Behind the Scenes

How Online Education Is Changing The Way We Meet

When it comes to adult education, the meetings industry sits at a very interesting intersection.

As we were going to press on this issue, PCMA had just gotten confirmation that Salman Khan agreed to be a General Session speaker at Convening Leaders 2014 in Boston next month. Khan founded the nonprofit educational website Khan Academy in 2008, with the mission of providing “a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere.” All that anyone needs to access Khan’s nearly 5,000 free video lessons — on subjects including math, physics, finance, and economics — is a computer screen and an Internet connection.

The site is wildly popular — 8 million users around the world log in each month. And while the timing didn’t work out for us to interview Khan for this issue, the fact that the online-education pioneer will be a Convening Leaders speaker is in sync with Senior Editor Barbara Palmer’s cover and CMP Series story on online learning.

If you’ve never heard of the Khan Academy, then you haven’t been following the exploding world of online education. And that’s a problem. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in a “60 Minutes” segment on the Khan Academy that the platform could “completely change education in America.”

The same could be said about the effect of online education’s growth on the meetings industry — and not because virtual will replace face-to-face. In the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Khan said that he’s run up against that line of thinking among some teachers, who argue that videos can’t replace “live human interaction.” Exactly right, he says. His approach is to “take passivity out of the classroom,” so that the teacher is now a coach or mentor, which has a “higher value” than lecturer.

If meetings and conferences are indeed the single-largest source of adult education, then front-loading them with online content that attendees can access before they meet means they can come better prepared to engage in meaningful discussions on site. As creativity expert Bruce Nussbaum told me (see Bookings, p. 101), “We’ve really gone beyond the point of having meetings where people come and sit still for a day or two while experts yak at them.”

Other attempts to integrate technology into education, Schmidt told “60 Minutes,” have missed the mark, but Khan seems to have gotten it right. What the meetings industry has to figure out, NYU professor Clay Shirky says in our cover story, is “how face-to-face overlaps with information delivery.”

When asked why the video-tutorial platform wasn’t invented by a great educator instead of Khan, Schmidt had this to say: “Innovation never comes from the established institutions. It’s the grad student or someone with a great vision.” Nussbaum would likely take exception to that. Creativity, he believes, is a set of business skills that can be cultivated in any organization.

As technology continues to topple conventional approaches, we need plenty of creativity. With uncertainty, Nussbaum says, come opportunities.

Michelle Russell

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.