Lectures from the world’s top universities for everyone?

The future of learning is a topic we have come across quite a few times during this year. Some people on this planet have the vision that education could be available and affordable for anyone at any stage in life. Here is one of them: How about taking the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities for people all around the world… for free?


The starting point for computer science professor Daphne Koller from Stanford University was the fact that on the one hand going to university opens the door to a world of opportunities, while on the other hand not everyone can attend university. There are not enough spots for all people at universities and costs of higher education are unaffordable for many. She wanted to change this and started Coursera. Its goal is having the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities for people all around the world for free.



What makes the courses on Coursera different from others? They start on a given day. Students watch videos and complete homework assignments every week for a real grade with a real deadline. In the end they receive a certificate. Online learning offers a lot of opportunities such as getting away from 60 minutes lectures and breaking the content into small and coherent chunks, which allows for personalised learning. This also includes working with the material and receiving feedback.


Grades for the many students enrolled in the courses can be provided by algorithms in some cases. Where it is not possible, peer grading can be used, and research shows that peer grades are highly correlated with teacher grades. Furthermore, in this kind of format, collaboration is also possible. There are forums or physical or virtual study groups in which students can help each other. Finally, the format is also great for studying learning because every click, every action and every output by students is recorded and can be studied. Thus, Coursera seems to make it possible for everyone around the world who has a computer and internet access to enroll in courses and study at their own pace and with their own timing.


We only just completed a twelve week Coursera course and found it to be a very positive thing. There were several five to twenty minutes lectures that one needed to watch during the week and there was an assignment that one needed to complete by the end of the week. There was a mid-term and a final exam. And there were many questions and even more helpful answers in the forum. We did not try out a study group. Our résumé is: it was a great course, we learned a lot, and we will definitely do it again.

Mentor or Coach: that is the question

Some of our readers might already have worked with a mentor or coach. Others might be thinking about working with one. The question is: mentor or coach?


On the website HR Pulse, there is some practical advice on this question. Leadership expert Keith Coats says it depends on what you want to learn. If it is a practical skill or specific behaviour, then it will make sense to hire a coach. On the other hand, if you are looking for someone who will provide you with a perspective, a mentor is the appropriate person to look for. He also points out that in the end, we need both. Finally, his key message is that we should never stop learning, even when we are senior leaders.

Coaching, by the way, can have surprising effects. Recently there was a study published by Filip Lievens from Ghent University and his colleagues that investigated the impact of coaching on a situational judgment test (SJT). These tests confronts the test taker with a realistic scenario, e.g. a salesperson with an angry customer, and the task is to find the appropriate response in the given situation. These tests are becoming increasingly popular in personnel selection and are used rather frequently. For example, a Belgian medical school uses one in their admission process. And this is where Filip Lievens and his colleagues conducted their experiment. They compared two groups of candidates who had previously failed in the admission test. One group received coaching, whereas the other did not. It turned out that those who had received coaching improved quite a bit compared to the uncoached group – about half a standard deviation in their scores! This of course raises the question what the coaching really improved – the underlying ability or just the ability to deal with the test. But that is a question that needs to be answered in another study.

The original study was published in the International Journal of Selection and Assessment and there is an outline of it on the BPS Occupational Digest Blog.

This is just one example. But to sum this up: coaching and mentoring is very likely something that all of us can profit from, no matter what stage in our career we are at. And maybe the answer to the question in the headline is: both coaching AND mentoring. And maybe a coach or mentor is not necessary someone we hire and pay. Maybe it is someone we just choose to learn from – colleagues, leaders, maybe even kids…

Charismatic leaders = creative, engaged employees?

What kind of leadership style makes employees creative and engaged? A lot of research points to the fact that a leader who is charismatic, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and attentive towards followers do. However, such a leadership style might not be beneficial for all employees.


In today’s fast moving, complex economic environment, it is important for companies that many of their employees show behaviour that goes beyond what is written down in their work contracts. Employees have to be creative in the sense that they generate new, useful products, procedures, or services. They also have to show what is called “Organisational Citizenship Behaviour” (OCB), or behaviours supporting the social and psychological environment in an organisation. Therefore, companies are highly interested in learning what kind of leadership style is beneficial for creativity and OCB. So far, research has shown that the so-called transformational leadership style is related to the desirable outcome. A transformational leader is charismatic (acts in admirable ways), inspiring (expresses an attractive vision), intellectually stimulating (challenges the status quo), and considerate (mentors or coaches followers).


However, in their article, Phillip L Gilmore from George Mason University in Virginia and his colleagues found this view to be too simplistic. They took a closer look at the mechanism that links transformational leadership to creativity and OCB: positive affect. Transformational leadership behaviours increase positive affect in followers, which in turn is related to creativity and OCB. Therefore, they hypothesised that transformational leadership behaviours would only increase creativity and OCB in employees who are low in positive affect.


In their study, they had 212 employees of a Chinese company rate their positive affectivity and their leaders’ leadership style, while the respective employees’ leaders had to rate their employees’ creativity and OCB. The study showed that in fact transformational leadership was only beneficial for creativity and OCB in employees who were low on positive affect, where it had no impact on creativity and OCB in employees who were high on positive affect. Thus, the equation “Charismatic leaders = creative, engaged employees” holds true, but only for employees who are low on positive affect.


The original article was published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. There is an outline of the study on the BPS Occupational Digest blog.


As a consequence, the authors suggest that transformational leaders turn to those followers who are low on energy, sluggish, and melancholic because for them, the leadership style really makes a difference. However, this may not always be easy because research also found transformational leaders to tend to be extraverted and thus higher on positive affect by nature. Therefore, they may prefer to turn their attention to those who are alike (those who are already high on positive affect and energy) instead of those who would need their attention. Thus, leaders should consider turning their attention to those who do not share their own mindset. This might be more effortful and not come as natural, but highly beneficial.