The challenges of international digital learning

Business Impact: The challenges of international digital learning

From access to technology and reaching underserved communities to incorporating student feedback in course design, Arden University’s Elizabeth Ellis outlines the challenges that lie ahead for digital learning offered on a global scale

In Deloitte’s 2020 Global Human Capital Trends report said: ‘Technology creates a sense that anything that can change, will; yet humans desire a sense of certainty to support bold steps forward.’ Two years on, this still rings true – especially for the education sector.

The global e-learning market is projected to be worth approximately $330 billion USD by 2026, with the UK’s share of the market expected to grow in value by $9.94 billion USD from 2020 to 2025. If it was not already apparent prior to the pandemic, technology has now certainly proven its potential to shift industries beyond realms once imagined, yet, despite the eagerness to do so, challenges remain ahead.

Society is becoming more and more reliant on technology and it is therefore incumbent on Business School leaders to harness the power of digital technologies and create School cultures that are transparent, relevant, meaningful, engaging, and inspiring.

In addition, we need to consider how recent changes such as ubiquitous connectivity, open-source technology, mobile devices, and personalisation impact the growing globalisation of education that has come from developments in technology and remote learning.

Digital design and personalisation

Digital leadership is the strategic use of digital assets to achieve business goals. Organisations that place digital leadership at the forefront often place value on communication, creativity and a willingness to explore new ways that technology and digital information can be used to address operations successfully. With effective digital leadership, workflows and business processes remain streamlined, allowing those situated across various worldwide jurisdictions to receive the same service.

A big challenge that remains is ensuring that, on an international scale, educational opportunities are not only consistent but also meet the expectations and needs of students scattered across different countries. This will extend further than ensuring access to digital learning – it’s about awareness of the differences in how technology is used across various continents.

For digital learning to remain consistently effective, organisations need to pinpoint how students interact with technology. How do students engage with the platforms provided for them by their institution? Students at Arden University, for example, can communicate using Moodle-based forums, Zoom live sessions, or even Slack. But how do they use other technologies? Having been provided with Office365 subscriptions on enrolment, do they use email or WhatsApp to converse with peers? Do they have unspoken rules about interacting with each other and their lecturers in specific spaces? These variations may seem infinitesimal, but they vastly impact student engagement, learning and interaction, and our understanding of these.

Offering personalised learning depending on jurisdiction is no easy feat and, now that globalisation has pushed diversity and inclusion to the forefront, it’s vital for digital education to be a strong piece of the diversity puzzle.

Nearly half of students are using online learning platforms for homework assistance, with 70% of students agreeing that online classes are better than traditional classroom settings. Online learning and digital technologies have also opened doors for students with additional needs. Therefore, for all students to be considered, e-learning platforms must take into consideration neurodiversity and different learning needs.

An underlying issue remaining in the education sector is that educators may stick to using a particular approach when teaching, or there may be a tradition of teaching a particular subject area in a specific way. These methods of teaching, as well as how progress and achievements are assessed, could be a barrier for neurodivergent learners. For example, group working assignments can be a challenge for autistic people and people with ADHD, while written assessments can be a barrier for learners with dyslexia, dyspraxia or dysgraphia.

If traditional education systems become more inclusive of students with additional needs, they will become much more inclusive in general, and all education providers, employers, applicants and employees will benefit. This aspect is often tricky for some to navigate within the realm of e-learning, however. Empowering educators with knowledge and practice around digital pedagogies and technologies will enable them to be responsive to the evolving needs and expectations of students. At Arden University, for example, we are encouraging our staff to undertake a Postgraduate Certificate (PGCert) in Digital Pedagogies and Practices to help them do this.

One of the biggest opportunities technology offers, however, is developing digital learning in collaboration with students. In-house developers could create a few courses along with academics and modify them according to learner engagement and feedback. However, they can also work with groups of students to test and prototype new activities and content before these are released to a wider student cohort.

Universities are increasingly recognising that adopting personalised digital experiences means expanding their concept of what ‘personalised’ means. Rather than focusing purely on consideration of AI in digital education, meeting the requirements of personalisation means implementing the wide flexibility technology offers with regards to schedules, credit load, learning content, additional support and student engagement.

Blended e-learning requires study materials and related services to support online platforms. For example, this mix of learning at Arden University has meant implementing different types of assessment methods and steering away from traditional timed examinations.

Access to technology

One stubborn issue revolves around access to technology. For international education to become equal across the world, there needs to be better means for students in particular areas to access it. The prevalence of technology in education will hinder some parts of the world more than others, not just due to lack of funding, but also due to a lack of infrastructure and, in some parts of the world, the gatekeeping of technology for political and/or economic reasons.

Universities will need to think of ways to offer offline courses via digital technology, for example, for those who don’t have reliable internet access. Offline digital education is still digital, but it requires creativity in pedagogic approach and learning design.

After all, digitalisation and the application of emerging technologies have accelerated the demand for digital skills, and social inequalities affect individuals’ skills and proficiencies in this area. Universities and colleges have appealed for help in equipping young people with digital skills, admitting they lack the resources, knowledge and infrastructure to tackle the tech talent shortage on their own.

This shift is pushing universities to think differently and ensure that while digital education can promote the learning behind technology usage, it also brings teaching the correct, practical skills to the forefront. Studies have shown that students that spend more than 60 minutes per week on e-learning activities perform better, but we must still ask: ‘We can learn via an app, but will it provide the best learning experience for everyone?’

International learning

International students at universities are often in the traditional onshore delivery model – largely living and studying in person for the duration of their degree. These students also tend to come from the wealthiest segments of the source countries.

Digital learning, on the other hand, presents opportunities for institutions across the world to build out a broader set of delivery options and reach a massive group of people who may not be able to afford a full-time in-country experience. For example, Arden University now offers blended learning degrees in Pakistan, UAE and Berlin, and is moving towards offering full-time distance learning programmes that prioritises the international student experience.

India, for example, has set the ambition of training more than 400 million people by 2022 to meet its future workforce needs and Indonesia has a target of educating an additional 57 million skilled workers by 2030. Only a small fraction of these numbers would be able to access traditional international education.

However, it is important not to rely too heavily on technology to provide international students with the best-possible learning experience. For universities to meet this market with greater use of online delivery, hybrid learning models in both full course and microcredentials are vital to consider.

Despite disruption creating opportunities to rethink business models and look at possibilities for the future, longer-term difficulties will remain – some of which were apparent prior to the pandemic – in international digital leadership post-Covid-19. As digital leaders, we need to be creative and innovative now more than ever.

Elizabeth Ellis is Head of the School of Digital Education at Arden University.

Protecting the digital wellbeing of Business School students

Business Impact: Protecting the digital wellbeing of Business School students

What could Business Schools be doing to look after the digital wellbeing of the new generation of remote and/or blended learners? Arden University’s Anthony Thompson considers potential solutions and explores how to engage students in an increasingly online environment

In a digital world, there are fewer social cues and fewer resources at hand. This rings true for students as well, meaning that universities and Business Schools have a responsibility to make sure their graduates are well equipped and ready to thrive in an increasingly online environment. 

Having a strong internal system in place to engage students and ensure they have all the information they need is vital. But what should that system look like? Interestingly, a system similar to a social media platform could have a positive impact on students’ wellbeing and social lives. 

This article explores these possibilities in further detail and discusses what Business Schools could be doing to look after the digital wellbeing of this generation of remote and/or blended learners.

New ways of learning are thriving

Traditional approaches to education have evolved rapidly over the last decade. Technology-mediated learning has helped unlock whole new ways of studying, communicating and interacting, providing the flexibility for students to work in a way that suits them best – whether that is on campus, at home, or in their neighbourhood coffee shop.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, this switch was on the cards. The rise of technology-mediated education had long been in the works with the development of online and blended learning degrees offering students the opportunity to study when and where they want – all they needed was access to a laptop and a half-decent internet connection.

These options were thriving for good reason. From an academic perspective, digital tools can empower students to study flexibly, communicate with other students across the world and open up access to a whole host of research and information tools. Professionally, digital literacy is one of the most important employability skills students can possess – it is increasingly sought after by employers and has been cited in some quarters as crucial to the success of the fourth industrial revolution.

The line between being switched ‘on’ or ‘off’

From an accessibility perspective, it makes sense that the world would move in this direction, as the population becomes increasingly enthralled with its smart devices. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, research has found that around 88% of people use smartphones, and around 95% of these smartphones are used every day, according to Deloitte’s Global Mobile Consumer Survey 2019. Many of us reach for our phones shortly after waking up in the morning, while younger age groups are known to find it hard to put their phones down when they go to bed at night.

And while many traditional Business Schools emphasise the development of skills and the importance of ensuring the population is confident in using technology for both academic and professional uses, less emphasis has been placed on how students can use technology to promote personal wellbeing and ensure they are looking after themselves when studying remotely.

The danger is that while students may be able to use this technology to catch up on pre-seminar reading on the train home or listen to a lecture at 3am, the line between being switched ‘on’ or ‘off’ can be distorted. This same issue has been reported in workplaces up and down the UK over the last 18 months as the pandemic altered the working practices of professionals across a whole range of sectors, proving it is not an issue that is limited to educational settings. 

The concern is that if we’re not looking after wellbeing and encouraging a healthy work-life balance, grades will undoubtedly suffer and we’ll struggle to get the best results for our students. 

Indeed, there is compelling evidence which suggests that positive wellbeing in students can be a precursor to outstanding academic achievement, highlighting the importance of looking after our students, as this directly supports the ability to push them to achieve their academic heights.

In this respect, Business Schools might be missing a key opportunity to support students on their journey of personal growth and academic attainment by under-emphasising the role that digital wellbeing can play. This is vital at this particular moment in time – we find ourselves at a critical juncture as the way we work is scrutinised like never before due to the Covid-19 outbreak. 

Addressing the decline in student mental health 

The pandemic changed the way we communicate, interact and travel. From a student’s perspective, it disrupted access to lecture theatres and examinations, and prevented opportunities for students to interact with their classmates in typical settings. Put simply, it turned the student experience upside down overnight. A YoungMinds survey recently found that 80% of young people reported a decline in their mental health throughout the pandemic. 

It’s a worrying trend and something that we have to take very seriously if we are to ensure that we set these young people up for the best start possible in their careers.

One potential explanation for the decline in student mental health is that they are being required to spend more time sitting behind a computer at home, with fewer opportunities to walk around Business School campuses, socialise in person with classmates and travel between two locations as part of their regular day.

Participation in regular physical activity can increase self-esteem and reduce stress and anxiety. It also plays a role in preventing the development of mental health problems and has proven to improve the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems. 

And that’s before you get to the physical issues that can be exacerbated by a lack of physical exercise. Setting up physical competitions, such as walking 10K steps a week, can help break up time spent stationary at a desk, as well as create dialogue between those involved. 

Social interaction must be at the centre of solutions 

Among the solutions that have been tested are apps that have been designed in collaboration with [secondary/high] schools, students and charities that would allow students to enter data about their wellbeing progress and provide personalised recommendations with access to support from a range of resources. 

Such initiatives are backed up by my own research, which found that digital tools can be a viable way of empowering individuals to take control of their health and wellbeing, even when distanced from colleagues and friends. However, there are important factors that must be present in digital interventions to make them appealing to people who are working remotely.

Firstly, there must be an opportunity for social interaction. Static websites that simply display information to the user have limited effectiveness and fail to encourage repeat visits and continued engagement. Generally, these systems find that engagement levels taper down as individuals become bored and begin to disengage with the material.

At this juncture, it’s important to consider the websites that millions of people use daily. The likes of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok enable social interactions through carefully curated algorithms that are designed to offer the kinds of content its users are going to like and engage with. They enable these same people to engage in social interactions with their friends, family, colleagues and classmates.

Vitally, they also enable their users to make their own content. Humans are hard-wired to contribute, to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. They are the experts of their own lives and so providing a platform where conversations, photographs and other media relating to a topic can be shared naturally promotes engagement and involvement. 

‘Off the shelf’ options can only go so far

Ultimately, the development of any technological solution should be a collaborative process between Business Schools and students. Each party should work with the other to co-create their educational experience and explore how student wellbeing can be enhanced. Every Business School has unique opportunities, resources and challenges. While ‘off the shelf’ interventions may be available for universities to purchase, they can only go so far. 

To see real change, localised solutions that can accommodate the resources, opportunities and unique student demographics of each Business School may be required. Co-creating digital wellbeing tools with students, rather than for students, can allow organisations to tap into a breadth of knowledge, experiences and ideas. This will make the content more relevant and highlight problems and solutions that may not previously have even been on the School’s radar. 

This is where the inclusion of social media elements into digital wellbeing tools can help again. The inclusion of these elements into digital wellbeing tools opens up the possibility of tailoring the information that can be accessed – enabling individuals to join groups that most resonate with them while spending less time wading through topics or discussions that are not of interest – particularly important for students on business courses which are well-known for their demanding nature. Much like the static website, it’s important to not overwhelm users with too much information as this can lead to choice fatigue and disengagement, discouraging people from accessing the very interventions that have been put in place to support them. 

When actively managed, social media-style platforms can promote support and ownership. A business environment is highly competitive, so setting up friendly competitions and challenges for students will not only get students moving, but also bring out teamwork and collaboration. It is a co-operative and supportive way to get students to feel like they are part of a team.

Platforms can also be adapted to include elements of gamification to promote engagement. Virtual badges, unlocking achievements and digital certificates can create a sense of progress and achievement towards a goal. Indeed, skills badges and certificates have already begun to permeate professional business platforms such as LinkedIn. The same principles can be applied to enhance engagement in Business School settings. 

Tracking engagement and refining systems

It needn’t be laborious for students either. With a good internal digital social system in place, you can track engagement and see what is working for users and what isn’t. Is the virtual art night not working? That’s fine – perhaps try a yoga challenge. Has a student thought of a quirky new idea? Ensure that they have a space to share it with others. Is no one clicking on that super awesome page full of tips and tricks? Then maybe the Business School can revisit its design. 

Often, you will find that those who may not typically engage in particular activities in the physical world, will do so virtually. The online disinhibition effect (where people can feel safer communicating thoughts and ideas online than in person), may help us hear the voices of those who are unheard in more traditional approaches to student wellbeing. It will provide comfort for the more introverted; using digital systems is more adaptable than traditional social events and interventions, meaning that groups that wouldn’t necessarily mix in person, will have a chance to do so virtually. 

Education has changed rapidly since the pandemic and student experiences have changed rapidly too. While many Business Schools are taking active steps to support the academic and professional wellbeing of students, the importance of digital wellbeing may be less apparent. 

However, socially interactive digital tools can provide a lifeline for students in both protecting their own personal wellbeing and connecting them to a wider learning community. Given that poor mental health and physical inactivity have been associated with poorer academic performance, the importance of actively engaging with student digital wellbeing cannot be understated.  

Anthony Thompson is the Programme Leader for Postgraduate Psychology at Arden University. His research has spanned areas that include occupational psychology, health psychology and co-creation.

This article is taken from Business Impact’s print magazine (edition: November 2021-January 2022).

Why Business Schools need to be more than just digital

A person standing in a red curved abstract architectural space, 3D rendering. This is symbolic to being more than just digital.

Many traditional universities have been playing catchup, trying to ensure students get their money’s worth via Zoom. But being digitally adept is not all that is needed, says Dilshad Sheikh, Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University

The past 18 months have taught the business world a lot. Companies need to be receptive and responsive to the trends and demands of consumers, to the point where they need to keep one eye on the present and the other on the future in order to survive. This means management students –  the business leaders of tomorrow – need to be taught how best to survive in a volatile market, alongside the current advances in technology being implemented on a commercial and corporate scale.

Home to innovation, universities have traditionally witnessed avid researchers turning outlandish hypotheses into standout ideas, while simultaneously being renowned for their slowness at adopting innovative tech themselves for their students’ benefit. The past year has forced longstanding universities that pride themselves on their history and red bricks to embrace tech, and now many, if not most, higher education institutions offer online learning. But are they truly doing enough? In short, the answer is ‘not really, no’.

Here’s how Business Schools should be changing to address the needs and demands of the business leaders of the future.

How tech will change how we learn

There’s no such thing as a traditional student anymore. It is more common for a student, especially now that more people are studying from home, to balance work, family and school on a day-to-day basis, instead of being on campus full time with a sole focus on going to lectures. Many businesses have found their employees enjoy the flexibility that comes with remote working. Universities ought to respond to that.

Students value a personalised and collaborative relationship with their university that gives them confidence that their educational interests are taken into account, according to a 2017 report from Universities UK. So, just as flexible working is becoming more and more popular, flexible learning that is tailored for each undergraduate’s needs and wants should be an option too.

Students at Arden University, for example, can pause their studies if they have other priorities – such as a busy quarter at work – and resume when their diaries free up again. This level of flexibility that tech brings to the table allows students to fit their degrees around their personal responsibilities outside of studying.

Digital learning will need even more transformation

When stuck in the four walls of their home, these technological advancements can place a student in situations they would not normally get the chance to be in until after they have graduated. A 2019 study has shown that even though students feel they learned more through traditional lectures, they learn more when taking part in so-called ‘active-learning strategies’ that are designed to get students to participate in the learning process. It produces better educational outcomes at virtually all levels.

We are experiencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the distinctions between technologies, physical, digital and biological spheres are getting blurrier by the day. Many students have digital skills, even if they are as basic as opening a Word document. As a result, more and more students expect their university to also widely adopt new digital technologies like virtual and augmented reality, AI, or the Internet of Things (IoT).

Digital simulations, for example, that allow students to be the owner of a company for a day, will not only give students confidence in the real world, but will also equip them with the knowledge to solve the problems they may face. They are free to make mistakes in the simulation, that will bear no detrimental impact, but the experience will teach them valuable lessons.

The market wants Business Schools to move beyond simple degrees that often focus more on theory than practice as their primary product. More agile, lower-priced, digital credentialed ‘packages of learning’ are valued by employers — an essential cog in the constantly spinning digital economy. ‘Upskilling’ is not a business buzzword, it is vital to keep pace with technological advances and introducing assessments that mirror this demand is essential.

Business Schools need to look beyond essays and exams. Assessing students on their digital capability, getting them to kickstart their own social media campaign or asking them to find novel solutions for a present-day business problem will push students much more than a 10,000-word dissertation.

Jobs of the future should define courses

The World Economic Forum estimated that by 2022, the core skills required to perform most roles will, on average, change by 42%.

‘Increasingly, a career for life is an artefact of the past, and this traditional mindset of ‘learn, do, retire’ can no longer provide a future-proof approach. As automation and work converge, skills gaps are set to change at a faster pace and at a greater volume – leading to both talent shortages and job redundancies,’ states the report.  

To remain relevant and employable, workers are faced with the need to re-evaluate and update their skillsets and educators face pressure to update the focus of their courses and offerings. Consequently, there is a pressing need for courses to relay the skills that individuals often acquire throughout their life and educators need to start looking towards the future and work backwards.

The importance of being relevant and responsive to both the present and the future is a demand that education institutions must meet. As many as 85% of students think universities should be able to make changes to a course while students are learning. In fact, many employers have previously grown tired of waiting for universities to catch up. Microsoft, Linux and other employers have already teamed up with online education platforms to provide education that is not only much easier than brick-and-mortar programmes, but also more up to date and easier to distribute to vast numbers of students simultaneously.

Business leaders have expressed doubts about students acquiring the skills they look for in employees before, adding to the importance of courses that not only engage students and connect them to the real world, but that are also relevant to today’s business realities.

Universities should provide learners with the skills and knowledge they need for a very different future, as one recent study has shown. Having modules focussing on the impact of Covid-19 in the business sphere is much more useful to a student’s potential employer than them memorising the theoretical practices of responsible business, for example. 

Industry experts of today need to teach the experts of tomorrow

Another tradition that needs refining to match current demand is how academics often teach lectures. These PhD professionals will have the answers to many questions as they have dedicated their career to the industry, but what they often lack is real-life experience.

Industry professionals, however, tend to have more comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the professional world, including the markets, systems and processes, which will be invaluable for students.

Bringing unique value to the classroom, industry professionals provide fresh insights – something which can be difficult to come across anywhere else. It will give opportunities to connect students to the outside world, allowing them to network and grow professional relationships before they have even graduated.

Without face-to-face workshops and in-person interactions, some students have been short-changed into paying a lot of money to view a simple PowerPoint slide that may precede a Zoom lecture struggling to captivate its audience thanks to weak wifi connection. Business Schools need to do better to ensure that the leaders of tomorrow can do more than just connect and listen blindly to a disengaging Zoom call. Graduates need to be well equipped for life outside graduation and it will take more than just digital learning to achieve this.

Dilshad Sheikh is Dean of the Faculty of Business at Arden University, a UK-based provider of flexible, online and blended learning.
Dilshad’s recent research interests have focused on diversity in leadership and management in higher education. She is also a mentor for various initiatives and engages with audiences across sectors to encourage more females, especially those from minority ethnic backgrounds, to attain senior leadership roles.

Today’s education: global commodity and catalyst for cultural diversity

Hands up in the air against a map of the world. Business Impact article for today's education: global commodity and catalyst for cultural diversity

The great shift online during Covid-19 culminated in an ‘international learning village’ which offers rich potential for the further development of educational models, says Berlin School of Business and Innovation’s Kyriakos Kouveliotis

Covid-19 has helped to show the world how important education and research truly are.

Each year, in May, the UN’s World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development raises awareness of diversity issues around the globe and promotes an understanding of different cultures.

Even though cultural events and initiatives have been put on hold for months, the way countries had to co-operate in tackling the menace of the pandemic, co-ordinate their emergency and contingency plans and evaluate the effectiveness of their actions has showcased the biggest experiment of global solidarity and alliance in the history of humankind. 

It is apparent that the domain of education was greatly affected. However, not only did it respond effectively, but it also came out stronger. It embraced cultural diversity in the most productive way and at a time when it was most needed. In a matter of days, global educators had to switch from traditional teaching to online. They had to improvise, innovate and become global. What was expected to happen in years or decades took place instantly. The world was transformed into a global education hub, an ‘international learning village’. This change was cataclysmic.

The end of constraints?

It is expected that the future of education, not in some years but soon, will eliminate the classroom, as well as the borders between countries and all the stereotypes for acquiring knowledge. Technology can turn our entire lives into learning experiences.

Some scholars have argued that 100 years ago, higher education seemed on the verge of a technological revolution. The spread of a powerful new communication network—the modern postal system—made it possible for institutions to distribute their lessons beyond the grounds of their campuses. Anyone with a mailbox could enrol in a class. Classes now are global, and the student community is composed of different nationalities and backgrounds. Education today has literally abolished international borders and rediscovered itself as a global commodity. This commodity is accessible to all, round the clock, regardless of geographical or other constraints.

This rediscovery is based on education’s use of all the latest innovative developments of technology and modern methodologies, such as open learning, social media, mobile learning, blended learning and augmented reality. As a global commodity, modern education commodity brings a new stream of positive thinking regarding cultural diversity and multiculturalism. Today, educators should be able to:

  • Recognise and achieve goals and ambitions, especially in response to global challenges
  • Enhance their knowledge with a global perspective
  • Recognise that they belong to an international community and use this understanding effectively to understand multiculturalism
  • Practice their skills and creativity beyond their regional environments

In this framework, what we need in modern education is a didactic model that achieves the following changes in learning dynamics:

  • From teacher-centred to student-centred learning
  • From the transmission of knowledge to the building of knowledge
  • From passive and competitive learning to active and collaborative learning

In this way, the individual international student becomes the centre of the educational process.

Incentives for developing multicultural initiatives

The legacy of what global education has already achieved during the pandemic created a cross-cultural revolution. The new innovative and modern didactic methodologies that were adopted have led to greater knowledge of the world around us and assisted us to cope better with it.

Salman Khan, Founder of online education platform, Khan Academy, once said: ‘This is the information revolution. It’s crazy that every other field is getting revolutionised except education.’

As education continues to shift from national to international, countries have strong incentives to build the skills of their populations through higher multicultural training initiatives. 

At the same time, the explosive growth of online education raises an important question – will traditional didactic methods continue to attract students at the same pace as in the past, now that the world has seen the creation of a new international and multicultural audience? I think we all know the answer already.

Professor Kyriakos Kouveliotis is Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Berlin School of Business and Innovation (BSBI).

Standing out from the crowd in the online education space

Business Impact article image for Standing out from the crown in the online education space.

Casilda Güell, Dean of Barcelona-based OBS Business School, tells Tim Banerjee Dhoul how specialised online institutions can continue to differentiate themselves from the growing number of Business Schools that are shifting programmes online

‘What will differentiate online institutions from new online education providers is the experience,’ says Casilda Güell, Dean of OBS Business School, in reference to the number of Business Schools shifting operations online and adapting face-to-face programmes to the requirements of a world still shaken by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Based in Barcelona, Spain, OBS Business School (OBS) is a fully online institution established in 2006 in conjunction with media group, Grupo Planeta, and primarily offers Spanish-language programmes. Supported academically by the University of Barcelona, OBS does, however, count English-language options for an executive MBA and international business management master’s among its current portfolio. In the following exclusive interview with Business Impact, Casilda Güell offers her thoughts on how the student learning experience differs at a specialised online institution. She also talks about the evolution of online education as a whole, and her School’s stance with regards to responsible management and CSR. 

Why is online management education important in your country? What is the value it brings to the community you serve? 

Nowadays, professionals need to recycle their knowledge and acquire new soft and hard skills if they want to evolve. Nevertheless, sometimes professional and personal responsibilities impede the possibility to enrol in face-to-face programmes, which lack flexibility. In this context, online higher education has become the perfect solution. 

Moreover, the incorporation of new IT tools and global access to internet – along cities and towns, no matter their sizes – has reduced the barriers to higher education studies. Students who have no option to move from one country to another, because of their personal responsibilities or the implied educational cost, can now enrol in quality management programmes.

Management education has become key to all institutions and companies. In Spain, most of the curricula at bachelor’s level, no matter the area, now include subjects related to management. Therefore, today’s professionals in leading positions need to acquire this knowledge, no matter what their area of work is. Online education specifically focused on management gives them the perfect solution. 

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 three years? 

During the last years, higher education has changed abruptly because of the incorporation of new IT tools and because of globalisation. 

As technology has become part of our society, so too have institutions where the main activity takes place online. This has allowed individuals to change their perceptions about online education. The incorporation of online courses and programmes at renowned academic institutions, such as Harvard or MIT, has also contributed to enhance their reputation, as well as increasing the demand for this format of education.Moreover, new technologies have enhanced the quality of programmes provided online, and the students’ learning experience. 

Today, an online platform is not just a resources repository, it is a space where students interact between themselves and with their teachers. They can also participate in debates and synchronous web conferences through the same platform. 

In addition, AI offers powerful tools that are key to solving some online education handicaps, such as verification of a student’s identity during exams. In short, online education has qualitatively changed.

In the next three years, I believe that individuals will be more likely to study online and all the stigma that online education still has will have disappeared. Other technologies will be incorporated into platforms, and the quality of the learning experience will continue to increase, year by year.  

Do you think that the market for online management education will become more competitive in the next three years, in light of Covid-19? If so, how can established providers of online programmes ensure they stay ahead of new market entrants? 

Because of the unexpected situation arisen from Covid-19, face-to-face institutions have been forced to adopt an emergency virtualisation. In the following years, these institutions will transition from face-to-face education to online education, not completely but partially. 

In the current academic year, 2020-2021, Harvard University and Cambridge University, for example, are running all activities online. In the case of Spain, institutions are going to adopt a blended model in this academic year. Nevertheless, face-to-face activity will still dominate the market because, beyond the methodology, there is the experience that new students have when attending the university. 

The situation does increase the existing competition. Nevertheless, it is good to know that face-to-face institutions that have adopted a virtual model during the pandemic are not applying an online methodology [or pedagogy] but are instead adopting technological tools to develop their activity. 

Online methodology is more than using technology for teaching, it is a new definition of all the elements that interact during the learning process. Therefore, while there will be more institutions with online programmes, there may not be more that apply online methodology. Ultimately, what will differentiate online institutions from new online education providers is the experience. 

In the case of OBS, we conduct market research twice a year with the aim of identifying new competition and programmes, and try to differentiate from them. 

Can you tell me a bit about the type of people who study at your School and what those who have graduated from your School have gone on to do in the local region and beyond? 

As an online institution, our students come from across the world. We have students from five different continents. Nevertheless, since most of our programme portfolio is taught in Spanish, the vast majority of our students come from Latin America. In addition, 95% of our students are working and 85% of them hold a managerial position. 

Since we provide master’s-level education and one of our strengths is the flexibility provided to those who are working, the mean age of our students is 38 years. However, in the past few months, younger students have been attracted to our programmes as well, mainly because of the [pandemic] situation we are all currently living through. 

OBS students enrol in our programmes with the aim of enhancing their professional position and acquiring new knowledge and soft/hard skills. So, once they finish their studies, 70% of the unemployed students find a job, mostly in their existing region, and 65% of all students achieve some form of career progression during the first six months after finishing their studies.  

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

This year, we have redefined our student experience strategy. Although the strategy has always been to place students at the centre of the learning process, we are now introducing new elements and activities oriented to enhance their experience during their time at OBS as students and as alumni.  

We have redefined our platform, the structure as well as the content, and incorporated new workshops and spaces. For example, we have included a welcome area where students, after their enrolment in a programme, have resources and digital tools to develop several skills that we consider important during their time at OBS, as well as in their professional lives thereafter. Before students take their first subject, there is also a programme in which further skills are developed hand-in-hand with a lecturer. Both spaces gather all OBS students, which gives them the chance to establish new contacts. 

Does your portfolio of programmes encompass any on-campus elements? 

Since we are 100% online, we do not have any face-to-face activities or in-person elements, in the context of our programmes. Nevertheless, once students complete their master’s degree, we celebrate the graduation event, for which students from all our programmes come to Barcelona in person. At the most recent graduation event, we had more than 1,000 individuals. Over two days, these students participate in an alumni event, in which students attend seminars and leisure activities, as well as the graduation itself, where they receive their diplomas and at which prizes are awarded to the best student, teacher and final master’s project. 

Does your School engage with businesses, government and other public-sector organisations in your region? If so, how?  

We have an agreement with the town hall of Hospitalet de Llobregat (a city within the province of Barcelona, to its southwest) and we grant students from this city scholarships for our programmes. We are also promoting collaborations with companies and professional associations, through which employees/members receive discounts on programme fees. 

How is the School working to boost the employment prospects of its graduates? 

We conduct a number of different activities that aim to enhance students’ employability. 

For example, programmes include webconferences with professionals and experts. We conduct interviews with professionals, which offer deep dives on general topics. In addition, most of our final master’s thesis projects are developed jointly with businesses. These aim to provide solutions for companies in areas that are related to the programme on which the student is enrolled. 

There is also a job offer pool that students can access through our alumni area, in our virtual campus. There, they can find different offers related to their area(s) of expertise. 

What does ‘responsible management’ mean to your School and how is this concept introduced to, and instilled into, your students?

For OBS Business School, responsible management is based on providing our students with the necessary knowledge to design and develop business processes while meeting social and environmental standards. 

OBS considers that international, ethnic, gender, religious and cultural diversity is a key driver to develop values of CSR and sustainability – such as respect, tolerance, acceptance and integration. Our students come from different cultures and backgrounds, and we believe this enriches the students’ learning experience.  

Since 2012, OBS is part of the UN Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) and our objective in all aspects of our strategic planning is to accomplish and adhere to the initiative’s Six Principles. In 2019, we added a master’s degree that is 100% focused on CSR and sustainability to our portfolio. However, the aforementioned values are integrated across all programmes as mandatory and elective courses, as well as through the use of case studies of companies that are particularly reputed for their CSR activities and approach as well as for their sustainable performance. 

Students are encouraged to encompass the dimensions of sustainability, development and/or CSR in their final projects and the School organises an annual competition, in which an award is given to the project that focuses the most on these dimensions. 

What plans does your School have for the next three years?  

Our plan is to adopt new technologies as they appear in the market, as well as to continue offering programmes that are in line with the latest trends, introducing new programmes as appropriate. We will also keep improving students’ learning experience, through the introduction of new strategies and tools, and redefine our methodology by adapting it progressively to the existing context. 

Casilda Güell is the Dean of OBS Business School (OBS). She holds a PhD from LSE and is a Fellow at its European Institute. 

This article is taken from Business Impact’s sixth edition in print.

Liquid is the new agile

Covid-19 has accelerated our ‘liquid’ lives – that is, our ability to be adaptable, flexible and fluid have become ever more important – and educational institutions must adapt, say Nick van Dam and Noémie Le Pertel

In an ever-competitive market, universities and Business Schools that build the ability to stay ahead of the game, rather than merely responding after an event, will ultimately be the most successful.

Covid-19 has brought about the kind of change in months that you normally only see after generations. Like most industries, education has had to rapidly acclimatise.

The fact is, universities have always adapted, learned and moved on – that is the basis of academic enquiry and the heart of the sector’s strength. Across higher education, universities are already offering new, and completely online courses, attracting new students from different markets and innovating in how they work.

But in the Covid age, we’re also seeing the disappearance of existing structures, patterns, codes, rules and institutions that once provided stable foundations in society and guided people’s behaviours.

Liquid modernity

The late sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, described this phenomenon as ‘liquid modernity’. The theory states that liquids are characterised by ultimate agility – they flow and conform to various structures while retaining their volume. Therefore, liquid represents adaptability, flexibility and fluidity. The world we are living in has become liquid across many dimensions, including economic, social, geopolitical, environmental, technological and educational.

The reality is that the ‘new normal’ may differ in quite a few respects – but what unites it all is its fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change. To ‘be modern’ means to modernise – compulsively and obsessively; not so much just ‘to be’. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared ‘old-fashioned’ and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’. As time flows on, ‘modernity’ changes its forms.  

The new agile?

Despite these fluid times, institutions of higher education continue to operate in a state that Bauman calls ‘solid modernity’. But with the absence of stable employment structures, the chaos from Covid-19 and ever-evolving technology, there is no doubt that we are in a liquid state.

But this passage from solid to liquid modernity has created new and unprecedented settings and challenges for individual life pursuits. Essentially Covid-19 has accelerated our liquid lives, which means our ability to be adaptable, flexible and fluid have become ever more important. This renders many of our plans and forecasts irrelevant.

But even before Covid-19, work and careers were becoming fluid. The workplace is a very different place to what it used to be 30 years ago or more. From the introduction of new technology and tools, to the rising trend of remote working, the modern office has adapted in a number of ways. Employees now tend to stay with a company for only a few years before making a change. Gone are the days where people would regularly stay with a company for 30+ years. People are also more likely to change their careers, and not just their jobs, over their lifetime, partly because they will be living and working for much longer than their parents did. Because of this, people will need to develop distinctive competencies as they switch between roles as students, employees, contractors and entrepreneurs. In many ways’ ‘liquid’ has become the new agile.

Educational institutions can and must adapt

It has become almost universally accepted that universities must adapt to the world they live in. But the way that university education has been organised and delivered has not changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Students still turn up on campus, take exams and begin their careers after graduation. They do not operate in a liquid state – the reality is the world has changed so much, but the way students are educated has not.

The current educational model is not sustainable in a modern world. But the pandemic has proved that educational institutions can adapt when they face a compelling need quickly and comprehensively.

At their best, Business Schools are innovators, risk-takers and pioneers, and it is these characteristics that should be brought to the fore. Often, my experience is that university leaders are keen for their institutions to develop, and academic and professional staff share an ambition to deliver the very best teaching and research. However other factors are at play, institutional inertia, governance by consent and the ability of individual stakeholders can hinder innovation. However, as work and careers become more fluid, innovation and progress are more important than ever.  The virus has underscored the fact that Business Schools need to develop a liquid learning model – and they need to do it now.

The five characteristics of liquid learning

‘Liquid learning’ is a comprehensive, holistic, complete and interactive educational experience. It blends physical and digital learning ecosystems in innovative ways so that students obtain the highest quality of education no matter where in the world they are and what their current situations might be, as long as they have access to the technology they need. Liquid learning embodies richness of experience through experiential learning and is based on five guiding principles:

1. It’s active and social: in a liquid learning environment, students have active and social experiences that stimulate both their cognitive and emotional development. When they’re in active learning mode, students collaborate, observe others, give and receive feedback, and reflect on their experiences. As they engage in social learning, they also foster human connections.

Active and social learning is enhanced through multicultural group assignments and discussions, individual study projects, multimedia cases, simulations, learning games, labs, role-playing exercises, presentations, networking events, discussion forums, debates, peer evaluation and feedback, and gamification techniques that engage the learners. Through active and social learning, students gain a deep understanding of concepts and boost both short- and long-term recall. They acquire knowledge, develop skills, and change mindsets.

2. It’s multichannel: multichannel learning enables interactive learning at any time and in any place, whether students are taking classes in person, online, or in a hybrid model. Schools that offer multichannel learning can easily switch between formats, so they can still provide a dynamic learning experience for their students even in sudden emergencies. In this way, multichannel learning is ‘liquid-proof’.

3. It’s personalised to the student: today’s students can customise every aspect of their lives, from how they order coffee to how they read the news. It’s no surprise they expect to be able to personalise the way they consume education in order to meet their unique needs and aspirations. Personalisation allows students to opt for learning in any place, at any time, through any pathway, at any pace of study, with any cohort, following any professor, using any technology and any type of pedagogy.

For instance, a student in Europe might enrol in an elective class in Asia that he can take online on a part-time basis. He meets with other international students in virtual classrooms where they’re taught by an adjunct professor and a CEO. He learns by doing when he undertakes to solve a real-world problem at his current job.

Some Business Schools offered a few of these options in the past, but the pandemic has highlighted the need for more Schools to make such options widely available. Customisation allows students to continue learning even if travel bans keep them from returning to campus or if other unforeseen circumstances arise.

Not only is personalised education critical for a liquid world, it’s also more engaging for students, which means it enhances motivation and drives academic achievement. While Schools might find it daunting to offer extensive personalisation, it can be supported by big data and AI.

4. It features faculty excellence: whether Schools are offering online or in-person education, the students’ learning experience will depend on the quality of the faculty. Excellent faculty have the capacity to inspire students to approach their studies with intellectual curiosity, which will lead them to pursue liquid learning for the rest of their careers.

To promote faculty excellence, Schools must require ongoing faculty training and solicit feedback from students and faculty peers. They must align their rewards and recognition with desired faculty behaviours. Schools must also develop a liquid faculty model that leverages a diverse blend of different faculty profiles, including researchers, adjuncts, visiting faculty, practitioners, facilitators, coaches, mentors, teaching assistants, and guest speakers.

5. It’s anchored in the real world: because the real world is liquid, students need to unlearn old habits and develop new behaviours. Once they’ve acquired new expertise and skills, students will be able to drive change and innovation. Because Covid-19 has accelerated the digitisation of real-world work, students who participate in classes that include online components develop invaluable digital skills that will help them on the job.

The future of education

If universities and Business Schools are to prosper, they must be relevant to the societies in which they exist. Universities shouldn’t operate merely as trainers of school leavers about to enter the job market; they should assert their importance as critical builders of knowledge and human capital. They must be relevant and be willing to engage with society to show how that is the case. True relevance could mean substantial change for some – more flexible models, mixed-mode pedagogy, or learning while earning, for example.

The reality is, thanks to Covid-19, the future is here. And the future of learning is fluid, dynamic, adaptable, immersive, personalised, and engaging. It is all about the richness of the experience: curricular and extracurricular, social and individual, global and local, active and reflective, cognitive and emotional, professional and personal, physical and digital, supported by research and teaching excellence.

While this mode of learning has long been in our future, the pandemic has made the transition more urgent. It has shown us that universities must embrace ‘liquid modernity’ so they can not only meet any crisis that arises but also prepare students for an ever-changing world.

Nick van Dam is a Professor at Nyenrode Business University, IE University and the University of Pennsylvania. He is also Chief Learning Officer at IE University.

Noémie Le Pertel is an Academic Director and Professor at IE University.

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

Latin America, Argentina, Buenos Aires downtown with traffic cars at night around the Obelisco.

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.

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