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Teaching intelligence: tapping into business schools’ online know-how

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 5 May 2020

A person can be seen riding the Charging Bull in the financial distrcict  of New York City amid Coronavirus pandemic on April 5, 2020.

Source: Getty
Bull market: business schools are well versed in distance learning

Business schools operate separately from the rest of the university sector. Given their closer links to companies and businesses, larger enrolment of international students, high fees and vast wealth, they can often seem an enigma to fellow educators. But the coronavirus outbreak has proved a great equaliser, affecting all academic institutions, which have been forced to move teaching online.

Business schools, which often teach those in work as well as students halfway across the globe, are well versed in distance learning, even if most institutions retained a physical campus. Their experience will be invaluable as higher education makes the transition online.

A survey of the Chartered Association of Business Schools’ (Cabs) UK members in 2018 found that 89 per cent of the 114 senior staff surveyed said they either already offer or are planning to offer blended degrees with part online and part on-campus study. Plus, 69 per cent of respondents agreed that “online provision is likely to replace some current face-to-face degrees entirely”.


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“It shows that, long before the coronavirus, business schools have been thinking about online learning spreading further,” said Robert MacIntosh, chair of Cabs.

Professor MacIntosh, who is also the head of the School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, said universities will need to be acutely aware of student engagement. “It’s one thing to say: ‘Here are some resources you might find useful’, but it’s another thing checking that the whole cohort is engaging, so keeping a dialogue and monitoring message boards becomes important,” he said. Mixing the digital lecture theatre, tutorial support through smaller groups and individual feedback is crucial, he said.

One thing Heriot-Watt’s business school, the Edinburgh Business School, had invested in was learning technicians, who advised the school to break up learning into chunks and bitesize pieces, peppered with quizzes.

Professor MacIntosh added that it was important to think about contingency. “If you’re not able to dial in, because your signal has dropped, for example − when it comes to managing your stress levels, that’s the academic equivalent of a live-TV mishap.”

“I would say to my staff: record two 15-minute chunks of the key messages, so if it all goes pear-shaped you can say: ‘Watch those while I try and work out how to get back online,’” he advised.

Bill Boulding, dean of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, agreed that it was important to create pre-recorded content that students can view in their own time.

Professor Boulding said that his institution experienced the effect of the crisis earlier than many Western institutions because it has a campus in China. Although Duke Fuqua has had decades of experience in online provision, teaching on the Chinese campus was wholly face-to-face when the crisis hit. “We managed well, but I can’t pretend it was seamless,” he said.

Alongside having a faculty that had a “really positive attitude towards the transition”, Professor Boulding said it had been helpful to tap into the school’s decades of experience in distance learning.

For example, he said it is important to set rules on how students use online technology, such as video always having to be turned on, even in larger lectures, and students should not have backgrounds that are too distracting. “This may seem small, but they are important for ensuring students stay engaged. If they feel that turning on their video is optional, they’ll leave it off and know that they can’t be seen,” he added.

In those larger lectures, it is important to ensure that faculty have a larger screen so they can see as many students as possible. “It helps them to read body language and connect with their audience,” Professor Boulding said.

Other techniques include breaking students off into smaller chat groups. “For us as a school, working in teams is important, and online learning doesn’t have to diminish that,” he said. “Teachers need to be thoughtful about how they structure their messages.”

Valerie Claude Gaudillat, director of the Institute for Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship at the Audencia Business School in France, agreed that, despite years of experience in distance learning, the rapid switch to the entire institution going online was “a challenge”.

She said teachers who were inexperienced with online learning should “keep it simple and stupid at first” – don’t try to replicate what you are doing in the classroom straight away, because that requires more thought.

Professor Claude Gaudillat said one way to help those who are less experienced with distance learning was to “buddy” them up with a colleague who has more experience.

Students had reported high levels of satisfaction since the switch, she said, but it was important to recognise that they might become tired of online learning. “Academics must diversify, think about the new tools that can be used − too much repetition and students will lose interest,” she said.

When it comes to students, Professor MacIntosh warned that the sector, including business schools, needed to recognise the difficulties students face. “A lot of people who sign up to MBAs are in work, already educated and more affluent: they have a smartphone, a laptop, a broadband connection,” he said. “You have to realise that the very laudable objective of widening participation means there are undergraduate students who don’t have access to those resources or a quiet place to study, so you have to equalise the learning outcomes and learning opportunities.”

Heriot-Watt, which has many students studying in sub-Saharan Africa, has even designed its MBA programmes for intermittent internet access and handheld devices, he said.

“You can download a chunk of your learning when you are in a place with wi-fi, you work on that offline and then it re-syncs when you get back into wi-fi, without relying on students having the latest software or continuous access to 4G,” he said. “Obviously, universities had not had the time to design courses this way because of the speed of the crisis, but it is important to take into consideration going forward.”