Why far-sighted schools will keep their distance

January 5, 2001

Distance learning may be the future for business schools, but they face many pitfalls, warns Bernard Ramanantsoa.

Some years ago, a French comedian had audiences roaring with laughter at the story of the man who wonders for hours which way the tree he is watching at the roadside will fall. Will it be to the left or to the right? You can probably guess how the story ends. The tree finally falls on him.

That is rather how I feel when I am asked about distance learning. New technologies are going to turn the world of education upside down, but nobody knows exactly how.

We all know it is necessary to move with the times and we all worry about starting too late. Yet, at the same time, we are aware that a move in the wrong direction may prove a costly mistake. Many people today do no more than talk about change, although they all analyse everybody else's experiences. But there is no clear pattern that fits the new order, and it is generally accepted that ideology overrides strict analysis.

After proclaiming that distance learning would save money, business schools are now discovering that "presence" teaching is less expensive. In the same way, while people used to assert that new technologies would favour the acquisition of knowledge, the problem is clearly more complicated. Now they merely say that it is necessary to mix presence and distance learning in proportions that depend on the objectivesin play.

No definite technological solution has yet emerged. Everybody remembers the glaring failures of institutions that flung themselves headlong into costly CD-Rom technology. Even now they have hardly recovered.

The resistance to distance learning demonstrated by the teaching profession almost goes without saying, although it is nothing compared with the strategic fears of business schools.

Should they invest massively in these new technologies? If so, which technologies should they choose? Should they make this investment to the detriment of research, which in fact has made them what they are?

One solution might be to forge partnerships with private operators. But could the private partner be getting its hands on knowledge for its own ends?

Can business schools continue to invest in research while private operators, using the best teachers and offering their services on an individual basis, use the school's best research for commercial purposes?

A strategy teacher facing a similar problem told me a few years ago: "When I know the solution, I do not give it away. I sell it!" But I have no solution to sell. I just think we cannot stand here and do nothing. It would be like getting ready to be hit on the head by that tree.

It is already apparent that we will see a distinction between ordinary training using basic technologies and a learning market focusing more on team-building and behavioural matters, in which presence teaching will continue to be a key element.

In the same way, many business schools will position themselves as "elitist" if they can, choosing the best students or business executives as their privileged clients.

We will also see a stricter formalisation of relations between corporate universities and business schools. The costs of research will have to be shared eventually between these two types of institution.

It is difficult to say who will win and who will lose. However, the winners will probably be those who succeed in establishing genuine partnerships with business that respect the identities of each participant.

This desire to create real partnerships built on a mutual respect for the partners' individual identities is, and probably will remain, the outward manifestation of an understandable fear. Behind words such as "partnership", "alliance" and "association", and despite the proximity of the worlds of business and education, the relationship between them is actually rather ambiguous.

More than ever before, with the relatively recent arrival of the new technologies, educational institutions feel that they need the know-how and the financial support of the business world.

Likewise, more than in the past, companies sense that there is a strongly growing market in education. And they know very well that in the expression "knowledge management" the word "knowledge" is just as important as the word "management."

It is easy to understand the ambitions of some players and the fears of others. However, it is also possible to predict that a partnership that resulted in appropriation would probably lead, in the years to come, to the disappearance of knowledge production.

The only solution is to respect individual identity. The company must preserve its function of producing and the business school must remain a school. It is vital that the partnership should not be seen or experienced as a first step towards eventual absorption.

Bernard Ramanantsoa is dean of the HEC Graduate Business School in Paris.

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