MIT Sloan e-Learning Course Goes the Distance For Merrill Lynch

August 15, 2001

The MIT Sloan School of Management and Merrill Lynch took the concept of distance learning and improved on it. The two institutions – as part of an ongoing partnership -successfully adapted a popular MBA investments course for electronic delivery to financial professionals worldwide.

A select group of 28 Merrill Lynch directors, vice presidents, analysts and associates from offices in United States, Europe, Japan, Hong Kong and Australia came together virtually and face-to-face over 14 weeks to take a cutting-edge investments course taught by MIT Sloan Professor Andrew Lo.

The unique e-learning course provided a powerful analytical framework for designing financial products and solutions in a variety of contexts. Participants immediately applied the ideas through team projects that resulted in innovative solutions to actual client problems. The program was developed with the Otter Group, Inc., an e-learning consulting firm, and was designed to meet the needs of ultra-busy professionals who had to shoehorn their learning into demanding work schedules.

Despite the challenge, participants gave the course high grades. In evaluating the experience, all of the students were unanimous that listening to lectures by Lo was worth their time investment. Overwhelmingly, participants said they would recommend the course to a colleague. Only one of the selected group did not complete the course (based on client priorities)- a remarkable statistic in light of the fact that attrition rates for e-learning courses run as high as 80 percent. A number of factors contributed to the program’s success.

Unlike many distance education efforts, the course only used well-tested delivery systems that enabled participants to work on their own time and at their own pace. With Professor Lo’s lectures on CD-ROM and discussions conducted asynchronously on-line, time and space constraints were lifted.

The support of a learning director from Merrill Lynch, and Wes Chan, teaching assistant at Sloan, was integral to the program’s success. The two were able to answer questions, provoke discussion, encourage application of theory to practice and track participants’ progress by phone, email and SloanSpace, a web-based course management platform designed and tested at MIT Sloan. Professor Lo offered on-line office hours at strategic times during the course.

“For this course to work, the technology had to be invisible,” Lo said. “The participants are not all technophiles and most don’t have the time or patience to deal with complex technology.”

“I thought it was very effective,” said Dino DeAngelis, vice president, Global Debt Markets for Merrill Lynch in New York. “There was no classroom scheduling constraint. Prof. Lo was essentially there to lecture whenever you had the time. I watched several of his lectures on plane trips. I could also go back and review lectures a second time. It was very convenient, and since Professor Lo is a captivating speaker, I didn’t require a classroom environment to stay focused.”

The course’s selection process was designed to recognize top performers – another reason for its success.

“This assignment was viewed as a plum and although the participants were signing up for 14 weeks of very hard work, I think in retrospect they all agreed that it was highly valuable and well worth the effort,” Lo said.

The sophistication of the content was another improvement on typical e-learning activities, according to Toby Woll, Sloan’s director of learning technology initiatives. “Many e-learning efforts elsewhere have focused on giving people a working knowledge of entry level material. Our goal was to learn whether e-learning could work with very high level content,” she said.

To demonstrate how well they had absorbed the course theories, participants worked in six teams on projects that applied the material to problems they were dealing with in their practices. Merrill Lynch senior management acted as sponsors and reviewers who kept motivation high.

This made the course highly relevant to Merrill Lynch right now, Lo said. “At the start of the course, I said that this unique venture would be a great success if, at the end, when confronted with a particular challenge as part of their daily business, the participants would be able to reframe that challenge and think about it more systematically using the tools presented in the course,” Lo said. “Their final projects demonstrated pretty conclusively that this objective was met, far beyond everyone’s expectations.”

“Merrill Lynch is realizing important strategic objectives by partnering with MIT to create this unique e-learning experience. We elevate the intellectual power of our team by integrating leading edge investment thinking with direct application to our client market opportunities,” said Kelly Martin, head of Global Debt Markets at Merrill Lynch.

“The course changed my view on how I look at these investment problems,” said Monique Yu, vice president, Global Debt Markets for Merrill Lynch in Hong Kong. “It’s refreshing when you’re in the business to take a step back and look at the problems on a macro basis.”

While the virtual world can be convenient, it can also be lonely and less dynamic than face-to-face interaction. The course addressed this issue by opening and closing with live sessions in New York, bringing the participants together with Professor Lo and Merrill Lynch executives. These meetings and the team work enhanced connections among the players across regional, product and financial boundaries.

“The class was a great way to interact across Merrill functional groups in an environment of intellectual honesty geared toward real solutions. If we had constructive insight or an interesting idea that we were unsure of we were comfortable sharing it with our classmates,” DeAngelis said.

With such high marks and praise, Merrill Lynch and MIT Sloan plan to repeat the technology-powered course this coming year, with even more improvements.

“People have already said to me,” said Tom Wilson, Merrill Lynch director and head of Global Resource Management for Debt Markets, “what do I need to do to get asked next year?'”