Business schools need to mimic new reality

In a typical year, reported the head of a business school in Singapore a few months into the Covid-19 global pandemic, the school campus would host about 9000 students from 100 countries on their executive training programmes. In 2020, that flow of international students dried up almost overnight.

For that business school and others around the world, the picture was bleak as they pumped the brakes on their on-campus teaching and paused recruitment. In one United States survey in March, 93% of 46 responding deans predicted that the crisis would accelerate the closure of business schools. If less-prestigious business schools were pushed to the brink, even the industry nobility felt the pinch.

But although campuses shut, teaching did not come to a standstill. Instead business schools, in common with other industries, took on a rapid and wholesale transition to online — some even modifying their recruiting practices, staging virtual coffee chats or one-on-one online information sessions. And students, by and large, have responded positively. US universities have witnessed a sharp rise in applications for online MBAs. And in Europe, students have reportedly leapt at the new and expanding online learning opportunities.

Practising what we preach

South African business schools have followed a similar trajectory, having to change gears at pace. In doing so, we have demonstrated a degree of agility and responsiveness that we expect from our students. And, after what can only be described as a tumultuous year at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB), we are currently getting ready to complete our 2020 postgraduate classes — all of which have come along on this journey with us and will cross the finish line.

After an initial hiatus, we’ve also seen our corporate clients resume executive training initiatives with a renewed appetite for pursuing this online especially as new skills needed developing —  and fast. How does one manage virtual teams better? How can online meetings be conducted more effectively?

New opportunities for business schools

Before the pandemic, business schools, like most universities, had relied largely on campus-based, synchronous teaching and learning, where students were taught together in one space in real time. Besides the in-class time, students and executive delegates also had to complete readings, case-study preparations and group-work in their own time. Many business schools offer modular programmes, where students occasionally spend some time together in a classroom, but also engage in self-paced, asynchronous learning (often referred to as inter-modular work). Here syndicate groups typically self-organise to work together on projects, frequently using technology to overcome the fact that not all live in close proximity.

Covid-19 has thrust us into a new world order where business schools have had to blend synchronous learning — but in an online space featuring live learning sessions with faculty —  with larger components of asynchronous learning. Traditional “online learning” mainly follows the latter route; students sit down with the course content at different times from wherever they may find themselves, with little or no synchronous teaching provided.

Post-Covid, it is likely that this hybrid teaching model will evolve further where reduced synchronous campus-based teaching will be complemented by both synchronous and asynchronous online learning.

There are clear challenges. Scholars, whether technophiles or otherwise, have had to adapt their classroom curricula for online delivery. Students are concerned about missing out on the invaluable on-campus vibe. Friendships are not as easy to forge via zoom as over a cup of coffee or a drink in the student pub. And as much as curricula can be adapted and traditional classrooms mimicked online, humans are social creatures and groupwork, hanging out after classes, and networking have always been a fundamental part of the learning experience and business schools’ value proposition. As one MBA candidate at the Yale School of Management put it: “My decision to go to business school was primarily the community aspect.”

But there are also numerous advantages to a hybrid teaching and learning model. Students save on relocation costs, as well as travel costs and time. They can now register at institutions they would previously not have considered. In turn, business schools can access a broader pool of students. Covid-19 also forced once-reluctant business schools to take a leap of faith into the possibilities of online and hybrid teaching.

We can’t be sure if these adaptations will stick. Applying the principles of Darwinian natural selection, some teaching traits will become part of the DNA of business schools, others will not. Some aspects of the business school experience may improve. There is still much to learn, notably, how much can we mimic the experiences and networking opportunities that are characteristic of on-campus teaching? Are traditional assessment methods suitable for online and hybrid learning? And how can we reinvent new models of experiential learning and campus experiences for students? The trick is not to think about just doing the same things online, but doing things in a whole new way that takes advantage of the new medium to deliver a better product.

Going forward, we will likely take our cue from our clients and students, many of whom are keen to return to the campus. Even so, we foresee that hybrid teaching practices will become a feature of our pedagogy in the short and medium term. In reality this mimics the world in which we are currently living —  with most corporates still having the majority of their staff working remotely, and doing so effectively. Business schools need to match and exceed this if they are to do more than just survive.

We can choose to view 2020 as an anomaly that can soon be filed away as a once-in-a-lifetime oddity. Or we can choose to embrace the masterclass it has given us in agility and responsiveness. This year has undoubtedly been a turning point for business schools and universities. And in its wake, we have an opportunity to build more sustainable and resilient teaching models that deliver an outstanding business education to more people in more locations.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Rayner Canning
Rayner Canning is the director of business development at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).

Related stories

China’s resource-for-infrastructure deals

Are RFIs a viable model for aiding Africa’s economic development?

Covid vaccines: Hope balanced with caution

As Covid vaccines near the manufacturing stage, a look at two polio vaccines provides valuable historical insights

Covid-19 vaccines offer hope as world leaders plan for future

Hopes over Covid-19 vaccines have given a boost to virus-weary citizens across the globe, but the disease remains rampant and world leaders are urging people to be patient

Virtual world left out of policy on universities’ international collaboration

The pandemic has underlined the need for effective research, teaching and learning through virtual platforms regardless of travel restrictions

There is no honour in leaking a matric exam paper

Those involved in the breach must be ‘dealt with swiftly and harshly’

Masterclasses in duck-and-dive

You didn’t need to be a genius or a prophet to predict that Bushiri would run or that Zuma would stall

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

CR17 report is not perfect, but the investigation was rational,...

So says public protector Busisiwe Mkwhebane’s lawyer, who said she had reason to suspect the money was being laundered through the campaign

‘We struggle for water, but power stations and coal mines...

A proposed pipeline will bring water polluted with Gauteng’s sewage to the Waterberg in Limpopo to boost the coal industry during the climate crisis

Journey through anxious Joburg

A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South

Football legend Maradona dies

The Argentinian icon died at his home on Wednesday, two weeks after having surgery on a blood clot in his brain

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…