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Blended Online And Campus Learning Embraced As B-Schools Face Disruption

Evolution of online learning forces business schools to rethink how they deliver content, as competition with innovative digital providers heats up.

Sun Jun 7 2015

The digital revolution in education is in full swing, spearheaded by online companies deploying technology that is disrupting the sector with courses on everything from data analytics to advanced accounting.  

Digitally focused education companies such as Coursera, the Mooc or massive open online course developer and 2U, whose tech powers business school programs on the web, have emerged in the past decade along with dozens more who are shaking up the traditional university.

The evolution of online learning has forced business schools to rethink how they deliver their content. Tech has enabled schools to provide flexible learning solutions by beaming lectures directly to computers and mobile devices.

The trend now is to blend campus teaching with web solutions that replicate the same engaging and energetic peer learning found at the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT.

William Lamb, dean of the graduate school at Babson College, which specializes in entrepreneurship, says there will be more innovation of delivery models and program features over the next decade.

“Any format that addresses students’ need for flexibility will be crucial in the future,” he says.

Some business schools are “flipping” their MBA programs online, while the developers of Moocs such as edX and FutureLearn have created thousands of digital courses, reinventing the education market. But most are mixing face-to-face contact time with virtual learning environments.

Approximately 30% of Babson College MBA students, for example, are in the Blended Learning program, of which 72% content is delivered online.

Such programs are based on the principle that fully-online courses lack connectivity. Business schools recognize the potential of digital but are wary of losing the interaction that students expect for their tuition.

“Online teaching will undoubtedly become more prevalent in the future, but it is undeniable that there are some elements of the business school experience which are irreplaceable,” says Bernard Garrette, associate dean for the MBA at HEC Paris, a leading business school in France.

The strategic problem business schools face, he says, is how to make online resources more interactive, and campus learning more complementary to the online version.  

This is a puzzle even the most revered schools are still trying to solve. An example is HBX, the digital learning platform of Harvard Business School. It involves a selective admissions process and charges tuition. Applications are open to students for 600 places on an 11-week, $1,500 initial course.

Crucially, 90% of students who started its pilot completed the program — a level of engagement which Moocs have so far failed to achieve.  

Applicants are also from a much wider demographic than traditional campus programs. Business schools see tech as a tool to reach wider audiences. Geoff Garrett, dean of leading US business school Wharton, says: “We have the opportunity with Moocs to offer a sample of our world class education at scale around the world.”

Bharat Anand, Harvard Business School professor and faculty chair of HBX, says the HBX course’s format — an online program that students can take alongside jobs — allows students to continue to pursue other intellectual passions.

The increasing time demands of the global workforce mean such flexibility is ever more sought after.

“Business schools need to adapt to the changing needs of sponsoring organizations and a world of work that requires more flexibility,” says Dr Richard McBain, head of post-experience postgraduate programs at the UK’s Henley Business School. Approximately 50% of guided self-study on Henley’s Flexible EMBA is online.

As more companies cut back on funding executives through business school, a blended model of learning is becoming more important for executive education departments in particular.

“Online learning offers another level of flexibility for students, providing an element of on-demand learning that fits into busy work schedules and lifestyles,” says Derek Amoako, marketing executive at London’s Cass Business School.

Stanford GSB is a pioneer on the executive front. It launched an online program — the LEAD Certificate — which is designed for senior company managers. The $16,000 course uses a platform developed by NovoEd, a tech company which provides services to a number of business schools including Wharton, Darden and Berkeley Haas.

It is an expense for business schools to work with tech groups but they recognize the need. “It would be easy to see Moocs as a potential threat to the traditional business school model…[But] many schools have been using them to create a complementary, well-rounded educational experience,” says HEC Paris’ Bernard.

Julia Stiglitz, business development lead at Coursera, the Silicon Valley Mooc developer, like many of her competitors says the growing demand for education means going beyond the traditional walls of higher education. “This is why Moocs are so important,” she says.

The digital revolution is in full swing but no one provider has yet crafted the ideal delivery model. “We are just at the beginning of this process,” says Babson College’s William.

The race goes on.