Federico Frattini, Dean of MIP Politecnico di Milano examines what business schools need to do in order to keep up with the pace of technological change
Covid-19 has changed, and will continue to change, the way various sectors in society operate. Teaching within business schools has been particularly impacted, with the introduction of new models and different teaching approaches being developed at rapid speed since the start of the pandemic. From the moment lockdown started across the globe, many business schools were required to convert their in-person training courses to online programs, so that students could safely work from home whilst not halting their education. As a result, there is no doubt that beyond this pandemic, traditional face-to-face paths will be increasingly amplified and integrated with digital tools. Therefore, it is vital that business schools direct their efforts and investments towards digital tools capable of transforming their physical spaces. These investments will be fundamental to encourage interactive teaching and an increasing number of educational institutions will find themselves having a “physical” and an “on cloud” campus.
So, the digital development of educational programs is already changing rapidly, and so far, business schools have responded in varying ways. In some instances, business schools have demonstrated extraordinary openness with their capabilities in implementing well-structured and advanced methods to digital learning. For some however, the response has been more delayed, and the approaches used for online training has been somewhat staggered. These differences of speed and advancements in business schools’ short-term responses is largely due to the individual school’s previous experience with online training. The institutions that had experimented with online training in the years prior to the pandemic have indeed found themselves ready for this unprompted necessity for widespread digitalisation within their institutions. But what do all business schools need to do in order to keep up with the pace of technological change?
Aim to innovate
Firstly, business schools need to understand that online education is no longer an added luxury, but rather one of the main foundations for the future of learning. Indeed, the brand and the solidity of an established business school has been vital to its continued success throughout the pandemic, and as we look ahead to how online education will thrive within these institutions beyond Covid-19, the most important thing for business schools to consider is how to be present and to stay relevant. The pandemic has resulted in many competitors outside of the realms of education to have a foothold in the area of online learning, because it’s a market that’s growing, scalable, and with the potential for immense development. Therefore, it is vital that business schools are constantly aiming to innovate and transform their educational methods beyond the required boundaries, because otherwise it’s left free to be occupied by other groups, which are often quite valid and, in some cases, also equipped with major firepower.
Considering the above therefore, in order for online learning within business schools to not only be a success, but to also be able to compete on the ever-changing market, digital tools must be flexible, personalised and economically accessible. However, success goes beyond the capability of the tools themselves, and rather the critical aspect to the success of widespread digitalisation within business schools is organisational coordination, especially in the initial stages of implementation. Designing an effective online program requires experience and knowledge in areas such as instructional design and the moderation of online sessions, in addition to the will and ability to train the teaching staff to use these tools. Indeed, the digital tools that can be used to create online learning platforms are actually widely accessible at low cost and are technologically very advanced – institutions just need to know how to use these tools effectively and how to develop and personalise them to their advantage.
Another aspect that business schools must recognise in their path of digitalisation is that they must understand that online teaching is not limited to simply using a digital platform to duplicate what would have been taught in the classroom, but instead that learning in a digital context requires a significant restructuring of the entire teaching approach. In a traditional, face-to-face lesson, the teacher is able to skillfully combine different approaches and training tools. First of all, the teacher must be able to transfer concepts, tools and knowledge to the students – concerning the subject matter of the course. Secondly, in face-to-face teaching the teacher encourages students to apply this knowledge to the resolution and discussion of exercises and practical cases, consequently activating the transformation of this knowledge into skills. Finally, these skills are tested by the students through practical discussions.
In a digital context however, these mechanisms of an effective lesson are harder to achieve. Only by carefully designing and planning these different components of an operative educational experience using a suitable digital platform can institutions be able to transfer their training into an online format. For example, it has been proven in many schools that knowledge can be effectively transferred using digital content such as video clips recorded by teachers. Lessons can be carried out through live, synchronous sessions, supported by tools such as Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Cisco WebEx, Zoom, or similar platforms. This can be combined and supported through semi-synchronous tools such as social discussion tools, suitably moderated by the teacher or tutor. Of course, these methods should all be trialed and tested within the individual institutions, as one size does not fit all when it comes to each business schools teaching approaches.
At MIP Politecnico di Milano, we call this approach to online learning Smart Learning, and we have experienced it since 2014 in our Masters and MBA programs. This is an area where we have achieved great results, with over 550 students who have studied in our digital programs since 2014, and with our International Flex EMBA being ranked as one of the best in the world. At MIP, we recognised that even prior to Covid-19, there had already been a growing demand by students for greater digitalisation, flexibility, and accessibility of their learning, which has only been highlighted further in recent months. Most prominently, we have witnessed that digital tools can be incredibly valuable for student inclusivity. Several times in the past years, and more recently during the pandemic, I have encountered students who, for serious health or work problems, have had to “pause” their participation in a traditional, face-to-face training course. Digital training can have a great value in ensuring the continuity of the training path for those in difficult situations.
More broadly, online learning gives students the opportunity to have more flexibility in their lives in general. Also, if students want to attend a program located on the other side of the world from where they live, studying online means they will be able to stay where they are. Therefore, it is essential that digital tools are developed efficiently within business schools in order to transform classroom knowledge into an extensive hub of online educational content. This should be delivered in a personalised and specific way for all students in order to give them the skills needed for a professional world that will become ever more dependent on technology. Information is truly endless online, and it is important that online platforms are seen as not only a tool to deliver content, but rather the main driver of innovation and learning.
Ultimately, the pandemic has and will continue to accelerate the process that leads business schools to develop effective tools for life-long, digital learning. Of course, as we emerge from this pandemic, for many the “new normal” within the higher-education sector will be profoundly different from what they knew before, and there is no doubt that digital will play a decisive role in the transformation of many institutions as a result. As mentioned above, this evolution will require business schools to have profound reflections as well as an acceleration of investments and experiences in the application of digital tools across their programs. This is crucial if they are to not only compete in a growing, competitive market, but to also benefit the individual lives of the students that are truly at the core of each business school.