Sarah Kingsbury, journalist

As the pandemic took off across the world in early 2020, the education sector faced the massive challenge of moving teaching online almost overnight. MBA programmes, like the rest of the higher education sector, saw campus-based learning cease and courses delivered virtually.

For the more well-established online programmes, such as Oxford Brookes Business School’s global MBA, there has been little disruption. ‘You could still study everything in a way that we’d already designed for online delivery,’ says Dr Diana Limburg, the programme’s director.

‘We adopted a TED Talk model, creating 15-minute chunks of teaching followed by active learning, and used polling and quizzing’

But the more traditional, face-to-face university and business school courses have had to redeploy staff to support online teaching, incorporating live webinars, online classrooms, video lessons, synchronous learning and virtual case studies, in what a report by AMBA and BFA Barco on education technology has called a ‘seismic shift from classroom to online in 2020’.

Rapid switch

The report found that 91% of business school leaders increased the amount of digital or online learning opportunities, with 85% conducting lectures using virtual teaching technology. The swing from classroom to online teaching between 2019 and 2020 has been rapid: 84% of teaching was classroom-based pre-pandemic, falling to 24% in 2020, while online teaching grew from 8% pre-Covid-19 to 68% during the pandemic.

To combat online fatigue, teaching methods have needed to evolve, with shorter portions of delivery, more specific pre-lecture preparation and post-learning feedback. Some techniques had started pre-Covid-19, but the pandemic was a catalyst for the digitisation of teaching delivery and technological innovation on campus.

‘Covid and the pandemic has accelerated levels of innovation,’ says Professor Stephen Bach, executive dean of King’s Business School (KBS) at King’s College London. He says that while translating the teaching of a classroom-designed programme to online delivery was not without its challenges, by taking an agile approach, reflecting on what worked well online, remote course delivery was quickly embedded.

‘We adopted a TED Talk model,’ says Bach, ‘creating 15-minute chunks of teaching followed by active learning, and using technology such as polling and quizzing to reinforce the learning.’

Group benefits

Remote delivery and technology adoption have also created efficiencies and improvements for group collaborative work, according to John Colley, associate dean at Warwick Business School (WBS). ‘Breakout and randomised groups were more easily assigned and were quicker to focus on the task, bringing significant advantages in time efficiency,’ he says.

The pandemic has seen schools revise syllabuses. ‘How companies, societies and people have coped with Covid will be a source of insights’

At Oxford Brookes, Limburg describes how students formed research bubbles: smaller collaboration groups that allow students to develop stronger personal links. When multiplied across modules, they developed broader and deeper relationships, greatly enhancing the value of the student experience.

‘Networking is a crucial element for any postgraduate qualification,’ says Limburg, ‘especially building up a network that will be useful beyond the time at business school.’ Social media, she adds, has played a huge part, too: ‘WhatsApp and LinkedIn, for example, helped tremendously in enabling virtual networking to continue, creating and maintaining networks, and creating valuable channels of communication.’

Remote delivery brought other benefits, including access to high-quality speakers from business. ‘At WBS we were able to get really good speakers immediately,’ says Colley. KBS found the same – for example, tapping into the expertise of speakers from its advisory council for debates on diversity and inclusion as part of its Connections initiative.

Syllabus regeneration

Not only has the means of delivering an MBA changed, the pandemic has also seen schools and universities revising their syllabuses. ‘How companies, societies and people have coped with Covid will be a source of lessons and insights,’ says Limburg.

Topics such as business resilience and navigating disruption have renewed importance, with KBS introducing a module on managing extreme situations.

Digital strategy and leadership, always popular with Gen Y and Z, are expected to grow even further in popularity, as are fintech, environmental, social and governance, and entrepreneurship modules.

The longer term

The pandemic has led many to reassess their professional development, too. The benefits of reduced travel and associated costs could open up access to, and interest in, postgraduate courses and attract an even more global student profile. KBS, for example, saw postgraduate applications rise by around 10% for the 2020/21 academic year.

Blended learning and hybrid delivery is expected to continue, with around 40% of business school leaders predicting that both methods will replace classroom-based delivery over the short to medium term, according to the report from AMBA and BFA Barco.

Any hesitancy or misconceptions regarding the role of technology within postgraduate education seem to have been overcome, and focus might now increase on the development of business simulations and virtual reality to enhance modules in future. Virtual case studies interacting with business have demonstrated new possibilities.

As Limburg says: ‘We expect to see a world where there are more options, more opportunities for professional development, and with a global perspective.’

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