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Connected Classroom: Digitization Of The MBA Degree Gathers Pace

Business schools embrace sweeping technological change to delivery models

Mon Sep 21 2015

The digital revolution has not come easy to business schools but it is striking how many are now embracing sweeping technological change.

As the scramble to understanding emerging digital threats top institutions like Stanford, Harvard, MIT and INSEAD are investing heavily in online education. Others including IE in Spain, Warwick in the UK, and Babson College of the US have developed high-ranking digital versions of their MBA degrees.

The question most business schools are asking themselves is how can we adapt to the exponential growth of demand for online learning?   

“We will see a lot of innovation in delivery models and program features over the next five to ten years,” says William Lamb, dean of Babson College’s graduate school, which has invested in specialized tools and adopted new systems to deliver its MBA degree online, ranked seventh globally by the FT.

Business schools are focusing resources on adapting to the digital realm, as they compete with high-tech companies which form the nascent education technology sector. Harvard Business School (HBS) has been one of the most-hyped. It entered the digital learning market a year ago with HBX CORe, an online program that teaches courses on analytics, economics, and accounting.  

Harvard is pioneering the virtual classroom with HBX Live, which sees faculty teach from the Boston TV studio of public broadcaster WGBH.

Nitin Nohria, HBS’ softly-spoken dean, says HBX Live will give “us a new way to engage students and alumni — not just here in Boston, but around the globe — as their professional and educational needs evolve”.

Geoffrey Garrett, dean of Wharton School, says: “Going online for us as faculty gives us two great opportunities: to offer education to talented students all over the world who may not be able to come to campus; and to learn and innovate in terms of best pedagogical practices on the fly, in real time, [and] at a scale that has never been possible before.”

Working with technology is a challenge for management academics who have spent decades educating future business leaders from lecterns inside bricks-and-mortar campuses. But they recognize the need to evolve.

“The market has changed. It used to be that if it happened on the Internet it was considered second-rate. People don’t think that way anymore, so long as there’s a trusted brand behind the product,” says Raj Echambadi, associate dean at University of Illinois’ College of Business, which shook up the market with the launch of an online MBA earned through Moocs — massive open online courses — earlier this year.

Top academics have predicted the demise of business schools because of the rapid growth of education technology. Executive education is an obvious target. “There are indeed new competitors coming from a variety of sources,” says Kai Peters, chief executive of UK executive training specialist Ashridge Business School. “Consultants, HR professional service firms, publishers and others are all vying for a foothold in the executive education space.”

Moocs have been the nosiest challenger. “We’re providing access to many learners who otherwise would not be able to further their career or take courses from some of the best universities,” says Julia Stiglitz, who leads business development at Coursera, the market leader with 15 million online learners.

But she does not see edtech as the death of the university. “Traditional degrees will remain as relevant and important as ever,” she says.

Not many business schools want to admit they are under threat. But the vast majority see the digitization of their programs taking shape.

Dr Richard McBain, head of post-experience postgraduate programs at Henley Business School, says “blended” campus and online learning will become the dominant approach for MBA programs.

But he is not complacent about the need to adapt: “Some business schools are leading digital innovation, such as with Moocs,” he says. “But a lot innovation is happening in other organizations [too] and business schools need to keep up.”