Why Business Schools need to be 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.

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