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 some 9,000 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 US 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 while campuses shut, teaching did not come to a standstill. Instead business schools, in common with other industries, engaged 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.
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?
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. At the UCT GSB, as with many other business schools, we also offer modular programmes, where students occasionally spent some time together in a classroom, but also engaged in self-paced, asynchronous learning (often referred to as inter-modular work). Here syndicate groups typically self-organised to work together on projects, frequently using technology to overcome the fact that not all lived in close proximity.
COVID-19 has thrust us into a new world order where business schools have had to pivot to an offering that blends both 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.
Rayner Canning is the Director of Business Development at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).