Learning Pods: Not Just for Kids

By Julie Knudson

Virtual learning took center stage in 2020, but for one group of ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking attendees, a virtual-only option just wasn’t going to cut it. Instead, the six bankers met at a hotel in Portland, Maine, and created a homebrewed hybrid education experience. The result was a summer session that blended meaningful online education and powerful in-person collaboration—offering some insights into why it’s important to make every professional development event your own.

Innovation in action

What happens when you present a bunch of bankers with a problem? They work it out. “As a group, we figured out a solution to solve for the thing we needed,” says Raymond McLanahan, chief credit officer at Landmark National Bank in Manhattan, Kansas. The group had grown close through their time in the Stonier program and maintaining their strong collaboration was vitally important amid a disrupted and disjointed year. “When Stonier decided to go virtual in the second year, everyone in this group wanted to move forward and finish, but we didn’t want to finish [our third years]in a virtual environment because we recognize the value of those ongoing discussions that happened outside of the classroom,” McLanahan says.

Portland offered maximum flexibility for the group’s members, and the location also addressed challenges posed by a mishmash of vaccination rollout protocols. Individuals who couldn’t travel far due to vaccine eligibility rules were able to stay close to home, while others who had already been vaccinated were free to make the trek. Everyone was grateful to be together and they were eager to get into the Stonier groove in their rented hotel conference room.

Just as the group surmised would happen, they quickly found that the exchange of information didn’t stop when the class ended each day. Meals enjoyed together offered an opportunity to continue discussing the course material and bouncing ideas off each other, and the classroom portions of the session were amplified by the face-to-face interactions. As the group’s members left their individual breakout sessions, everyone was able to build their knowledge by talking about and cross-referencing insight from others’ breakouts. “They were unique and different for each of us,” says Billi Griffeth, regional VP for retail banking at Katahdin Trust Company in Houlton, Maine. The various breakout sessions were unpacked and analyzed, with everyone learning new things from others’ experiences.

Each of the group’s members emphatically agrees the Stonier content was phenomenal, despite the switch to a virtual format. “They did the best they could to create breakout rooms and replicate the experience of sharing information across smaller groups,” says Timothy F. Tunney, VP for commercial banking services at Farmington, Maine-based Franklin Savings Bank. However, the group quickly learned their decision to come together in person added significantly to the educational content. “There was never-ending cross talk and discussion in person,” Tunney says. “It was like putting Stonier on steroids relative to the virtual experience.”

Benefits for the long term

While the quality and benefits of the Stonier content remain of primary importance, the group agrees there’s value in personal interactions that are difficult to sustain in a virtual-only environment. “What I’ll take away most from the program are the connections and knowing that, 20 years from now if I have a question, I can call Ray and ask for his perspective,” says Sarah Day, SVP and commercial loan officer at St. Mary’s Credit Union in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “I have connections now with people that are more valuable to me than anything that’s lectured in the class.”

Janet Rosenkranz, SVP and credit officer at Greenfield Cooperative Bank in Greenfield, Mass., couldn’t attend the summer session due to an unexpected, last-minute, Stonier-stopping health issue. However, she joined in on the experience through online discussions, photos shared from the Portland gathering spot and a steady flow of texts and emails. “The relationships you build in person have carried us through the last several years since the first day we met,” Rosenkranz says. “They gave us some peace of mind when things like PPP happened. Being able to throw ideas at each other was invaluable.” She intends to complete the Stonier program next year and the entire group agrees it will be a perfect excuse to bond again.

Learning beyond the class material

The group’s hybrid Stonier experience uncovered some other lessons that may help make future virtual sessions even better. A few participants encountered technical issues early on. “If we’d been remote, they might not have been able to access the first couple days of classes,” says Javier Montero, CTO at Miami-based Global Outsource Services/Datapro Organization. “Together we took care of it and got them going.”

The Stonier capstone presentation, a major component of the third-year experience, was made more meaningful through in-person interactions than it may have been in an entirely remote environment. “Doing it in person, where you have an audience to give you nonverbal cues about whether you’re communicating effectively, was powerful,” Tunney says. “It also raised the stakes in terms of the seriousness with which I took that exercise.” For some, it would be difficult to maintain that level of engagement doing the presentation at home, with a pile of unfolded laundry visible on the couch nearby or a barking dog in the background.

Stonier students are driven to fully engage with the material, but that can create a somewhat solitary experience even when sessions are face to face. “There are people who attend who don’t make a lot of connections the first year for whatever reason,” Griffeth says. Virtual learning environments can exacerbate this issue, but just as the group took the initiative to ensure they had an interactive summer session, Griffeth says onsite participants should also strive to overcome whatever stands in their way of getting the most out of Stonier. “If you feel isolated going through the in-person experience, Stonier has so much to offer that you need to take the initiative to branch out.”

Photo above: From left, Timothy Tunney, Javier Montero, Raymond McLanahan, Billi Griffeth and Sarah Day during their self-designed in-person Stonier experience in Maine. 

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About Author

Julie Knudson

A freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest, Julie Knudson is a frequent contributor to the ABA Banking Journal.