still can search out levels of interest and comprehension through in-class discussion, provoking questions, problem solving challenges, etc. that help you steer and adapt the content to meet students’ needs and interests.”

Support Your Faculty

Asking faculty to take their classes online can be the equivalent of asking them to teach in a new language. It can lead to stress, anxiety, and an uncertainty of where to begin. It is important to support faculty throughout the process of developing an online class through:

  • Redesigning the curriculum
  • Training for how to use the online learning platform
  • Developing detailed internal agendas
  • Hosting practice sessions
  • Providing moderator/tech support during sessions

Faculty will start this work with different levels of knowledge and comfort using the online learning platform. It is important to meet them where they are and take extra time to work with the faculty that need it most. 

It is critical that faculty are supported during the class as well, with someone (a moderator), who can take care of the technology and monitor student engagement through comments and questions in the chat feature. When possible, it is most helpful if the moderator knows the content of the session and can help monitor the time based on the planned internal agenda.

Valeria Lassiter, teaches resource and fund development in the Certificate Program. She highlights, “One of the many benefits of the Georgetown program is the dedicated staff to handle the important logistics and housekeeping rules related to how the students need to show up and participate. This allows the faculty to stay focused on the learning and content for the students.”

Build a Virtual Learning Community

When the Certificate Program was held in-person, there was a lot less need for the faculty and staff to help the students connect and network. Lunch and break times provided natural opportunities for students to chat and seek out those with whom they had something in common. 

In online learning, those break times must often be used for students to disconnect from the computer and take a break from the screen. Thus, it is necessary to intentionally build in additional time and opportunities for the students to develop relationships. 

We decided to create small learning cohorts of students, which were designed to provide space for peer interaction. This ensured that each student developed meaningful relationships with at least a subset of the class. We also used breakout rooms during every class to encourage collaboration among the students and gave them a chance to talk, which is often limited in big virtual classrooms.

Allow Space for Organic Relationships

Sometimes, the best relationships are those that happen organically. One student said on our last day of class – “You might think that we could not bond virtually, but we did! There was one day that I got a private message from a fellow student to see how I was doing, just to check in.”

The chat feature allowed our students a space to share their thoughts, ask questions, give each other advice and recommend resources. It was almost a second class, which was incredibly dynamic and allowed the students to connect in real time. The chat was also used as a place of thanks. After students asked questions or presented what they discussed in breakouts, there was a stream of comments in the chat: “Thank you for representing us, go group C!;”  “Great question, Sarah.” 

One student said in the program evaluation: “I loved the chat function and think that if/when classes return to in-person learning, it would be a valuable tool for the class. Students talking amongst themselves was very helpful and not at all distracting for me as I might have guessed.”

We also created an open space at the end of each day for informal networking. This time was often used by students to share personal stories and interests – connecting in ways that were not directly related to what they learned that day.

Additional articles in this series, Leading in Times of Hyper Change, can be found on our website, Facebook and Twitter.