Interview with Jonathan Levy: “Context is the holy grail for e-Learning”

April 22, 2002

Jonathan Levy
is Vice President of Harvard Business Online Enterprise at the Harvard Business School (HBS) Publishing Corporation. He works closely with Fortune 100 business leaders and HBS faculty, define the appropriate pedagogical and technological vision for a new model of online learning for managers that provides learner-driven career-long high-quality real-time performance support. distinguishes Harvard Business OnLine from other business schools?

Jonathan Levy – We’re very different. Our mission is to improve the practice of management. To do that we create scaleable online performance support programs for businesses. We have a potential audience of 23-million online managers and we are already reaching 2-million through 500 corporate clients. Most business schools are not in that market.

We provide real-time performance support for the busy manager. We focus on leadership, management, and strategy for "niche learners," people who need what they need when they need it. Our brand represents the promise of quality that comes from our experience and perspective in making the world’s top experts accessible to leaders in management. In addition, because we are company-facing, we offer flexible content delivery to meet the needs of our customers, including hosted Internet, intranet, mobile access and “universal access.” Through implementation and integration services we help companies create customized solutions as they are required.

Harvard Business OnLine (HBOL) created Universal Access to take the technology challenges out of the management learning equation. This innovative standards-based content-delivery solution makes the same interactive program available to any learner in any environment: corporate LMS or LCMS, hosted, intranet, or without any network at all, as a stand-alone application on a laptop.

This insures uniformity of learning experience regardless of available technology.

Finally, we differentiate ourselves by expanding the traditional academic model to include competency-based learning, modular performance support solutions,and the integration of in-company mentors and facilitators with vetted outside expertise. We are taking online management education to the next stage of evolution. – How is the eLearning environment structured?

Jonathan Levy – Our pedagogical design is modular and engaging, using interactive scenarios and learn-by-doing cases in scaleable, customizable packages. There is no one “right” e-Learning solution; companies are implementing in many different ways. So we offer a range of performance-support options for both stand-alone and blended learning as well as support for facilitated versions of our programs.

All of our modules are designed for the “just in time” learner, a busy manager who normally does not have time for extended classes. HBOL has won many awards for our design and content strategy, providing high-quality, interactive learning in small chunks, normally about 10-minutes at a time.

The focal point for knowledge management is passing from the academic center to the business center. Rather than HBOL mandating the correct learning experience, we empower individual learners to access the information and tools in their own style, based on their existing knowledge. We combine “prescriptive learning” self-assessments with self-analytical tools to allow the manager to quickly gain additional knowledge and keep track of progress.

These personalized navigation aids make each learner’s experience both unique and efficient.

In a typical program, there will be expert advice, often as a media file that pops up in response to a learner’s actions. There will be simulations: branching and non-branching mini-cases and interactive scenarios to allow the learner to immediately put theory to practice, and sometimes to make mistakes along the way and to learn from those mistakes without penalty. And the manager is given tools to apply the knowledge now, in their actual workplace. – How do you help the e-Learner to put these separate chunks of information in context?

Jonathan Levy – Context is the holy grail for e-Learning because context varies not only from learner to learner and company to company, but also from day to day. We have addressed this challenge by providing the learner with the ability to access the same program or tool many ways under different circumstances and in each case obtain different information depending on the need of the time. A variety of cognitive pathways are available for travel as required by the demands of the moment, but not all need be traveled to obtain value.

In some programs, interactive tools help to focus the learning activity by defining the context up front. For example, in “Leadership Transitions” the individual may select the type of management opportunity that is about to be undertaken. The results of that very brief exercise allow the learner to focus on those skills most needed in that specific environment.

We also embed mentoring opportunities (with colleagues) and links to the company within our content, superimposing two levels of context: customized solutions (company level) and personalized solutions (individual level).

Scenario-based learning is immediately applied to the context of the moment, thereby adding an applied value to the learning experience. When individuals apply new knowledge in real time then content and context compliment each other to provide the strongest knowledge bridge, one that will support the learner when the pace is fast and time to task is short. This dual focus on excellent content and timely context is, we believe, one of our great strengths.