Building online excellence

Oxford Saïd has combined faculty expertise and innovative partnerships with alumni experience to create world-class online executive education

The overarching challenge this year for Caroline Williams, Oxford Saïd’s Director of Open Executive Education, was to ensure the School emerged as a stronger executive education entity. ‘All the variables that make an on-campus programme possible, and have earned us the globally ranked number two spot for open executive education, suddenly fell away in March,’ says Williams. ‘But it enabled me to look creatively at our work, including collaborations across universities and our other partnerships, to see how we could enhance our online portfolio. For example, GetSmarter was our partner when we first launched online programmes in 2017, and thanks to Josie Thurston, Brad Peaston and their dedicated team we’ve since evolved our proposition significantly.

‘GetSmarter specialises in mass-market programmes like leadership and sustainable corporations, but its marketing and research have also been a great help to us. We’ve had almost 20,000 people coming through our online courses. We’ve complemented GetSmarter with Esme Learning, which can help faculty access more technical consumers. In 2021 we are launching our digital finance portfolio to construct a new professional development programme.

‘A lot of businesses had to shift to short-term thinking. But we had to navigate the short term without damaging innovation for the medium and long term. To put that in context, we needed to provide high-quality education without the ability to travel or immerse oneself in a programme away from professional and personal commitments. We can have students hailing from 23 nationalities across a cohort of 40. So we’ve had to put a stake in the ground and say we will run virtual programmes until July 2021.’

The shift to virtual learning has seen the development of new partnerships. ‘We’ve opened up a lot of corporate B2B accounts over the last year,’ says Williams. ‘We also work with the Welsh and UK governments around upskilling entrepreneurs and SMEs, and we’re mindful of helping organisations and individuals at home and abroad. Our collaborations have been strengthened this year because we’re all going through the same thing. We’ve remained resilient through a very difficult time.’


Co-Heads of Online Executive Education, Brad Peaston and Josie Thurston, work with the faculty to ensure the online experience both matches the standards of on-campus courses and reaches a far wider audience, harnessing faculty expertise and alumni experience. ‘Online education gives us a way of scaling the University’s research to have far greater impact,’ says Thurston, ‘and to realise Dean Peter Tufano’s vision of expanding access without cannibalising the faculty’s time.’

That impact is growing beyond the conventional market for executive education. As Peaston explains: ‘Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are nothing like online executive education programmes. MOOCs sometimes have one or two professors and a handful of guest speakers and are focused on personal development. We invest significantly in our online portfolio and some programmes have upwards of 15 professors drawn from the School and wider University, complemented with as many guest experts to ensure a healthy balance between academic rigour and industry application. The design of our online portfolio is intended to help organisations to refine their organisational strategy by linking professional development to their strategic objectives at scale. As a result, more organisations are sending cross-functional project teams to address their current challenges and explore growth opportunities.’

A key factor behind the success of the programmes has been the recruitment of alumni to serve as brand ambassadors. ‘Our portfolio net promoter score keeps getting better,’ says Peaston. ‘I think that’s because clients feel reassured that they deal with our own people, our own alumni, not professionals removed from the organisation.

‘They have experienced it the same way clients do, and they care. For example, our AI programme’s head tutor is Linford Bacon, Head of AI at Aviva — globally renowned in his field and an Oxford alumnus. Seventeen of 21 speakers for our Strategic Innovation Programme (SIP) are alumni ambassadors. That is an important point of difference.’

This is borne out by the figures. Oxford Saïd has a completion rate of 93 per cent, compared to a 12–20 per cent global average for MOOCs. ‘We’ve doubled revenue year on year,’ adds Thurston. ‘Generally, with such rapid growth during a turbulent time you expect quality to drop. But the opposite has happened.

‘Marc Ventresca’s SIP achieved 100 per cent in expectations met or exceeded for its pilot — with a global audience, not one from a single organisation, sector or territory. When I look back on 2020, that’s something I’m truly proud of.’





The Annual Review looks back over the past year’s milestones, events, awards and research helping us fulfil our mission: World Challenges : Oxford Answers

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Saïd Business School

Saïd Business School

At Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, we create business leaders who lead with purpose.

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