In the Classroom
Booz-Allen e-Learning Program Combines High Tech and High Touch

In designing an executive education program for its management consultants, Booz-Allen Hamilton faced a number of challenges. First, the 50 participants were spread across the United States and around the world, including managers in Hawaii and Japan. The company also wanted to preserve billable hours, so making its managers spend valuable time shuffling to a central location was not a good option. The focus of the program was on e-commerce, so e-learning seemed a natural solution. But past experiences with distance learning had been a bit flat.

Working with Wharton, Booz-Allen created an online program that blended the best of both worlds. On the one hand, it offered the high-tech reach, efficiency, and flexibility of online programming, including pre-recorded audio sessions, real-time virtual programs, threaded discussions, and virtual team collaboration. On the other hand, it offered high-touch access to faculty, teaching assistance, and staff, as well as face-to-face sessions at the company headquarters in McLean, Virginia, at the beginning and end of the program to bring the virtual learning down to earth.

"Before the program, we were a little concerned about whether an online course would be strong enough and whether managers would interact enough," said Chauncey Morris, Learning Partnership Manager at Booz-Allen. "But afterwards, people were really excited about the level of interaction and participation." As one participant commented at the end of the program, "I was skeptical at first, but now believe this online experience was second only to the live classroom."

Even the virtual classroom had a real feel to it. For example, if there was ever temptation to multitask or drift off during the online classes, Wharton Professor David Croson was known to cold call students just as he would in a physical classroom. "You couldn't relax in class because you knew he might call on you with a question," Morris said.

The Right Design and Technology

The program used a portfolio of sophisticated technologies for interactions. It employed WebEx and Vspan synchronous web instruction technology, simultaneous phone conference calls for five 90-minute, real-time instruction sessions with faculty. The sessions were scheduled in the evening on the east coast, to reduce conflicts with work and make them more accessible to participants on the West Coast and beyond. To make these live sessions more efficient, each one was preceded by short pre-recorded instruction sessions with key content that participants could access in advance.

During the live sessions, participants could "raise their hands" by clicking a button to ask a question of faculty, or directly communicate with teaching assistants or classmates through a chat window. Although participants were required to attend all of the online sessions to receive certification (with one excused absence allowed), the sessions were also archived for later review. Outside of classroom sessions, the participants used Wharton's WebCafe for online discussions and interaction with faculty and other key program staff.

Teams of five participants were also required to work together on a Business Improvement Project, applying the lessons about e-commerce to current business challenges. These projects were presented during the closing, real-time session in Virginia. The teams had "live" virtual team meetings and structured virtual office hours with team tutors to provide support for their projects. During the face-to-face session at the end of the program, the teams reported out in an interactive session with faculty, classmates, and executive sponsors. "Professor Croson really drilled them during the session to prove that this was the right solution," Morris said.

Secrets of Success

What did Booz-Allen discover about successful e-learning in this process? Among the insights:

  • Anchor the virtual in reality: The project teams were working on actual applications of projects related to the company's business. They made their final presentations live to senior executives and faculty. This meant that there was a real product expected at the end. Because the program started and ended with face-to-face sessions, every participant knew the ground rules and also that their teams would end up back in the same room at the end of the program making their case to executives, faculty, and peers.

  • Require participation: The participation was highly structured. Managers were required to be at the live sessions and even contribute to asynchronous discussion forums. While there were components that could be done at the participants' own pace and schedule, they had to complete them.

  • Don't be blinded by the technology: The latest technology is not always the best solution for learning. Although the program technology had the capacity for video feeds, it was rarely used. "We could do that, but we found it didn't really add value," said Joann Desiderio, Wharton's program director. Even with broadband connections, video feed can be poor quality and adds little over a real voice and a set of slides or whiteboard.

  • Pay attention to details to create an authentic experience: Cold calling students in class doesn't require advanced technology, but it does require an awareness of the details and interaction that make the classroom experience more authentic. The ability to raise a hand to ask a question in class or use instant messages to communicate with teaching assistants during class also added to the authenticity of the virtual classroom experience. There were conference calls and office hours with teaching assistants. Desiderio also said she'd often pick up the phone to respond to an e-mail from a participant. "Participants were always surprised when I called," she said. "The goal was to make them feel they were really connected."


This month's articles:

  • In the Classroom
    Weaving together online and face-to-face sessions made Booz-Allen's distance learning program anything but virtual.

  • Thought Leaders
    Simulations offer learning about successful strategies and team dynamics, without the high costs.

  • In the Classroom II
    Clorox used a set of "action learning projects" to bring its lessons back to work.