Reimagining the university: what next for online education?

‘Developing high-quality online education will be a process rather than an event’ says Imperial College Business School’s David LeFevre, but the ‘largest international experiment in online education in our history’ points towards the opportunity in this moment of crisis

This year will be remembered for the introduction of public health measures which transformed the way we worked, shopped and studied, to a degree and at a pace we could scarcely have imagined.

Universities around the world closed the doors of classrooms and labs but continued teaching remotely. It has been by far the largest international experiment in online education in our history, carried out under duress and driven by necessity.

I have been staggered by the achievements of the global sector. Schools and universities across the world have overcome untold technical and logistical obstacles to move teaching and materials online, completing in a few short weeks a number of monumental tasks, each of which would, ordinarily, have been considered implausible. Teachers and students quickly learned the ropes together.  The volume and scale of innovative activity globally has been immense.

Moving beyond emergency measures

Traditional university teaching clearly won’t return for some time. Yet as students consider this new world, questions are being asked about the quality of the online learning experience, particularly when tuition rates remain at the same levels.

Understandably, some students are worried the online experience is not what they had wanted and that their education will be compromised, or at least different. In the UK, universities minister, Michelle Donelan, has even said students can demand refunds, ‘if they feel that the quality isn’t there’. But who defines quality in online education and how do we assess it?

Designing the next chapter of online learning is the challenge for universities. The good news is that we have more relevant experience than might be imagined because the core of high-quality online courses is not technology, but of academic strategy and course design. The delivery medium is new, but the core pedagogical principles remain the same.

Stabilise, enhance, innovate

Despite the lightning quick initial move to remote teaching, developing high-quality online education will be a process rather than an event. At Imperial College Business School, we view this process as comprising three phases: stabilise, enhance, and innovate. The stabilise phase consisted of an immediate response based on technical solutions, such as webinars, which enabled teaching to continue.

For many universities, a new academic year will mark a shift to the ‘enhance’ phase of the process as they look beyond video conferencing to find ways to implement more pedagogically minded approaches to enrich the educational experience. This will involve technical solutions and process-driven activity but also an element of craft, as creative ways to deliver hundreds, if not thousands, of differing course elements in online format, are introduced. The wider elements of the degree experience – ceremonies, clubs and societies, careers support, extra-curricular activities, competitions, pastoral support, and so on – will need equal care and attention.

This will require a flexible, imaginative approach from all concerned, and it will likely involve significant stress and risk for all. Much of the burden will rest on faculty who will be coping with general disruption while at the same time redeveloping their courses and teaching in unfamiliar ways.

Educational technologists will become central to teaching and learning strategy as never before. They will require a greater degree of agility and support from senior leadership if they are to build the underlying IT infrastructure on which success will fundamentally depend. Student representatives will need to give feedback in real time about what works and what does not. Throughout this activity, new expert teams will gradually emerge that are capable of delivering sophisticated and high-quality approaches to online education which reflect the needs of their own communities.

The future of online learning

Too often in the past, online learning has been seen as a threat to the age-old craft of teaching. The fact that this current transition is taking place out of necessity and at a time of high anxiety and job insecurity risks exacerbating this perception.

However, the real risk to higher education internationally now, lies in a failure to respond to the demands of the moment in a manner consistent with the values of our institutions. Just as the whiteboard, slide projector and computer were once novel additions to the classroom, online teaching tools will eventually be taken for granted by student cohorts of true digital natives.

There is opportunity in our moment of crisis. Institutions dedicated to sharing knowledge will discover new ways of reaching individuals and communities. Creativity and possibility will re-emerge. Our modes of learning are changing and, as well as losses and threats, there are definite opportunities to introduce flexibility and enhance quality.

David LeFevre is Director of the EdTech Lab at Imperial College Business School and Founder of higher education platform company, Insendi, part of Study Group.

Adding value by meeting the needs of industry

To offer their students value, online programme providers must ensure quality while meeting the needs the industry, says Amity University Online’s Aindril De.
Interview by Tim Dhoul.

‘Any academic institution today that intends to add value to its learners, needs to meet the requirements of industry,’ says Aindril De, Academic Director at India’s Amity University Online.

Challenged by the fourth industrial revolution, today’s industries demand that providers of online business education rethink their value proposition and, according to De, provide ‘a distinctive experience that combines the best from the physical and digital worlds.’

Yet, when it comes to the application of digital technology to online education, standards of quality will always be a differentiator for industry recognition. Plus, De says that Amity’s ability to offer online programmes on its own learning platform gives it a responsibility to the student community it aims to serve. ‘For this mode of education delivery, we need to remain focused to ensure quality and derive acceptance from the industry,’ he says.  

De hopes that more institutions in India will soon have the opportunity to offer online programmes that are approved by India’s University Grants Commission (UGC), as Amity’s are. In his opinion, this would help break down the barriers that stand in the way of many students’ desire to access quality post-graduate management education, on a timetable and in a format that suits their capabilities and needs. Read the full interview with Amity University Online’s Academic Director below to learn more.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing providers of online business education, both in India and the rest of the world?

The digital era creates a fresh universe of business possibilities, while also generating stress and difficulties of very distinct kinds. The fourth industrial revolution’s challenge is aggressive for all.

Business Schools have to rethink their value proposition massively. Schools need to consider how to give their students something which allows them to learn, and access, the finest skills around the globe, while also providing a distinctive experience that combines the best from the physical and digital worlds.

Providers of online business education, as well as regulators, need to adapt towards the needs of the new era’s learners quickly and enable the universities to ensure that they are able to cater to these needs without compromising and deviating from the expected standards of quality.  

How has the demand and the reputation of online education changed over the past five years and how do you expect it to change in the next five years, in your opinion?

A significant change is that there is more demand for skill-based courses, with the best possible use of technology. With improved resources and reduced teacher workloads, classrooms can shift to co-learning spaces, where students can arrive, learn, and engage at their own pace in a collaborative environment. However, this shift is not significantly visible in the formal education space.

The 2018 online education guidelines from India’s University Grants Commission (UGC) will empower the Universities to offer approved online degrees and certificates, which should ensure increased industry acceptance.

What do you think makes your portfolio of programmes stand out from other online programmes?

An articulation of what makes our School’s programmes distinctive are the several international accreditations they hold, of which the latest comes from India’s UGC. Amity is currently the only university in the country which has been approved by UGC to offer programmes and degrees in the online mode. We are also the country’s first university to have our own in-house platform approved for offering online programmes in India.

Amity’s programmes are specifically designed to give a flexible learning environment to the students ensuring ‘anytime-anywhere’ education for students. We also focus on two-way communications, or ‘dialogue teaching’, which becomes exciting for the facilitator as well as for the students involved.

How are programme curricula developed and refined at your School to ensure that they remain in touch with the changing needs of both students and employers?

Any academic institution today that intends to add value to its learners, needs to meet the requirements of industry. At Amity, any curriculum development, review, or upgrade, takes place in alignment with the needs and the feedback received from industry, mapping offerings to the skills they require.

A regular review of curricula and content is also performed, to ensure that what is provided is both current, and global, in nature. In addition, the university organises regular events to ensure that students are constantly exposed to industry trends.

Which single new programme course or initiative is you most excited about and why?

One of the larger institution goals of Amity University is to reach learners who do not currently have access to quality outcome-based education.

The recent UGC approval to offer programmes and degrees online, and on our own platform, has not only given us an opportunity towards fulfilling this goal, it has also invested in us the responsibility towards our student community. For this mode of education delivery, we need to remain focused to ensure quality and derive acceptance from the industry. 


How is the School working to boost the employment prospects of its graduates? (E.g. through the use of internship schemes, exchanges, or other industry initiatives)

We ensure student participation in career enhancement activities through exchange programmes, virtual job fairs, volunteering and work-based learning. Mock interviews are also conducted to prepare the students for job interviews.

In addition, we have launched the Amity Future Academy through which students can get career counselling and attend programmes in areas such as soft skills and language proficiency. The university believes in the philosophy of lifelong learning.

Please outline the importance of corporate social responsibility to your Business School’s strategy.

Amity is committed to nation building beyond education and this is reflected in the efforts and initiatives of the Amity Humanity Foundation. Established in 1995, the mission of Amity Humanity Foundation is to support and initiate social welfare activities and create possibilities for equitable social development.

The main areas in which the Amity Humanity Foundation works includes the Amitahsa initiative, which provides free education, uniforms, books, meals, and healthcare to underprivileged girls, and the Swayam Siddha community development programme, which works towards female empowerment through employment generation activities and the formation of self-help groups in rural areas.  

What are your hopes for the School in the next five years?

The guidelines of offering degrees through online education have just been formalised in India. In absence of these guidelines, education institutions in India didn’t have a framework for offering online education and hence the acceptance from industry was very limited.

In the next five years, we would like to see more progressiveness and flexibility from the regulators to ensure that online education can truly be delivered in a 100% online mode. We would also like to see other progressive institutions in India being given the opportunity to offer online programmes. This would ensure the disappearance of current limitations of boundaries and distance associated with the acquisition of quality education.

In next five years, we should also be able to build future skills for our students, keep pace with the changing nature of jobs and those that simply doesn’t exist today, as well as to inculcate the habit of being lifelong learners among our students.

Aindril De is Academic Director at Amity University Online. He has worked in both India and in countries that include the US, Singapore, Thailand and Bangladesh in industry and academia with organisations such as Microsoft, Oracle and Wipro. His work has included implementation of ICT-enabled and integrated education systems in higher education, with particular expertise in building proactive support ecosystems to initiate interventions and minimise dropouts in open and distance education.

The advantages of virtual learning environments for Business Schools

Online MBAs offer flexibility and diversity that benefit both Schools and students, writes Vlerick Business School’s Steve Muylle

Distance learning is not a new concept. In fact, in 1892, the University of Chicago became, arguably, the first provider of distance learning when it offered correspondence courses at centres outside its actual campus. Since then, as technology has rapidly evolved, so has the way in which distance learning has been provided. We have seen education delivered via radio, television and now, in the present day, it can be delivered via online platforms.

It was not until 1994, when access to the internet became widely available to the public, that the first online MBA programme was launched at a Business School. 

Since then, more Business Schools have decided to offer their own online MBA programmes, having noted the benefits they can bring, not only to students, but also the Schools themselves. 

However, there are still many well-known Business Schools that do not offer online programmes. In the 2018 online MBA ranking from the Financial Times (where, to rank, Schools must have provided a programme for a minimum of three years) only 20 Business Schools featured. 

But as time goes on, these technologies continue to evolve and broaden capacity, ever improving the standard of online learning. The best online MBA programmes offered today are arguably just as good as an on-campus MBA, and can prove a better fit for a number of students. Online education can offer great benefits that an on-campus MBA is unable to provide, and in today’s fast-paced working world, this method of teaching can really appeal to potential students.

Flexibility and convenience

Students take online MBAs for a variety of reasons, though flexibility and convenience are most-cited. This benefit allows people to continue working alongside their course, within their role and industry, and makes programmes accessible to those who live too far away to visit a campus regularly, or who cannot commit to set days a month. Students are not restricted to specific timings or locations on online courses. They can fit their MBA studies around other commitments. The fact that online MBA students do not often need to visit the campus particularly appeals to professionals who travel a lot and are constantly crossing countries or continents. 

Freedom to study at a time that suits the individual has proved a popular feature of the online MBA at Vlerick Business School. Activity on our virtual learning platform is busiest between 22:00 and 00:00, showing that many students really do fit in their studies at unconventional times. 

Despite this, the course schedule keeps students on track to complete their degree in two years, and a fast track is available for students to obtain their degree in about a year. 

A more diverse student group

The flexibility and convenience of online courses attract a different type of candidate to traditional on-campus MBAs; for example, entrepreneurs, who are unable to leave their young ventures to pursue education. This means the rate of entrepreneurship during and after these programmes is likely to be high.

There is also cultural diversity; students who are experts in doing business in their specific countries bring a lot to their course and can provide advice to their peers. The online programme is also accessible to those based in remote destinations, who are unable to travel to study, creating an even more diverse cohort. Students get to understand a greater number of cultures, encounter a wider range of perspectives and gain more in-depth knowledge of other markets. 

More immersive content

The evolution of technology has improved online content. Business Schools can offer compelling material that is easier to deliver at scale online than in a classroom. For instance, Vlerick’s online MBA offers an online primer known as the finance and accounting simulation tool (FAST), a computer simulation game designed to immerse students in a virtual business world, learning about balance sheets, cash flow and profit-and-loss statements. While this was available offline prior to the creation of the online MBA, as a virtual game, it has become much more engaging and interactive. 

The digital design of materials creates a more immersive experience that is not available in a classroom. Virtual delivery brings tools to life, giving students more realistic scenarios and equipping them for projects in the real world.

Not only does delivering content online make it more realistic, but Schools can also be more creative in its design. Returning to the FAST example, this was originally a board game transformed into a single-player online game where students ‘work’ for a yacht company, gaining investment and growing the business. Delivering this online allowed us to produce interactive videos of Professors at an actual yachting harbour, to simulate the business environment online. This would not be as realistic or creative if delivered in a classroom. 

When such tools are delivered online, they can also be made more consistent and responsive too. Due to algorithms built into these simulations, Professors are able to give students immediate feedback on their performance, which, of course, would be impossible for a single Professor teaching a large class of students face to face. This feedback is also always consistent, and to the best standard possible, due to it being built in at the game’s creation. 

Addressing the downsides

One of the criticisms of fully online courses is that they do not facilitate proper and regular student interaction (with one another or faculty) meaning that candidates do not get to benefit from the expertise of their peers or teachers in the same way that on-campus students do. However, there are various ways to combat this.

When creating an online MBA, Business Schools must emphasise the importance of social learning and networking, to ensure that students really get to know one another, without necessarily having to meet in person. This can be done by developing teamwork modules that require students to interact and work with each other on a personal level.

It is also important, however, to encourage students to interact outside of actual work modules. One way in which we have done this at Vlerick is through our online learning environment, which is also available via a mobile app. This not only includes information about the programme, assignments and modules, but also has a messaging service and a profile page which students have to fill out in the induction phase. This is a great way for students to get to know each other in a new professional manner.  

Outside of the scheduled synchronous sessions, which are run in the morning or afternoon to accommodate students in different time zones, the online learning environment also serves as a service for students and faculty to communicate at any point. There are no set working hours for faculty, and they are encouraged to be as flexible as possible. Making the online learning environment available through the mobile app allows them to interact with students at any time and from any location.  

Benefits for Business Schools

Many of the benefits of the online MBA for students are equally advantageous to Schools. 

The flexibility and convenience of online programmes are huge positive for Professors, minimising, or even eradicating, their classroom teaching. They can be based anywhere in the world, yet are still able to interact with students and deliver modules at a time that suits them, in keeping with the course schedule of the synchronous sessions. 

Business Schools are able to attract a greater number of students to online courses, and cohorts are more international and diverse, often representing a wider range of industries, cultures and roles. This diversification can be very helpful to Business Schools.

Finally, offering an online MBA boosts the brand of the School significantly. Schools that currently deliver these courses immediately stand out as market leaders in this field, reaching out to a larger audience of students around the world. This is great way of promoting your Business School brand in diverse and untapped markets that were previously unreachable. 

Steve Muylle is the Academic Director of the Online MBA and a Full Professor and Partner at Vlerick Business School.

Exploring Business Schools’ challenges in Latin America

We share insights from leading Business School professors who attended AMBA’s 2018 Latin America Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, about their Schools’ current strategies, challenges and opportunities. Interviews by Jack Villanueva

Alejandra Falco, Strategic Management Professor, Universidad del CEMA

What challenges do teachers, instructors and professors face when using online technologies in their courses?

The main challenge is to understand that teaching online is not the same thing as teaching face to face. You have to think about the course and your class in a different way. When you teach face to face, you are between the student and the materials so you can see what’s going on in the class, you can see the reactions of the students to what you are saying and the material you are using. This does not happen in the online environment so you can’t make decisions on the spot. 

Schools need to help instructors understand that [online learning] is different [to classroom learning] and make sure that they don’t reproduce what they do face to face in an online environment. It needs a transformation. 

In terms of the online MBA and studying from distance, do you think the experience, learning and the outcome for these students is the same as for those who learn face to face?

It’s an interesting question because the challenge we face in an online environment is to foster learner-to-learner interaction. It is easy to interact between instructor and learner, but the challenge is the learner-to-learner interaction. 

There is something that happens naturally in a face to face environment, so if we can manage this interaction adequately and develop tools to allow the students to interact among themselves, the online option will be richer than the face-to-face option. If we can have the same attributes in an online environment, we add much more flexibility for the student to choose when and how and where he or she wants to study.

Ignacio Alperín, Professor of Creativity and Innovation, Pontificia Universidad Católica

How is business thinking changing around creativity?

Creativity is a process that involves more than one person, it is never an individual idea; it is a communal kind of work. Creativity is the step prior to innovation. Creativity is putting together the correct ideas, innovation is putting together the correct product or service and making it happen in real life. 

Every company expects their graduate or postgraduate students to be open to the idea of being creative, working in a different way, of accepting different manners of work ethics that are not traditional. This not only involves those who come in to work for a company, it has a lot to do with leadership as well. 

Perhaps there is an issue with expectations versus what actually happens in companies. There are too many bosses and too few leaders. There are a lot of people who tell you what to do but very few people who inspire others to do things. In that regard, creative leadership is also a major subject and companies are slowly coming around to the idea that they need to change their leadership style.

Do you think Business Schools are sufficiently inspiring to instil creativity in their students?

When we’re children, we’re extremely creative and we don’t have limits. We like to explore and ask about everything. In Schools as it stands, the creative spirit is squashed by a system that requires students to be right or wrong. 

Creativity is a gift and should be developed like any other talent. We have all been provided with the talent of creativity but when people get to university or Master’s level, they have been kept so far away from their creative juices and, in many cases, it is very difficult to bring them back in touch with themselves and give them inner strength because creativity is a strength. 

We are completely and constantly improvising our lives. Companies, for a long time, tended to squash this, but today, organisations realise that they need to be open and think laterally. If the education system can change enough, many of the problems we face today will be gone because people will come up line already living their creative ability throughout their careers.

In your role, are you trying to unlock existing creativity or teach the creativity?

It’s a bit of both. When I find a master’s class with 30 students, most of them are professional people. They think they know everything and have already made it, and in some respects they are right. 

They will be future leaders, but it’s sometimes difficult to tell them: ‘I am teaching you and I don’t know everything; perhaps you should relax a bit and question yourself about the facts you thought were correct.’ 

By unlocking that vault they will find another Pandora’s Box of issues and problems, but if they learn how to handle them, they may find a way to make their work more effective, their company profitable, their life more exciting and more enjoyable; they may go home and feel like having fun with family instead of taking their troubles with them and feeling miserable when they’re not at work. 

Part of my job is unlocking those talents, it has to do a lot with people’s fear of being wrong in front of other people. After that, we teach processes, ideas and concepts that can help students unleash creativity in themselves and the people with whom they work.

Is it the Business School’s responsibility to lead students towards an uncertain path?

Many students believe the world is divided into creative and non-creative people. We try to erase all this and explain we are all creative – different types of creative but all creative. 

Sebastián Auguste, Director Executive MBA, Universidad Torcuato Di Tella

What are your views on the current global MBA market?

The MBA is the most popular programme within the Business School: about 79% of the applications we receive are for the MBA programme. Demand is growing in Asia, Europe and the US, and it’s increasing in Latin America. The full-time MBA is declining and numbers are increasing in executive and part-time MBA programmes. There is also strong demand for some Master’s degrees such as business analytics. 

How is the EMBA faring?

The EMBA is small but it’s growing in many regions. Many students finish at university graduate level and decide to do a speciality such as a masters in analytics or finance, and then they go for the MBA later when they’re older. Young people are trying to gain more technical abilities; older people are trying to gain more general skills.

How popular is the online MBA?

The numbers show that the online MBA is growing. I previously expected the number to grow, but the increase isn’t as great as I expected. There has been a strong increase in the blended format, even in EMBA programmes. Online is coming very strongly but I don’t see the online MBA replacing the experience of the EMBA or the part-time MBA. You have to learn and you have to be there to learn. It’s quite difficult to learn online.

What’s the effect of specialist programmes on the MBA and on
Business Schools?

Specialist programmes are going to relegate the [generalist] MBA. There is going to be a fall in demand from young people wanting to do an MBA, but an increase in older people wanting to do one. 

In Latin America, you have very technical and specialised degrees so there is less demand for special programmes. Many universities are moving in this direction of having more general graduate-level study, so you’ll need more specialisation later on.

Carla Adriana Arruda Vasseur, Associate Dean, FDC – Fundação Dom Cabra

Why do you think Business Schools should have a role in social development? 

We are the ones who are transforming the leaders of our society. We are working with business managers, leaders, entrepreneurs, company owners, and people who really run the economy of the country. If we don’t have this kind of focus, we will continue to live in a country with a lot of inequalities so it needs to start with us.

How can Business Schools leverage an impact on society? 

All Business Schools have some sort of social impact and development in their value prepositions. Talking is one thing, leading by example is another. We need to provoke students to think differently and to do differently. We need to provoke them to really make a change. And it won’t be just about talking and showing them our mission. It has to be in every single class we give, in the projects that we send them on, it has to be included in all our initiatives.

How can Business Schools help students have a more impactful role in the world of tomorrow?

If you look at Business Schools, most of their students are from the upper portion of the social pyramid and we need to show them how they can really make a difference – in every single class and in every single project. 

A lot of our students come to us because they want management tools. They want to increase profit in their corporations, they want to better themselves in their careers. And, from day one, they realise we’re concerned about economic development but we’re also very concerned about social development. 

Do you work with other Schools to push this idea forward?

We have a partner we’ve been working with on modules and we’re putting an emphasis on that. But I think we can do more. I’ve been talking a lot about that [during this conference] with partners. We need stop considering ourselves as competitors [with other Business Schools] and consider ourselves as ‘co-petitors’ and cooperate more with each other.

Is it a case of starting locally or looking at the bigger picture and effecting change at the top?

Begin with what’s feasible and build up. 

We’re starting to shape the leaders of tomorrow. We’re starting with the students of today to [help them] have a deeper understanding of social development and a deeper understating that there are larger problems in the world. But is there an issue with the bigger businesses themselves not recognising it or not recognising it fast enough and therefore the student not having an outlet for what they want to do?

A lot of the boards require their corporations to think about the social side. Some suppliers refuse to supply to organisations that don’t care about these issues and clients are not buying from them. 

We, as professors of business corporations, need to set the example. 

Michel Hermans, Professor of Human Behaviour and Human Resources, IAE Business School – Universidad Austral

How can Business Schools help students develop skills beyond the analytical tools in the curriculum through action learning?

It’s not only about teaching rational decision making. It’s about helping students anticipate risks and [influence] people who are especially relevant in certain contexts. That’s what we do and this is the added value we consider action learning has. This reflection part is a very important role faculty have. 

One thing is to think about is how to evaluate a company in turbulence. Another is to think how a company can actually use what it has – its resources – to transform its strategy for much broader markets. Think about internationalisation and the acquisition of companies in emerging markets, and then present this analysis to senior managers. 

Can students themselves better prepare for their careers through action learning?

It depends on the student themselves. 

Especially in the Latin American job market, recruiters are looking for ‘plug-and-play’ students so when they roll out of their programme they want students who need little time to be fully functional within the context of their companies. 

If they are able to find students who are proactive, and have used this productivity to actually do something within the context of their programme and learn something from that, it’s highly valued. 

How important is action learning in fast-tracking understanding around the need for adaptability and evolution within businesses? It’s like moving house. If you don’t lay foundations in the MBA programme (which would be knowledge and analytical skills) it’s hard to start thinking about action learning in the first place. 

You have to lay a solid foundation in the first part of the programme and then build on this with follow-up courses. That gives us, as faculty, the confidence that teams are able to benefit from action leaning. We launch most of our projects towards the end of the programme because that’s when students take advantage of the projects they are being offered that they themselves propose. 

We’ve seen many students use their action learning projects to move into new career tracks or to find a different job in companies with whom they collaborated for their action learning projects. 

If you do a full-time MBA programme and you are away from the job market for a full year, gaining contact with the job market again – with employers and organisational life – is fundamental to a follow-up career. 

Juan Pablo Manzuoli, Strategic Marketing Professor and Director of MBA, UCA Business School

What do you consider to be the main disruptive trends students are facing?  

I have highlighted deep trends that are not often evident. For example, millennials want the earth, but they don’t have special powers. Loneliness is another powerful trend, as is self-exploration.

What’s next for the MBA? 

We have to have a convergence between the needs of people and technology and make an improvement. Make things better. We need to adapt and be flexible in how we think and in our business models. This generation is teaching us how to make improvements in different ways not only with the technology, but with emotions. 

Luciana Pagani, Professor of Strategy and Competitiveness, Saint Andrews University

How is the digital age transforming the MBA experience?

Changing behaviours in individuals as learners, and technology, are providing opportunities to deliver a different experience [to students], enabling people to access courses no matter where they are. 

What challenges is the digital age presenting to the way Business Schools teach?

The digital age is creating a new world of opportunities for businesses, while also causing a lot of pressure and setting very different type of challenges. Businesses need to change the way they lead. 

Technologies have to be implemented and customer experiences are transforming, so at the company level, transformation is amazing but very challenging. 

Business Schools have to rethink their value proposition massively. They must consider how they are going to offer something of vital importance to their students to enable them to learn and access the best faculties all over the world, offering a unique experience that blends the best from the physical world and the digital world. 

It’s an enormous strategic and operational challenge for universities.

Schools are transforming in terms of content, so all the strategies and management content required to lead in the digital area is being added to traditional content. They are also adding a broader spectrum of elective courses to meet the specific needs of students. 

They are forming partnerships with industries, with other universities worldwide and with governments.  

They are also transforming their infrastructures in order to provide space for innovation, creativity, and experimentation and they are working across platforms to collaborate, and to enhance their value proposition, with the best faculty, the best universities and the best companies as partners.

Do you think Business Schools rising to the challenges sufficiently quickly, given the current economy? 

The challenge of the fourth industrial revolution is too aggressive for everyone. Universities are moving forward, but it would be nicer if they could move faster. However, it’s not easy. 

I hope the pace will increase and we will have more and more examples of convergence to the new value proposition in the near future.

Melani Machinea, Professor and Business Development Director, UTDT Business School

Tell us about the development of your specialised master’s degree?

A few years ago, we realised we didn’t have an offering for recent graduates who wanted to pursue a career in business. Either they had to do a Master’s in finance or they had to wait five or six years before they could do an MBA. At the same time, we discovered a need for very specific skills, so we designed a Master’s in management which merges the two sides of the story: business for those who come here from a science background and, for those with a business background the skill set they need for the new corporate world. 

We looked at the world. In Europe, there were a lot masters in management programmes which were launched by Business Schools, in addition to their MBAs which are still their flagship programme. In the US, we have seen the emergence of master’s in business analytics programmes. We decided we would have a competitive advantage if we could offer both management and analytics in the same programme.

The first challenge was the type of students we wanted to sign up. We decided early on that we wanted recent graduates or people with little analytical experience who could learn about areas such as  programming and coding through the courses that we were going to teach. When we launched, we realised that there were a lot of men in mid-to-higher management, people with 10-15 years of experience, who said they were lacking this expertise and wanted to do the degree. We had to make a decision at this point and we decided to stick to our initial plan of targeting younger professionals, while just offering short courses for more mature professionals. 

Do you think the MBA is evolving fast enough or do you think there is so much more that could be done?

I think the MBA is still a flagship programme in Business Schools, and the challenge is to maintain and update it to make it relevant. Our hope is that our students from the Master’s in management and other programmes will come back in five or six years to do their MBAs when they realise they need other skills related to management and strategic leadership.

How to build an effective online MBA programme

Imperial College Business School’s Paolo Taticchi highlights seven core ingredients that underpin the delivery of a high-calibre online MBA programme

A decade ago, if you asked those at the world’s leading Business Schools where the future of the MBA programme lay, the answer most likely would not have been ‘online’. However, that is certainly the way the industry has been heading in recent years.

To get a grip on what the future of the MBA looks like, your best bet is to reflect on the students. The GMAC Application Trends Survey Report provides an illuminating narrative on just how much the global MBA market has evolved as applicant demands, priorities and concerns have impacted on how programmes are designed and delivered. 

The traditional two-year, full-time MBA, once considered the stalwart industry leader, has faced a steady decline across the US and Europe, while the one-year programme has only grown in prominence. There’s also been increasing demand for part-time MBAs (so-called ‘lockstep programmes’, in which students follow structured classroom-based learning as a group, rather than dictating their own hours of study), which have seen stronger application volumes than part-time, self-paced programmes.

Such developments perhaps, on reflection, are not so surprising. The market changed substantially after the financial crisis of 2007-2008. People enrolling on a full-time MBA had to consider the potential return on investment in a way they didn’t previously. On top of substantial tuition fees, the prospect of giving up their jobs for up to two years of study with less guarantee of securing another on the other side, and arguably less opportunity for speedy career advancement, understandably made applicants look a little closer at the value of the two-year programme in comparison with shorter or more flexible options. 

However the most surprising trend to some, has been the significant hike in demand for online MBA programmes; a study method which, for a long time, was widely considered to be a sub-standard qualification, mostly due to over-ambitious, and ultimately unsuccessful, early attempts to provide online programmes. Despite significant leaps in technological developments since then, modern online programmes have continued to be shadowed by the failings of their less than stellar predecessors. That is, until now. 

High-quality applications

As the global business landscape becomes ever more driven by technology, with geographical boundaries no longer a barrier to working globally, and with the next generation of business leaders demanding greater flexibility in their working hours, the business education market has been under increasing pressure to offer programmes which better fit the lifestyle of the modern professional.

Since launching The Global Online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School, we have seen a growth of 30% in applications each year. This, in itself, wasn’t a surprise. Imperial has been a longstanding investor and supporter of online education. However the surprising factor was seeing the rising number of high-quality applications from extremely capable students around the world – not to mention the increasing number of students being sponsored through the programme.

It seems that the time of online MBAs being considered a B-product is over. 

Today, both applicants and corporations recognise the value of a good online education as equal, if not superior, to one gained on campus. In fact, only Business Schools seem to have missed the memo. Despite the surge in demand, a high proportion of leading institutions still do not offer an online study option to MBA students.

Their reluctance is understandable. The online MBAs remains, in many ways, a new, untested product, which requires significant levels of investment – both financial and intellectual – to make it a worthwhile venture. It’s not only about leveraging technology for the delivery of courses and degrees. It’s about new pedagogies, new forms of engagement and communication with students, and new ways of doing marketing and recruitment. Ultimately, it’s about developing new business models.

It’s no mean feat to create an online MBA – and to do it well. For those Schools willing to take the plunge, through my experiences of developing the online MBA programme at Imperial College Business School and building a knowledge of the best programmes offered by other Business Schools, I’ve identified seven core ingredients that must be present in order to deliver a high calibre, effective online MBA programme:

Top teaching faculty

Students who invest in an MBA programme typically harbour high aspirations and, as a result, hold high expectations of what their education should deliver. Quite rightly, students want access to the best researchers and teachers their School has to offer, and to receive personalised support in their professional development, regardless of whether they’re studying on campus or online. 

In an ideal world, the faculty responsible for delivering an online MBA should be the same individuals in charge of running the campus-based programmes, ensuring the same quality of curricula and helping to create an inclusive atmosphere beyond the physical boundaries of the campus. Any differentiation will only serve to create an unnecessary divide between campus-based and online programmes.

At Imperial, our full-time campus-based MBA is treated with the same academic rigour as our online programme. Applicants are held to the same criteria across the board and faculty are instructed to treat both classes as equal. Upon graduation, all MBA students, regardless of their study method, are awarded the same degree.

Structured flexibility

For all the talk surrounding the benefits of flexible working patterns, affording busy professionals greater levels of flexibility in structuring their learning doesn’t necessarily equal greater satisfaction or success. In fact, the opposite is true. Affording students too much flexibility does little to encourage cohort cohesion and engagement, as students find themselves at wildly varying stages of the curriculum and thus have little cause to engage with and learn from each other. It also provides little benefit to students’ professional development as they lack momentum and structure in their learning. Lockstep programmes put the right amount of pressure on students who, alongside modular learning, develop the additional skill of managing an intense workload of work and study. 

Proceeding in the learning experience together as a cohort creates a positive stimulus; students, naturally, keep up with study and deadlines driven by their classmates, and curricula can become characterised by group activities. 

Innovative ways of engaging students

As well as learning from the programme’s curriculum, a large part of MBA students’ learning comes from conversations with their classmates, faculty and the alumni network. Opportunities for conversations can easily be lost when studying at a distance. Engagement is vital in fostering a positive learning environment, therefore online programmes should be built to facilitate and encourage interaction between faculty, student and the wider school community wherever possible.

Building group projects into the online curriculum, enabling online students to attend live sessions, lectures and Q&As with faculty or alumni, creating online student-led events and regular discussion forums on relevant topics are all ways in which this can be achieved. 

A blended curriculum

Many of the best online programmes offer students a blended learning experience – allowing them the opportunity to engage in some learning in person in a physical environment. Time spent by students on campus should be designed to build the cohort’s spirit, helping firm-up relationships between students and faculty. For example, induction events can be a great way to break the ice between new students and set them on the right path. Similarly capstone experiences can be useful in enabling students to transition smoothly from student to alumni status.

Moreover, offering international study trips can aid dispersed global students to meet up throughout the programme, as well as providing a valuable hands-on learning opportunity. 

Sophisticated technology

The technology challenge scares off many Business Schools and constitutes an entry barrier for Schools that are open to adding an online MBA to their catalogue but don’t know how to. However, to offer a competitive programme, it is vital to invest in modern, intuitive and savvy technologies to support students’ learning.

There is a range of options to consider. Classic virtual learning environments (such as Moodle or Blackboard) typically do not offer the user experience that online MBA students want, so some Schools decide to engage popular online study platform providers such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and FutureLearn to run their programmes instead. Others may decide to invest in proprietary bespoke platforms. 

Beyond facilitating the day-to-day running of the programme online, tech innovation is needed to support a variety of learning methods – live streaming of classes and events, or enabling multiple-campus connectivity, creating virtual and augmented reality solutions, developments of chatbots for student support.

Even creating purpose-built on-campus facilities (for example, the Harvard HBX facility designed for teaching online cases at best, or the WOW room of IE to offer a visual-classroom experience to both students and faculty) is a worthwhile investment. 

Continuous investment

The online delivery of an MBA calls for major investment from the outset, and a consistent dedication to investment moving forwards as technologies involved continue to improve. The inevitable growth of this market will bear significant rewards for Business Schools that have invested heavily and strategically in their online offerings, whereas those Schools that have limited themselves to tweaking old distance-learning programmes will have little chance of survival in this crowded market.

Senior management support

The development of online programmes, particularly the industry gold-standard MBA, triggers all sort of questions and problems for Business Schools to consider. It’s not only about money, it’s about developing (or committing to outsourcing) tech expertise and training faculty on how to conduct online delivery effectively, managing and protecting intellectual property, recruiting students globally and facilitating timely support for students of different cultures in different time zones. Managing these considerations is not possible without senior management support and a long-term commitment from all involved.

The structure and continued development of the Global Online MBA at Imperial College Business School is a reflection of each of these points. Since the programme’s launch in 2015, we have endeavoured to keep investing in its development, performing a major curriculum review after two years, and introducing new technologies on a regular basis. We’ve also encouraged and supported faculty to pilot new forms of engagement online, on-campus and abroad.

The successes and positive feedback, we’ve received from students have led us to develop our online offerings even further, offering a blended Executive MBA, a new online MSc in Business Analytics, and adding blended elements to all on-campus programmes.

For Schools, Deans and MBA Directors exploring the development of online MBAs I have three final pieces of advice:

1. Online education is a ‘go big or go home’ game. Investments in online programmes must be thorough and strategically aligned with the larger agenda of your institution. Investing in an online programme could cost you as much as investing in 10 traditional MSc programmes. Be ready.

2. Online education is also a ‘different’ game to master. The best lecturers you have at the School may actually become your worst online, if not trained appropriately. Not all members of faculty will adapt to online education smoothly. Take the time to understand your faculty’s reservations, and invest in their training and development.

3. Online education is only a ‘game’ metaphorically. In fact, it’s a complex business that calls for the right strategies at the right time to ensure success. You must pay attention to the world around you, the actions of your competitors and the needs expressed by your students and applicants – and be prepared to be bold in addressing them.

Dr Paolo Taticchi is Principal Teaching Fellow in Management and Sustainability, and Director of the Weekend and Global Online MBA programmes at Imperial College Business School.