Dr Paul Vallet: Welcome to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy podcast. Thank you for tuning in. I'm your host Dr Paul Vallet, Associate Fellow with the GCSP Global Fellowship Initiative. I will accompany you on the next 12 weeks to explain some of the latest global issues affecting peace, security, and international cooperation. Speaking with subject matter experts following with our examination of a year of disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic after discussing last week, its lessons for sanitary crisis management. Today we'll focus on another aspect that has necessitated the handling not just of immediate effects, but also long-term ones, that of education. Education has been impacted across the globe and for all ages and types of courses, one year on in several countries, much concern has been expressed about the negative impact of the interruption of schooling from the first grade to the university. What if, however, this disruption has been the occasion for new opportunities and methods for education to endure? As international executive education features among the core missions with GCSP, today, I'm talking with Alexandra Thiry, who is the Head of Learning Innovation and Impact at the GCSP. She has held this position since 2016, After joining the GCSP in 2012, to support the senior management's implementation of strategic initiatives and partnerships. She's a certified learning professional with work experience with the International Committee of the Red Cross and then European External Action Service. Welcome to the podcast Alexandra. My first question to you is, are there specific ways in which the pandemic has impacted executive education and called for special solutions?
Ms Alexandra Thiry: Thank you so much for having me. I'm really delighted to be here and to participate in this podcast series about the impact of COVID-19 and specifically talk about executive education. Before coming to your question, let me first of all frame a little bit the context of where we are with executive education and COVID pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis has sustainably impacted literally every aspect of life. First, it has changed the way people connect. So, with all the restrictions on in-person gatherings, the digital tools have to a certain extent replace the human face to face experience in our everyday life. So, second pandemic has impacted how people communicate. And here I'm thinking of wearing masks whenever we are in public, and masking our facial expressions and the effect that this has on comprehending people's emotions and intentions, and specifically the impact this has on building trust, which is so important in the peace and security domain and also in diplomacy. Third, COVID-19 has changed the way people interact. So, the physical distancing, and also seeing people as potential sources of infection is certainly something that is new. And it also to a certain extent, impacts how we see executive education during this crisis. And finally, it has affected how people work. A survey from Deloitte, conducted in April 2020 revealed that the number of people working from home in Switzerland has doubled during the crisis. And even though the numbers are from the peak of the first outbreak, given the current restriction, we can presume that the percentage is still equally high. And all these elements are how people connect how people communicate, how people interact and how people work. They are absolutely crucial in understanding how executives learn. And these different dimensions illustrate quite well, to which the extent executive education industry is concerned by the pandemic. So executive education is not just about organising trainings or organising roundtable conversations or retreats. It is about connecting people and ideas. It is about providing space for open exchange and discussion. It's about building trust and a community that can take action to change the world for the better.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, thanks for this, this first insight. And, of course, perhaps you might have something to say about what problems have affected international courses and whether specific solutions have had to be designed for them?
Ms Alexandra Thiry: On your question about how the pandemic has disrupted executive education, and if there are special solutions that we came up with, let me just clarify two points. So first, I see the pandemic as a catalyst that has accelerated already existing trends in executive education, rather than a radical game changer or disrupter. So, for example, the focus on the digital transformation is not new. We have been thinking about how to get virtual education right well before COVID-19. But the intensity and also the speed of the change is unprecedented. So COVID is not like a disruptor in executive education, but it's an amplifier of already existing trends. And my second point to send to this question is that some of these trends will weaken again, once the pandemic is over, and others will prevail. And here, in answering your question, I will just focus on three big trends, which I've seen, and which have been amplified by the pandemic and which I believe are here to stay even when the pandemic is over. There will be more technology and innovation. So, this is probably the most significant trend that will last. COVID-19 has boosted digitalisation in executive education dramatically. So, this is really the main trend. So, the global health crisis has somehow accelerated our digital transformation efforts by approximately two to three years. And that's really a development we would wish we could only have imagined pre pandemic before COVID-19 traditional education models especially for mid and senior level professionals, strongly focused on the face to face experience, was hours and hours of in person classroom sessions and networking events. And now suddenly, overnight, it's had to be reproduced in distance learning solutions. So, we really went somehow from one extreme before the pandemic to another extreme during the pandemic. And we need to re-balance this, but the trend will continue, and especially the challenge related to technology and innovation in our specific field and for our audience. And I would argue that for younger generations, and for the digital natives, this is much easier is to master the technology. So, I think this is something we kind of with our audience, we focus on to make them fit for the technology that they need in order to be effective in the virtual environment. The second big trend that has been accelerated and that will prevail, is that executive education will become more personalised, and contextualised. So, the learning in the virtual space has become commonplace. And content and delivery has also become more and more personalised in virtual education. And we will continue to use the technologies specifically AI supported systems to contextualise the learning even more and to make it more relevant to the specific situation of our participants, and also to their preferences, and to their specific ways of learning. The technology will allow us to understand them better what the learners needs, and preferences are, and where we can best support them, and also develop them so that they can produce good results. So, the trend towards tailor made learning strategies has been accelerated and will prevail. And this brings me to my last point, lifelong learning will be vital in the post COVID world. So we have seen in the last month, how absolutely important it is for any professional who wants to achieve impact, to nurture your curiosity, to leave the comfort zone, and to learn something new, to kind of take a risk, reinvent yourself. So, for example, we all need to learn to navigate the virtual environment, or the different video conferencing platforms or the tools we needed to learn this very quickly. Even the world leaders have to go through this. So maybe Paul, you might recall the famous “Can you hear me?” from Angela Merkel, last year when she faced technical difficulties to the World Health Organization Summit, the virtual summit, and even Queen Elizabeth is using Zoom, and even though she has a team, but she also needed to adjust them to understand how this works. So, this very powerful, there's a very powerful interactive map on the web, it's called the “Sea of Lifelong Learning.” You can find it on lifelonglearning.ch. Maybe we can put the link also in the show notes, Paul. And I encourage you to go to the website and just to take a look. And it is it supports a campaign on lifelong learning one by digitalSwitzerland and the Swiss Employers Association. And it really spreads out really nicely the different elements on lifelong learning and how they impact performance and how important they are for the future. So lifelong learning has been important for many years, even before the COVID crisis. But COVID is a strong catalyst. And in my view also to strengthen the process even further in the years to come.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well, thank you for pointing out these trends. And for the reference, we'll certainly be looking at this one, too. And of course, with GCSP, a lot of our courses, of course, are designed for an international audience. So of course, I was wondering whether we'd been impacted in a specific way because of the international nature of our audience and subjects and whether we had to devise specific solutions for these particular types of courses?
Ms Alexandra Thiry: Absolutely at the GCSP it really is in a specific situation because it's a specific organization. So, the GCSP is, as you know, it's really different from business schools who traditionally provided executive education. It's also different from a military or Diplomatic Academy, or even it's also different than universities, specifically because it serves a global, heterogeneous community. And our mission, I just want to recall this because it's important also to understand how we framed our response to the to the COVID challenges is our mission as an international foundations was really to advance peace and security and international cooperation through various channels and most importantly through executive education, and each year and this is also important to understand that the global outreach that we have, so each year we educate more than 1200 professionals, from over 167 countries and over 800 experts share their knowledge and experience and facilitate the professional development of our participants every year. So, as you can see, Paul, a truly international centre. So, of course, the pandemic has challenged us in a very specific way. So how did GCSP do we approach virtual education? So, what we do is we focus on three pillars that we believe are key to success in this case. So, we have interactive designs; the second pillar is to prepare participants and engaging speakers. And we can explore them one after the other, interactive designs. So, we know from neuroscience, how people learn. So, we have quite a good understanding in the educational research and also neuroscience, how the brain functions, and what we as educators need to do in order to make people learn something. Take, for instance, a classification of cognitive levels, which is called the Bloom's taxonomy. I don't know if you've heard about them Paul, it's quite well known in the educational field, very well known. And it actually looks at six different levels of how people learn beginning from: remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, and create. And what we've done at GCSP is we have we have thought about this taxonomy. And we thought about how we can use this in virtual education. How does this affect the way people learn the complex way of, of learning? What does it mean for virtual education? So, for example, to make participants apply new ideas, go to this apply stage, we propose them a simulation, live online, on Zoom. Or if we want participants to remember to retain, we propose to engage on the content that we propose on our learning platform. So, this is all about interactive designs, which we believe is really important to get the better education, right. And this brings me to my second point, the importance of preparing participants for the virtual sessions and for their learning. So, we offer Extended Learning journeys that last approximately a month, and that unfold in three phases. In our phase one, which lasts approximately two weeks, we provide participants with introductory content, and preparatory assignments, and we do some virtual icebreaker activities with them. And we also do a kick-off event to show them that their learning environment to make them familiar with the technology help them with that. Then we have a phase which we call to connect the dots phase, and then which is then followed by the achieve impact phase. And throughout the whole journey we really make it really an important point about preparing the participants to this new environment, we've seen that some of our participants, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, they have struggled with the technology. So, we really put a lot of effort into supporting them with that. And the third point what makes our virtual education having been so much appreciated by our participants during the last years is that we make sure that our speakers are engaging. And I came across recently the top competencies for live online trainers at the TOPP Competencies[i] for live online trainers and we can also put the references in the show notes if you want. So, what are these TOPP top competencies. So, the first T stands for technical agile. So, our speakers they need to know how to navigate the delivery platform. And also, they need to know how to engage your participants using the different features that we have at their disposal, the chat, the annotations and so on and so forth. The O stands for on air presence. So, we want our speakers to be really webcam ready, well set up and really ready to engage with our participants in a meaningful way. The first P stands for prepared and the second p for participant engagement. So, our speakers we train, and we coach our speaker so that they maximise the learning outcomes by asking specific questions in coach interactions and really engage with the participants. So, this is it. So, it's really these three, these three pillars that we believe are super important.
Dr Paul Vallet: Well I was very interested by the points you made about the trends being, of course materialising before even the pandemic and you're observing that some of these trends will continue and others may not. So that leads me to my next interrogation, which is whether the solutions we've adopted for this, or some of them called to become a permanent feature, in your opinion, are some really more considered as temporary fixes? And do we know already, from our experience, whether we can grade the quality of this solution compared to another longer term, one word or short term one?
Ms Alexandra Thiry: Virtual is here to stay. There is simply virtual is here to stay. So, I would like to just make reference to a blog post that I've seen recently by the Chief of Section Leadership Development at UNHCR at the UN Refugee Agency. And in this blog post, Joel Nielsen, the gentleman, he shared what works actually better in virtual format in leadership development in this large international humanitarian organisation. And some of these, these points really resonated a lot with me, and also with the experiences that we've made at GCSP. So I would like to share to answer your question the key elements here of what works, what are the benefits of virtual education, and then also at some of our experience. So in virtual formats, this is the first point, I guess, one of the key benefits in virtual education that we've seen during the last years is that the virtual format forces us to pay greater attention to the design and to delivery. So, we dedicated much more time in thoroughly, planning for and timing our sessions. This is I think there are two reasons one reason for this is because it's been new. So, we had to learn how to how to deliver and facilitate on Zoom, and on MS teams and on WebEx and on all the other platforms. And that's why we've been more disciplined with the approach. And the second reason for this really strong, I mean sense for greater discipline and greater attention to detail when designing the session is this because we have the technology, we have to master the technology at the same time when we deliver. So, I really hope that this attention to detail and the discipline will prevail, once the pandemic is over, it really helps us to be more performant also in our delivery. The second advantage of virtual education, if you'd like is that the retention of the learning is improved, thanks to the learning journey design that we have adopted. So, at the GCSP. As I said earlier, we've introduced this month-long experience, where we stretch the learning over a relatively long period of time with interactions. And this actually helps participants to make the learning their own, and to apply what they have learned in the meantime, before coming to the next session, to their own context, and to better remember and use what they have learned. A third point mentioned is that we've also seen that participants are actually more engaged on the platforms than in the classroom, to some extent. So, in virtual education, we have shorter sessions. This is mainly to avoid Zoom fatigue. I mean, you've heard about this phenomenon where participants, or everyone actually gets a bit tired from looking at the screen the whole day. So, we really try to have condensed short sessions, instead of designing full day programmes as we would in residential education. So we plan in more time for individual reflection assignments and self-paced studies that are offline and design shorter but more intense live sessions, which participants to really be more engaged to pay better, greater attention and to really be there when we are with them in the live sessions. Then another benefit is that teaching through the video conferencing platforms supported a more democratic sharing of airtime. This is what we've seen. Our participants have multiple ways to engage with each other but also with our staff through the various features that we have on our platforms. They can use the private chat, they can use the public chat, they can annotate the screens, they can express themselves. On our online whiteboards, they can use the chat that we have on our learning platform. So, a lot is going on simultaneously while we are in our live virtual sessions with our participants, but also actually enhance the learning and which is something positive. So, we really can address the different learning styles, and the preferences of virtual education much more than we can do this in classroom trainings. And then now I have two remaining points. So, one of which is that with the virtual learning, we also have the ability, and this is actually a super important point, to scale to reach many more people than possible to in person interactions. I mean, it's, and then also linked to this, which education is more cost efficient, we don't need to fly in participants and facilitators from across the world. And of course, and this is I think this is really one of the most important points, and that made me think about virtual education really in a different way. Is that in the end, it really is the most environmentally friendly way of international executive education there is, I put this at the end. But it really is important for future generations. And I'm saying this as a mum of two boys, I think it's really important that we don't print papers, when we do our virtual delivery, we don't fly in speakers or participants, we cut down the energy consumption. So, it is a contribution to have a more respectful approach towards our planet. And this really, thinking about the sustainability aspect of virtual education really makes many people think differently about it. So now, what does all of this mean for the future of learning? Is virtual education a temporary phenomenon, or will it last? I mean, having highlighted all of the benefits of virtual, there are, of course, also limitations.
Dr Paul Vallet: Right.
Ms Alexandra Thiry: So, to point out, the Zoom fatigue that I've already mentioned, issues with technology and connectivity, we do have participants who have insufficient bandwidth in their countries. So also the lack of hardware, sometimes an issue that really limits the way we can use virtual education, I mean, you still need a computer, a laptop, you need a headset, you need a good internet connection to make this work. So focus can also be a challenge. And then it's also my last point, but the most important one, the lack of the nonverbal communication. In virtual education, it's really difficult to have the eye contact with other participants to read the facial expressions to see the postures, their gestures, etc. And all of these I mean, these nonverbal means of communications are so super important for effective interaction, as I said in the beginning, and specifically also in our field in the peace and security domain, with a view to building trust among the participants, which is one of our ultimate goals that we have at the GCSP. So, it is a continuous focus to get the human aspects of learning into the virtual setting. So virtual education will not replace all kinds of residential classroom training. But it will remain an indispensable learning format in executive education, it will be combined with face to face experience. And I think, really, in the years to come, the concept of blended learning, which has been around for more than 20 years now will now be fully integrated in all executive education strategies. So, we will also see more hybrid formats in the future. So, the synchronous learning that teaches both in person and online learners simultaneously. Thank you, Paul, I just want to mention that we've really all have gone through a steep learning curve in the last month in all different areas and fields and we all need to leave our comfort zones and we all have to take risks and with all the tragedy the pandemic brought to us, it has also ignited innovation and creativity. And I'm still personally humbled to see all that could have been achieved to manage this complex crisis. And we are currently in a situation as I said in the beginning, where we really need to zoom out and to look back at what has actually happened and how this will impact our future. And, and if you don't mind, I would like to close from mindset with a citation from French pilot and author Antoine de St. Expert “Une cathédrale est bien autre chose qu’une somme de pierres. Elle est géométrie et architecture. Ce ne sont pas les pierres qui la définissent, c’est elle qui enrichit les pierres de sa propre signification. On ne dit rien d’essentiel sur la cathédrale si l’on ne parle que des pierres. Thank you, Paul.
Dr Paul Vallet: Also, I guess our word of conclusion is that well, despite the difficulties will probably moving towards a world where people interested in pursuing an executive education or mid-career training will have more choices and opportunities Despite this, I guess. So, that's an interesting word to end. It's all we have for today's episode. So, thank you very much, Alexandra for joining us today are really glad you could come to us. Listeners, please listen to us again next week to hear the latest insights on international peace and security. Don't forget to subscribe to us on Anchor FM, Apple iTunes, follow us on Spotify and SoundCloud. I'm Paul Vallet with the Geneva Centre for Security policy. Until next time, bye for now.
[i] TOPP Competencies for Live Online Trainers Source: LaBorie, K./Stone, T. 2015: Interact and Engage, ATD Press, pp 114-116
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