Adaptation, repair, or a new opportunity?

How has Covid-19 changed Business Schools’ priorities? AMBA & BGA was joined by experts from technology company, Barco, and representatives from the business education community to explore what the future might look like for Business Schools and their students in the post-Covid digital economy. By Edward Jacques and David Woods-Hale

Digitalisation is deemed to be the most important concept in the running of a Business School over the next 10 years, with almost two-thirds of leaders (63%) believing it to be very important, according to AMBA & BGA Education Technology Research, in association with Barco. 

In fact, a whopping 83% of leaders think it is either ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that the fundamentals of the MBA will change in the next 10 years, compared with 76% who were of this opinion in late 2019.  

The research also found that Business Schools are looking forward to a new era of education technology, having made a success of online learning provision in 2020 – and Business School leaders have shown their Schools to have been both pragmatic and agile in the face of 2020’s disruption.

The next steps for Business School leaders across the world is to move from crisis mode to further innovation, in order to develop and finesse their tech strategy as global economies start to move into recovery as vaccines reduce the impact of Covid-19. 

AMBA & BGA, in association with Barco, held a focus group with decision-makers from Business Schools across Europe to find out in more qualitative terms whether Business Schools have changed, updated, or tweaked their models because of the pandemic during the past year; what plans are afoot for the coming 12-18 months; how Schools are identifying new opportunities for the year ahead; and how they are driving digital transformation and skills development. 

AMBA & BGA was joined by experts from technology company Barco – as well as representatives from the business education community – to explore the challenges. During a lively discussion, panellists took stock of what had changed since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, what they have learned, and what the future might look like for Business Schools and their students in the digital economy. Here are some highlights from the conversation. 

Simone Hammer, Global Head of Marketing Teaching and Training, Barco

We worked with a couple of early-adopting Business Schools that tried out our virtual classroom when the pandemic started, and they were happy and deployed more and expanded what they had in place. 

Many [Business Schools] have used conferencing systems to get through the pandemic – but we all thought it would be over in a couple of months and we now know that this is not the case. These Schools had the option to expand because they had technology already in place. 

Lots of people needed to be educated in understanding the solutions that are out there that can really bring them an immersive and engaging experience. I would that, say since the end of last year, lots of Business Schools have come to understand that platforms such as Zoom or Teams cannot deliver the level of engagement and the learning outcomes that they would expect for their programmes – and specifically executive education. We also are working with the corporate community to deliver learning and development to employees, and we are observing the same trends in this arena.

So in light of this, what is the way into the future? What have we learned? I would personally like to go a little bit further, and ask what is the revolution now? What can we do to be more inclusive and reach out to more people [through technology]? How can we make it more engaging?  What about belonging? What are the priorities and how can we help Business Schools to be even better despite the pandemic?

Schools need to embrace horizontal learning and create connections. Technology must enhance the physical and digital learning experience. I believe hybrid working and learning will be the new norm. 

How do we prepare the students for life outside the university? Business leaders want people who have a certain experience. They want them to learn something but they also want them to be prepared for a future in their companies. 

Rebecca Loades, Director, Career Accelerator Programs, ESMT Berlin  

At ESMT, we have separated content creation and content delivery in blended and online learning. This allows us to share and swap content with other Schools more easily.

When designing for online, every single minute of the course is thought about in depth. We therefore have to be much more precise in our preparation than when we are offering a course in person. Having that control, and being able to apply that rigour, is the gift of an asynchronous environment. 

Each of our online courses has a defined manual about how it should be taught. This approach enables us to separate course development and course delivery so that students learn from faculty with superb domain knowledge but may engage with a different faculty member during their learning journey.

We have some 550 degree-seeking students and a relatively small faculty body, so we had to make sure that we are using them in a way that equips us to serve our population base now, and also creates a platform for the future. 

In the global online MBA, the advantage for students is that they’re going to be learning in – and from – a programme that has virtual collaboration at its heart.  This means students are using technology for learning, and are learning from technology.  The first module in the Global Online MBA focuses on managing in a connected world. It provides students with hands-on insights around how to work with, and within, virtual teams.

At our Business School, we have invested approximately €500,000 EUR to upgrade our auditoriums. We have microphones at every seat and cameras that focus on who is speaking. This helps us to create an engaging environment. We also assign what we call a ‘co-pilot’ to each of our faculty members. In pure online, the co-pilot manages the chat and the technology; in hybrid scenarios, the co-pilot is the bridge between the online and in-person attendees. By having someone focused specifically on students who are not physically present, we ensure their voices are heard. We want to remove any sense of physical separation, so that virtual participants are equal contributors to the classroom. 

In a hybrid session, all students are required to connect via Zoom, including those who are physically present. It has contributed to a richer classroom experience as students share observations, insights, and related resources through the chat function. This not only helps students who are shy or don’t have English as their first language, but also nudges students to share things they may not think are worth interrupting faculty for, and yet which will support learning.

Gunther Friedl, Dean, TUM School of Management

We are still offering a classroom experience. If students have time, then they can come here; if they don’t, they basically tell us they cannot travel. 

Some students would like remote access [to learning] and others say they want to have the social experience. We have to accommodate all these needs in the classroom and that is a challenge because it requires technology. 

We learned how to integrate students from abroad into the hybrid learning setting, but this was quite a journey because students need to understand everybody in the room, so you require the technology to make this possible. 

This demand has grown extremely quickly during the past 15 months. Before [the pandemic] we were able to say ‘no’ to such demands. This is now our offering, and I don’t think [saying ‘no’] will be possible in the future so this [hybrid] flexibility
will be required by all institutions moving forward. 

Mindsets [in Business Schools] need to change to draw on possibilities and flexibilities, but students themselves need to be flexible as this is the new normal. 

Hybrid extends to other areas. No one thought hybrid meetings and learning [would replace] physical meetings, but this format will be around in the future.

Céline Davesne, Associate Dean, NEOMA Business School

We are currently working on hybrid and online learning with new pedagogy and a task force – including students, faculty, and other stakeholders. 

We are looking at ways we can manage networking experiences, and social aspects for students. We do feel, at NEOMA, that our virtual campus will be able to answer all these elements. Our virtual campus is a campus just like the others at the School: it has a library, amphitheatres, and student clubs. Everything is there, so students just use their avatars within that campus. 

We strongly believe in it and the high satisfaction rate from students means we are able to meet [their expectations]. The students were able to discuss things together, play football together, they could attend concerts together, and so on. We managed to recreate a social environment via virtual reality. 

This is something we want to keep and even to extend and I want to apply all these innovations to our executive MBA cohorts in Iran or China, for example.The virtual campus will be the place where our students have common case studies, and they can work together from cross-cultural perspectives. This makes a difference from Zoom because we can have the whole cohort in one amphitheatre to start with and then they can all join online as they wake up [in their respective time zones] and go to different classes and work together. This means that time and space can be seen completely differently, and that is an added value that we want our MBA students to explore.  

MBA students can use the virtual campus when they want to work with participants from different continents, and this means they can truly experience technology. They don’t simply use [technology], they experience something that’s almost fixed physically and cognitively. When they go back to their companies, students can say that they have worked with people of various nationalities remotely and have used a different technology that might be of interest to their company or [a future employer] when they want to boost their career. This is something we really want to enable for them. 

We’re talking about the digital workplace, so we want to enable the transition between what students are experiencing at Business School during their MBA on the virtual campus, and the working environment. 

Terri Simpkin, Director, Executive MBA, Nottingham University Business School

We’ve found that it’s not just about replacing the physical on-campus experience because of the [Covid-19] crisis. We’ve seen that students who would – under normal circumstances – sit in the back of the room and would probably never engage at all; people who perhaps can’t get a word in because there are more assertive people in the room. Those people are having their voices heard.  

People who are introverted, who don’t feel comfortable, or people who don’t have English as a first language are making highly valuable and timely contributions to a much broader conversation. It comes back to the idea of this learning experience being co-created.  

Before Covid-19, there was no compelling, burning reason for us to move to a situation in which we were putting ourselves into a position – as educators – where we were replicating and amplifying the emerging managerial and leadership paradigms that we were seeing coming from industry. 

We want to produce graduates who can manage in crisis situations; we want graduates who are able to think more expansively; we want to be able to challenge the prevailing notions of what leadership actually looks like. You can do that much better when you’re immersed in a space where it is a moving feast. 

We can’t underestimate the value of providing that real-time, real-life experience, but the technology has to be there to support it. Now the technology is a platform that provides [Business Schools] with the tools to do this. The whole notion of how MBAs are actually put to our communities, not just the students but our communities more generally, has to be reimagined and this is a really good point in time to do that. 

Antonio Giangreco, Director of Graduate Programmes, IESEG

In terms of technology and what we can use, there is a very long path ahead, because during the Covid-19 pandemic, we had a considerably higher volume of requests for psychological counselling that we had pre-Covid. 

In our School, we have very small groups with classes of less than 30 participants, so interaction in the classroom is guaranteed. Of course, in any other classroom –with 300 students – being there physically or accessing the lectures remotely from home, does not make a lot of difference. But when you are in a small environment, your peers push you to participate, even if you are in front of a computer. 

The world will never be the same. Everything has become reachable from everywhere. I think that this will lead to more flexibility so that, in some companies, employees will not need to go into the office anymore. 

This means we need to have people who are able to train, be trained, and then work in this context. This is a very good – but very tough – challenge for us as educators.

Learning should be enabling and if we ask what the enablers of learning are, the answer would be this horizontal learning, connections, and networking.

As Business Schools, we have to ask ourselves whether we can build something that might not be able to completely substitute a classroom experience but can help students get more from online learning; in other words, we nee to replicate the connection to the business world using horizontal learning. 

We need to be able to deliver the connection and networking, as well as the social aspect of a Business School, in an online environment. 

Preben Schack, VP of Sales, Learning Experience Division, Barco

It’s exciting being part of this revolution in online learning. I have been part of many disruptions throughout my life in the media world and I see this as one of the next disruptions. I’m fascinated to find out how we can use technology to make our education even better. 

I don’t think that what we have experienced throughout the pandemic is at its end. I think it’s at its beginning. I can confirm that what we hear around the world is that executives love to use online platforms, but they are more discerning when choosing software and programmes. This might have to change as we move forward to meet the needs of different MBA students and their courses.  

The big question for me is how do we make that experience better and how do we use technology to connect? The experience of teaching needs to be engaging and immersive but also affordable. And for this to happen, a possible strategy could be for institutions to collaborate and share technologies and platforms. 

How can we give professors, teachers, and students an even better experience in the educational space?  That is what I’m passionate about.  

Moderator 
David Woods-Hale, Director of Marketing and Communications, AMBA & BGA

Panellists
Céline Davesne, Associate Dean, NEOMA Business School
Gunther Friedl, Dean, TUM School of Management
Antonio Giangreco, Director of Graduate Programmes, IESEG
Simone Hammer, Global Head of Marketing Teaching and Training, Barco
Rebecca Loades, Director, Career Accelerator Programs, ESMT Berlin  
Preben Schack, VP of Sales, Learning Experience Division, Barco
Terri Simpkin, Director, Executive MBA, Nottingham University Business School

This article is adapted from one which originally appeared in Ambition – the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

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