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The Business School, Recast

How can business schools make changes necessitated by COVID-19, without sacrificing student revenue and curricular relevance?

There is little question that business schools will be recast after COVID-19. The obvious question: will the new version of business schools that emerge post-pandemic be effective in delivering their respective missions, and continue to be financially viable institutions? The answer can be a resounding “yes” for most b-schools—if appropriate steps are taken now, in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis.

The window of opportunity for substantive change is available today, and will quickly close when the COVID-19 crisis dissipates. Difficult and radical changes are possible during a crisis because all relevant stakeholders are already expecting change, and, more important, they tend to be willing participants of change, accepting the hardship and inconvenience that typically accompany change. Such a conducive environment for major change is rarely seen in non-crisis times. This is one reason that Winston Churchill famously said, “Never waste a crisis.”

Business schools that leverage the present opportunity for change will likely build significant long-term competitive advantage, and those that don’t may not survive.

Types of Changes Business Schools Face

It is important to remember that even before COVID-19 there was a call for change in business schools. There were many questions raised, including the relevance of business school curriculum, and the design and delivery of MBA programs. As such, going back to “business as usual” when the pandemic passes may not be ideal, or even viable. Instead, it seems very efficient (and possibly, very effective) to bundle the changes that were called for in the years preceding the virus with the changes necessitated by it now.

Changes Necessitated by COVID-19

The key challenge undoubtedly is managing social distancing inside business schools. This is particularly difficult, given that over the last decade business schools have moved to highly interactive learning curricula and classrooms.

One obvious answer to effectively manage social distancing inside business schools is to reduce student intake (for example, halve the size of the typical student cohort). But this would obviously have adverse effects on revenue. However, it is likely that a 50-percent student cohort would be acceptable, if it is possible to increase the number of cohorts in a manner that ensures revenue is not affected. Does increasing the number of cohorts imply shorter programs? Not necessarily. It may only mean shorter residencies in the business school for each cohort. The shorter residencies can be supplemented with an online curriculum of electives and other elements that were already called for during the pre-pandemic years.

Changes Called for Pre-COVID-19

Before the current crisis, there was much discussion about the relevance of the MBA curriculum, and the value of the MBA itself. These discussions went beyond the call for a focus on the so-called “soft-skills” and the need for topics like ethics and social responsibility. There were calls for more involved “learning by doing” in the curriculum—going beyond project-based courses and including “immersive” experiential learning, where students learn how to define the business problem while immersed in the organization, before attempting to solve it. Such experiences provide a higher level of learning-by-doing for the student than does working on pre-defined projects.

Further, there has been a growing crescendo from businesses that MBA students need to have the capability to be lifelong learners, and the importance for MBA programs to teach students the skills of self-driven learning, and on-the-job learning. It is clear that, increasingly, businesses are less concerned about students simply carrying knowledge in their heads and more concerned about whether they have developed the habit of continuous learning on the job.

In fact, employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have emphasized the quality of “learnability” in their potential recruits. In other words, it was becoming increasingly apparent in recent years that business schools needed to teach students how to learn anytime, anyplace, be it on the job or otherwise, as a fundamental skill, just like learning the functions of business.

Bundling Changes: Prompted by COVID-19 and Prior to COVID-19

By making appropriate design changes in the MBA program to address the challenges of social distancing and revenue shortfall, business schools may also have an opportunity to incorporate some of the pre-pandemic priorities. For example, as seen below, a restructured one-year MBA program design can include an immersive experiential component and a flexible online component (in addition to the required residency component). The immersive experiential component is ideally suited to not only help learning-by-doing, but also to teach learnability in the student—the skill of continuous, self-driven, on-the job learning. The flexible online component composed of online elective courses could be accessed by students even after graduation, in support of their continuous learning.

An example of this redesigned one-year MBA program with two intakes of 50 percent each in the same year, would look like the following:

Table 1. Redesigned One-Year MBA Program (January–December academic year)

Cohort 1 (50 percent student intake) Cohort 2 (50 percent student intake)
Required Residential Component
(5 months: January–May)
Required Residential Component
(5 months: June–October)
Immersive Experiential Component
(1 month: June)
Immersive Experiential Component
(1 month: November)
Flexible Online Component
(6 months: July–December; flexibility to take elective courses beyond graduation for continuous, lifelong learning)
Flexible Online Component
(6 months: December–May; flexibility to take elective courses beyond graduation for continuous, lifelong learning)

Required residential component: As seen above, the two intakes (each 50 percent cohort size) complete their required residential components in the same year. This approach would help manage social distancing norms and likely produce a revenue-neutral outcome for the year.

Equally important, the other proposed design changes would help address some of the key issues that previously have been called for in business schools.

Immersive experiential component: This component is designed to be more than simply opportunities for students to work with external clients, or do internships. Student experiences by themselves don’t necessarily lead to learning; it is the reflective inquiry on the experience that completes the learning. As such, this component would have learning objectives that go beyond what is typically assumed for experiential learning, such as critical thinking and problem-solving. It would enable learnability in the student—that skill of continuous, self-driven, on-the-job learning that companies are increasingly seeking in MBA graduates.

To facilitate this skill in students, we need to draw on established learning theories. One approach is to start with reflective triggers, where students are asked to look for personal motivations based on their curiosity and interest while working with the client. Because it is personal, students working on the same projects will likely have very different triggers—one student’s reflective trigger may deal with the leadership style seen inside the company; for another it may be the organizational structure of the company, or the growth strategy used by the company. These triggers may have very little to do with the project the student is working on but rather will reflect the student’s interests, past experiences, and future career aspirations.

The reflective trigger is the start for learning, and methods like the Gibbs Reflective Cycle, as one example, can be used to complete the learning. As such, each immersive experience is expected to be rich with opportunity for new and varied learning, based on the habit of reflective triggers, helping inculcate the quality of learnability in students.

Flexible online component: This component of the MBA program is expected to be a slew of online electives, varying in depth and breadth. These electives should be scaled up quickly so that the offerings include different levels of mastery and focus around each topic (e.g., the topic of pricing can have a range of offerings: Fundamentals of Pricing, Value Pricing, Pricing Strategy Optimization, B2B Pricing, Pricing Services, etc.). These elective offerings would vary in length and associated credits, with students expected to complete a minimum number of online credits to graduate with the MBA.

However, more interesting and valuable for students is the flexibility to use this component of the curriculum even after graduation, for lifelong learning, possibly based on a subscription pricing model.

It is possible for business schools to take advantage of the current situation and implement changes that not only address the challenges posed by the virus but also ensure that some of the much discussed changes called for in the pre-years are implemented. With some careful restructuring and redesigning of the curriculum, business schools can seize this opportunity to emerge stronger and more relevant post-pandemic.

Pereira_ArunArun Pereira is emeritus faculty at Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz School of Business and has served as AACSB’s global facilitator for assurance of learning since 2012.