Training & CPD » MBAs evolve through pandemic

MBAs evolve through pandemic

MBA schools have been forced to change content and communications in recent months

According to the figures most business schools are reporting an increase in the number of applicants this year – suggesting the MBA remains one of the most sought-after qualifications.

“To a certain extent it is a bit of a survival of the fittest, but MBA students are the fittest so I don’t see them experiencing any major problems. The type of positions that we see companies recruiting for are highly skilled and suit a student that is well educated with a top-level qualification,” says Paolo Aversa, senior lecturer in strategy at the Business School, formerly Cass.

The Business School is one of the many UK institutions that has had to adjust its teaching practices in the last 12 months. Traditionally it offers prospective students the choice of four face-to-face courses and one online, but since the pandemic all in-person courses are now being taught with a mix of blended learning. This means students have the option to attend classes, with social distancing measures in place, or stream online from home. For those students that are located in different time zones, the classes can be accessed online at any time.

While some may see this as a hinderance, Aversa believes the traditional methods of teaching are evolving.

“On one hand the pandemic has helped business schools to become more skilled with online technologies,” he says. “I have a feeling that a lot of our online provisions, which were designed to smoothen the development of modules during this time, will also be kept on in the future. To a certain extent it is teaching us something in how we deliver an excellent learning experience for our students.”

Increased focus on digitisation

While distance learning techniques have enabled universities to continue to deliver courses with as little disruption as possible, some students have expressed dissatisfaction at this approach. In order to manage student expectations institutions are having to cultivate new ways to deliver compelling course material rather than regurgitating in-person lecturers virtually.

“We have not simply bumped our programme online,” explains Chris Mahon, MBA programmes director at Surrey Business School. “Rather, we have been able to provide synchronous contact hours for students in multiple countries, using technology to bridge the physical divide. Through a robust combination of on-demand digital content and synchronous faculty led classroom learning, we have been able to improve our MBA offer even in the midst of the current crisis.”

In Exeter, the 32 students currently enrolled in the university’s MBA did so on the basis they would be an innovation cohort that would help the university reimagine what the course would look like.

Edge is the acronym for the new course titled Exeter’s Digital Global Experience.

“We thought long and hard about what we could get from this,” says Jackie Bagnall, programme director, The Exeter MBA. “Our corporate partners were having to manage multi-located global teams and didn’t have all the answers, so we thought we’ll learn at the same time as commerce and industry.”

Additional support for students

The events of this year may have forced more institutions to rethink the teaching experience but students are also having to consider how suited they are for an MBA course in 2020.

It is no secret that the tolerance and self-discipline levels required for distance learning far outweigh those needed for a classroom setting.

“It’s close learning, because at the end of the day, how you apply what you have learned from your professors in a professional situation is what really matters,” says Bagnall. “There’s a lot of wrap around and support for the students on these kinds of courses helping them to make sense of it all.”

Student admissions may be up on last year, yet the original distance-learning institution, the Open University reports that the request for study breaks during the later stages of the MBA course has also risen.

Some students have been adversely affected by finding out that their jobs are not as secure as they once were and have opted to change their final thesis, the Capstone project, to help them get employed after graduation.

“We find that we are having a lot of discussions with students on alternative job prospects and advising them on the skills they need to build on,” says Dr Michael Ngoasong, director of masters programmes at Open University Business School.

Changing course direction

For all students, not just those facing job uncertainty, particular skills which have always been taught as part of the MBA curriculum have become more prevalent in the last nine months.

Crisis and risk management have taken centre stage with tutorials now focusing on discussions about making ethical decisions in regards to staff welfare.

Often these types of topics don’t always have the sort of engagement form students that universities would like, says Ngoasong but the depth of coverage required in these areas has amplified.

At Surrey Business School it is the teaching of entrepreneurial skills such as creativity, alertness to opportunity, problem solving, and lateral thinking that are most likely to add value during the times of crisis.

“The entrepreneurial minds embraces change and uncertainty, and finds opportunities in the chaos,” says Mahon. “The Surrey MBA has long had this focus, and this has been validated by a sharp increase in interest in the programme since the start of the pandemic.”

The London Business School has gone as far to introduce a new course that focuses on pandemic economics. A year ago, such a module would have been unthinkable, but 2020 will be a case study for the decision makers of the future.

“We continue to innovate to ensure that our courses are up to date with the changing landscape of the business world,” says Nalisha Patel, executive director, degree programmes and student experience, London Business School.

Sharing knowledge

One of the ways in which institutions are engaging students at this time is through greater mentoring opportunities.

Due to travel restrictions London Business School has been unable to provide its popular Global Experience courses in their usual format. Instead, it has tailored the course to include a more virtual or hybrid experience while still giving students the opportunity to learn from global business leaders.

Previously networking events would have featured heavily on an MBA student’s calendar but the digitisation of such occasions has provided an even greater pool of alumni for students to learn from.

“We’ve been delighted to connect with people who haven’t been able to fly to Exeter over the years,” says Bagnall. “There’s lots of things we’ve lost to the online world but there’s things that we’ve gained that we weren’t expecting.”

Creating sustainable business practices for the future

This year the Open University has identified a significant increase in the number of applications coming from those in the public or crown sectors.

“In terms of how we address those public and private sector relationships will impact seriously on future management,” says Ngoasong.

Meanwhile, other institutions report an increased focus on sustainability and creating responsible business leaders of the future.

Describing the pandemic as a “backdrop to every subject that’s being delivered this year”, Bagnall states it is similar to when Exeter University made the step to become a ‘one planet MBA’ in 2010.

“When we teach strategy or accounting, we always look at the context in which it operates. What does it mean for the world that we’ve got right now? What does it mean for managing uncertainty? Complexity? Decision Making? You’re constantly bringing all of that into the conversation you’re having.”

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