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Learning as a Network

The oldest business school in Europe, Vlerick has three campuses in Belgium and one in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The school’s website defines the Vlerick spirit as one of “openness, vitality, and a passion for innovation and enterprise.” Not only do those qualities attract thousands of students every year, they also led the school to revolutionize the education experience by connecting students and staff on Yammer.

“Before they come to campus, students in our executive program virtually meet on Yammer so they get to know a bit about each other and share their learning needs,” explains Professor Philippe Haspeslagh, Dean of Vlerick Business School. “During their studies, coursework is complemented with students’ questions and insights, capturing the richness of their different backgrounds. And after the program, participants continue to share their experiences as they apply what they learned in their workplace.”

The inspiration for Vlerick’s innovative new network was insight into the needs of its executive students, who mostly work full-time. “We listened to our students, who wanted to connect outside the classroom but had no way to keep the conversation going,” says Vincent Bagué, manager of the school’s Learning Innovation Center. “That was the trigger for us.”

Along with its executive and full-time programs, Vlerick provides courses tailored to the educational needs of individual companies. One of those companies was an enthusiastic Yammer user, giving school staff their first taste of what Yammer can do. Today, the process has been reversed, so it’s Vlerick that is introducing enterprises to Yammer. “Once our students see how it enables communication and collaboration, they want it for their own companies,” Bagué says.

He adds that there wasn’t much of a learning curve when it came to making Yammer the school’s enterprise social network. “It was quick to set up; runs on smartphones, tablets, and laptops; and integrates with Microsoft Office. That made it perfect for our requirements,” he says.

Yammer also fits the bill as a platform for bridging the communication and continuity gap for the school’s executive programs, in which students meet in person just a few days each month. “We wanted to give them a social network, but in a controlled and managed way,” Bagué explains. “Students should feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable, to admit what they don’t know and ask questions. That’s the best way to learn.”

Listening and Learning

Thanks to the network, executive students keep the educational conversation going wherever they are, using whatever device is at hand. Most use tablets and laptops in the classroom, and smartphones when a question or inspiration arises at work or home.

Before students meet for the first time on campus, they’re asked to share information about themselves and their educational goals on Yammer. “They know each other before they even meet,” Bagué says. “Our community-building is much stronger because of that. And because some of the orientation is done online ahead of time, once students get to the classroom, they spend less time on orientation and more time delving into the curriculum.”

Student participation in the network averages five messages a week, which breaks down to every student contributing a post each weekday. “That’s a huge success,” Bagué says. “Students aren’t just reading posts, they’re actively engaging. That’s great, both for them and others on the network.”

Another plus is that Vlerick’s new communication platform gives students some relief from overflowing email inboxes. Indeed, now that that network is in place, students receive just a single email from the school. “After they sign up, we send them one email to confirm enrollment and tell them that all future conversation and collaboration will continue on Yammer,” Bagué says. “The policy is well accepted and gives us a 100-percent engagement rate.”

Swift Adaptation to Academic Needs

Yammer helps students dig deeper into curriculum topics—both in and out of the classroom. For instance, a digital strategy class explored the theme of viral marketing campaigns by having students post links to videos they found effective. The instructor then shared a selection of the videos he considered most effective in class, asking students to click on a Yammer link to a survey tool that recorded their reactions. That produced a real-time heat map of the class’s emotional responses—and the impact of the videos.

That kind of two-way communication supports Vlerick’s mission of using innovative tools to engage and educate students. Instead of an old-fashioned top-down model in which the professor dominates discussion, students and faculty collaborate on academic explorations that are true conversations, not lectures. “At a business school, you don’t just learn from the professor in front of the classroom, you learn from the people sitting next to you,” Bagué says. “And now, thanks to the anytime, anywhere communication that Yammer allows, your peers don’t actually have to be nearby.”

Useful as Yammer has been in the classroom, it has proven even more vital when students are off campus. They can expand on coursework themes and post examples from their workplace. And when they encounter situations that tie into the curriculum, they can immediately post observations or questions for faculty or fellow learners.

Growing to Reach High Goals

“Our ultimate ambition at Vlerick is to create a lifelong learning network that goes beyond the formal curriculum,” Bagué says. “It’s a new experience of education, in which students continue to use Yammer to share valuable information and perspective, even after their course formally ends. Eventually, we’ll have a community of all the people who’ve attended our school.”

The next step in that progression will likely be extending Yammer to Vlerick’s full-time students, who spend a higher proportion of their time on campus but could also benefit from learning like a network, both on and off campus. “It will definitely happen at some stage,” Bagué says.

“I would recommend Yammer to any academic institution,” he adds. “It’s a powerful platform for comprehensive, lifelong learning, which is what our school is all about. We want education to start the moment a person decides to attend, and continue long after their course ends.”

Dean Haspeslagh elaborates on that theme. “With Yammer, we are able to dramatically extend and enrich the learning experience of the executives attending our programs,” he says. “Even when students come from different companies or continents, Yammer allows them to exchange ideas beyond the face-to-face events that take place on our campuses.”

The Results

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