Evolving the university offer and ensuring degrees remain ‘fresh’

Helping launch UCL’s online-only MBA this year provided James Berry with keen insights into the ways universities can invest in the future

December 11, 2020
Student studying
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As universities grapple with their response to the pandemic, it’s clear that change is necessary on many fronts. From the way degree programmes are delivered to the content within them, every stone is being unturned globally to examine the best way to deliver a top-quality education to students. 

Exploration and challenging the status quo were two of the considerations that informed University College London (UCL)’s approach when, three years ago, we made the decision to develop an online MBA. There was no way to predict the restrictions the pandemic would force upon us as an institution, but the MBA was an investment in the future in all its eventualities.

The programme, which was launched this year, has become a test bed for new ideas, where we can push the boundaries of how we operate as an institution. It has the potential to inform how all our degree programme content is developed, and for the first time, we’re hoping to offer ongoing access to both courses and our community long after students have finished their degrees.  

Breaking the module content mould

In developing the new online MBA, we wanted to reconsider the course from two perspectives: the traditional content students find on an MBA course and the way the course is delivered.  

Degree programmes need to provide students with the critical-thinking and forecasting capabilities and the analytical approach to understand a variety of problems, regardless of whether they have prepared for them in the past. I wanted to take a fresh look at the MBA and be rigorous in including only content that is relevant for today’s − and tomorrow’s − business environment. The UCL MBA was therefore created from the ground up based on current trends and, in particular, the central role data plays in making business decisions. We stress throughout the programme how to be a critical consumer of information.  

This was not a reworking of an existing programme into an online form, but a re-conception of the core degree material developed specifically for live classroom-based interaction, delivered online. The challenges from an institutional perspective were having to build an understanding that we did not have all the answers usually expected of internal review panels before academic approval. In building a new programme – for a different student body – blending a foundation of asynchronous lectures supporting an interactive live weekly classroom seminar, we needed additional flexibility to allow faculty members to deviate from approved structures as they developed their modules and attempted to enact the initial plans and discovered limitations or, more often, possibilities.

Accelerating the academic review timetable

Computer science courses and technology subjects are areas that move at an incredibly fast pace, so module content developed even two years earlier can quickly become outdated. As we prepare students for a range of situations in a business environment, we know things are changing rapidly in terms of both management strategy and the technology producing vital company information.  

University programme content should keep up with market developments and new thinking, but in an academic environment, which traditionally takes about 18 months to approve new modules, it is difficult to make this vision a reality. With the new MBA, I’m keen to cut the rigorous approval process to just three months to allow us to introduce new modules and refresh existing ones to make sure the latest thinking is reflected. This acceleration comes with increased coordination from my team and university committees – not business as usual.

Delivering ongoing, flexible access

Engaging with higher education should not just take place in the time you’re on the course. I want to make the new modules, guest lectures and auxiliary content available to the MBA graduates, too, allowing students to refresh or expand their skill set on an ongoing basis.

Our live seminars are usually capped at 18 students, a number easily managed in discussion-based designs. However, with a range of class times on offer for our degree students, not every seminar group will hit our maximum size, so we are exploring schemes to allow alumni to apply for these spaces on a first-come-first-served basis.

Our current students have also asked if they can take more units than are technically required by the degree programme. Modular learning is an area we are experimenting with and want to deliver. The MBA is delivered fully online, so continuing access to additional modules means studying could take place at any time and from anywhere. Our goal would be for alumni to continue to build their academic record and transcript beyond their degree, earning knowledge and recognition from the UCL School of Management.

Building life-long learning communities

As a sector, we need to build a community of learners who will stay engaged with the latest business strategies and continuously enrich their knowledge. One of the key reasons people go into higher education and take MBAs, in particular, is to access like-minded, influential peers. Our students come from many industry sectors and bring with them different problems and opportunities that are valuable to consider. Ongoing access enables alumni to continue to learn and network with current students, and for current students to learn from both more experienced past students and the industry sectors within which they work.

This programme is being used as a prototype within UCL to examine how the university can adjust its processes and procedures to move at scale and at pace more generally across the key fast-evolving subject areas. I believe it’s important for the sector to continuously explore new ways of doing things, making changes where they are needed and committing to students always getting access to the latest thinking.

James Berry is associate professor at the UCL School of Management and director of the UCL MBA, which is fully online.  

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Reader's comments (1)

Brilliant Jim - absolutely terrific!