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You’re never done: 10 years of digital transformation at MIT Sloan Executive Education

Contributed by Dr. Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, Executive Education, MIT Sloan School of Management
This is the first post in Hirst's Digital Transformation Series.


10 Years of Digital Transformation at MIT Sloan

Saying that organizations need to be serious about digital transformation is like saying that people need to be serious about breathing. Digital transformation is not a matter of choice, no matter the industry, geography, size or structure of your organization. However, you do have a choice in how you go about ensuring your organization’s success or, frankly, survival, as technology continues to influence and often define how business is done. MIT Sloan faculty have been studying digital transformation for a long time, and sharing their insights in our executive education classrooms. However, what I’d like to share here is part of the story of our own digital transformation journey in MIT Sloan’s Office of Executive Education—from early experiments to the way we operate today.

Dot bust, free courseware, and the rise of MOOCs
My own first forays into digital learning date back to the dotcom boom and bust around 2000, while I was working at the London School of Economics. People were beginning to think that the Internet was going to bring about new ways of learning, new business models, and opportunities for creating large new revenue streams for traditional educational institutions and/or new players, whichever moved first to create and then capture these new markets. But the early experiments did not live up to these lofty predictions, at least commercially. Perhaps the market wasn’t ready. Perhaps the technology wasn’t ready. Perhaps the content providers weren’t that enthusiastic, because there was a lot of change and a lot of newness. Maybe it is not a coincidence that at about the same time, MIT had decided to offer all of its course materials as “MIT OpenCourseWare” for free, making it harder for others to build a successful tuition fee-based business model for online digital learning.

Then, in the mid to late 2000s, we saw the rise of MOOCs, and MIT moved boldly to build on the “open courseware” mindset and legacy, founding and investing in edX in 2012, along with Harvard and others. Today, MIT OpenCourseWare offers materials from 2,400 courses and receives over 2 million visits each month from all over the world. EdX is now a collective of more than 90 global partners offering courses on a wide range of subjects at many levels—from high school to college to professional certifications.

Many of us thought that this was finally the moment that was going to change the world, but looking back, it still hasn’t quite happened that way. Or, at least, the reality has proven much more complex, nuanced, and, frankly, messy. Meanwhile, I had moved to MIT, and it was against the backdrop of this history, this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (“VUCA”) that we had been thinking about what does all this mean for us in Executive Education at the MIT Sloan School.

Different model, but same or better value
For established organizations, going digital doesn’t mean you have to rethink your entire business right away, but rather start by finding ways for the technology to enhance your existing offerings and be able to recognize opportunities for new offerings, as you grow more confident with technology. For us, this approach meant trying to replicate what was most valuable about our existing business—not only the educational content, but the combination of all aspects that create the MIT experience. We believed passionately that content without context, discussion, interaction, and applied work using the content does not provide the same learning experience or the same value to the people who attend our programs. And so we began thinking more about what we could be doing to recreate the experience of our classrooms online and then we were able to see new opportunities enabled by technology.

We made our learning experiences available and accessible—online and with the help of digital tools—to people who aren’t able to travel to campus, but still enjoy the interactivity and the energy, and the exchange of ideas as they would in the classroom. In other words, we expanded our audience to include people who may have never been able to attend before because of travel challenges. Concurrently, we began to use technology in our classrooms—both online and physical—to deliver highly complex material that we couldn’t have easily offered before. That expanded our product offering, as well as our audience.

No ivory tower
Over the years, we have experimented with online-only asynchronous delivery where participants from around the globe can learn at their own pace, and with synchronous remote delivery via avatar technology, which got us closer to a shared learning experience that occurs naturally in a physical classroom. Some programs were offered in a blended format of online and in-person delivery.

As we continued to experiment with more technologically advanced methods of delivering an engaging learning experience, our own operations underwent a significant digital transformation, as well. Executive Education was the first department in the entire MIT to fully embrace flexible work, which we were able to do partly because our work was becoming increasingly digital and also because collaboration technology made it possible for our team members to work seamlessly with one another and with clients, no matter where they may be in the world.

People who attend our open enrollment and custom programs are becoming more location-independent, and the way we conduct our business needs to reflect the reality of how they work and how they want to learn. Perhaps because we are MIT, people expect higher technology sophistication in everything we do. Yet because of that, we have been and continue to be particularly cautious not to use technology gratuitously, but only where it makes sense and where it can make the learning experience better for everyone.

The double cutting edge
Continuous experimentation has taught us many important lessons. Being at the cutting edge involves a lot of uncertainty. Perfection is always the goal, but delivering a flawless experience is not always possible. To create a viable balance between experimentation and perfection requires tremendous upfront effort in everything from instructional design to choosing the right technology partner to ensuring layers of redundancy. Luckily, our customers and our faculty understand that and are willing to continue to experiment together.

That said, we have learned a lot in the last decade and continue to learn in every program we deliver. We are now moving from small-scale experiments that allowed us the most opportunities to innovate and learn to the point where we are learning enough to start getting into implementation and scaling. We are really keen to continue exploring how to work in different ways and with new digital tools, like augmented reality.

Our own experience on the cutting edge(s) makes us even more sensitive to the expectations of individuals and organizations that come to MIT for knowledge and expertise. We are constantly evaluating not only our delivery methods, but our content, as well. A digital transformation is a journey of continuous improvement, and I look forward to what the next ten years and beyond will bring for us and for our customers.

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