School's out for traditional teaching as business looks forward

As technological advances revolutionise the way we learn, established business schools are having to reinvent themselves. Stephen Hoare finds out how they are staying ahead of the curve in the digital age

by Stephen Hoare
Independent: Graduate Supplement

If you ask any senior academic, in any business school, anywhere in the world, they will tell you that demand for management qualifications is at an all-time high. But scratch the surface and you will find there is a distinct uneasiness that the days of the traditional 'bricks and mortar' business school may be numbered.

Although the appetite for business education is growing at home and internationally, the market is evolving with a fragmentation of traditional markets being served by a proliferation of qualifications, programmes and short courses in a variety of modes, from full-time to part-time, executive and distance learning. With the traditional MBA (Masters of Business Administration) in relative decline, numbers studying online have continued to rise. And there is a bigger threat on the horizon in the form of massive open online courses (Moocs).

Like Uber cabs, and driverless trains, Moocs are a classic example of disruptive technology. With slick audio visual presentation and knowledge sound bites, the technology behind Moocs is being adapted to sex up traditionally- taught Masters, MBA and executive education programmes. The appeal of Moocs is they provide a short, targeted and concise knowledge top-up.

This selling point is not lost on Paris-based business school HEC (Hautes Etudes Commerciales), which uses Moocs to transform the delivery of executive education, short courses aimed at business clients. "Executive education is a place where we can experiment with new formats and new technologies to enhance participants' experience," says Karine Le Joly, HEC's director of innovation for executive education programmes.

HEC has recently introduced two Coursera Moocs and is working with technology providers Corp Academy. "Traditional business schools will have to work with new market entrants and new ways of accessing the market," says Le Joly.

In the age of globalised business where fast-moving change is the norm, it is self-evident that traditional bricks and mortar business schools will have to change. And change is something the best and most forward-looking business schools have always understood. It is part of their DNA. "I think we need to be ever more untraditional and learn to become more agile," says Marianne Lewis, newly appointed dean of Cass Business School. "We need to be developing partnerships, not programmes. What you teach becomes obsolete so quickly. It's about giving people effective tools for learning."

Cass has developed a new approach for delivering business education. Lewis' big idea is to gradually move all programmes online and to modularise them - basically chop them up into small manageable chunks which can be studied independently. "My idea is for students to take what they want when they need it," he says. "If you want a whole degree, we'll help you put that together."

A modular approach would also make it easier to offer top-up courses to keep alumni up to speed with the latest developments. Cass' first move in this direction will come in May with the launch of its first modular online MSc in global finance.

Lewis maintains that traditional business schools like Cass must keep up with students' and employers' expectations, and in the time-pressured world of business this means ditching lectures and embracing digital media.

"The days of the sage on the stage are over," agrees Sir Paul Judge, president of the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and founder of Judge Business School. "The best business schools adopt a blended learning approach. It makes more sense to watch a short audio-visual presentation on your computer before exploring these ideas through classroom discussion. It means students' time is spent more profitably."

The association of MBAs (AMBA) accredits 235 business schools in over 50 countries around the world. The quality of faculty, diversity of student body, and three years' minimum qualifying experience from students are among the criteria laid down. In the UK, less than 40 business schools out of 120 institutions are AMBA accredited. In a competitive environment, students' choice of business school is based on rankings, accreditation and internet research.

If the traditional business school is facing a crisis, then Sir Paul believes that only the best will thrive. "The best are doing very well and the worst are being squeezed out," he says. Judge Business School is ranked number one in the UK for its one-year MBA programme.

Of course, bigger business schools have more resources to invest in improving the student offer. It is a virtuous circle. This sometimes drives mergers and rationalisation within the sector and there is little doubt that smaller independent business schools have needed the protection afforded by being part of a larger institution.

When Henley Management College merged with Reading University in 2008 to become Henley Business School, it shifted its focus from MBAs and training for the senior executive market to become an all-through business school catering for undergraduates through to DBAs (Doctorates of Business Administration). Closer ties with Reading University has enabled Henley Business School to become a big player in the market. We have become more global in focus," says Henley's deputy dean, professor Ginny Gibson.

Henley has a small campus in South Africa and is set to become an important player in Southeast Asia as part of the University of Reading's new campus in Malaysia. Being part of a larger institution is reassuring in a market that is undergoing major change. Says Professor Gibson: "It reinforces the brand."

But how traditional is Henley? "I've never thought of us as being completely traditional," says Richard McBain, head of Henley's postgraduate post-experience programmes. McBain is heading up a comprehensive review of content, structure and delivery of the MBA programme. Among the major changes is introducing up-to-date modules such as big data analysis. Henley's blended learning approach involves a combination of face-to-face workshops and self-study. "No MBA can do without an online component," McBain continues. "Why? Because online has shifted and we can now use multimedia videos, blogs and get feedback from YouTube via voice and video. This is driven by the success of Moocs and because the YouTube generation get excited by the visual."

Whether in decline or not, the fundamental purpose of a business school remains unchanged. "Traditional business schools give people the knowledge and experience they need to manage and lead organisations including businesses, charities and public-sector bodies," says Sir Paul Judge. "It gives people an academic framework, practical experience, a code of ethics and access to continuing education, enabling them to keep up with trends."

'You can't tell executives they can only start studying in September'

MBA distance-learning provider, Edinburgh Business School (EBS), boasts 12,000 students worldwide. It is based in Heriot-Watt University's state-of-the art building campus near Edinburgh airport.

Business is prospering. EBS has opened branch campuses in Dubai and Malaysia, and works with 25 international university partners around the world. It has four specialist MScs and a large DBA programme with over 50 doctoral students under supervision.

"The traditional business school is in decline," says EBS acting head Alick Kitchin. "But traditional business schools are geared towards their own needs, not students'. We reverse that. Executives tend to be time-stressed and demanding. You can't say to them 'you can only turn up in September'. With us you can start your MBA at any time; study remotely and in your own time, and can take as long as you want." Seventy per cent of distance learning students complete within five years.

With full degree-awarding powers, around a quarter of EBS' students are based in America, another quarter come from Europe while more than a third are from Africa and the Middle East. "Students come to us by word of mouth and by reputation," says Kitchin, "and we are recognised by education ministries all over the world."

TITLE: Independent
STORY DATE: 21/02/2016
EDITION: Graduate Supplement