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What Will Business Schools Look Like After COVID-19?

While it's clear there will be no abrupt end to the pandemic, a picture of a more agile and collaborative future business school is already taking shape.

After the global outbreak of the coronavirus, business school students who’d invested thousands of dollars in full-time experiences found themselves in virtual classrooms, on Zoom calls, and in online networking sessions with recruiters.

This wasn’t what they had signed up for, but most students agree that schools responded well to issues arising from the pandemic. In a survey of 600 business students conducted by higher education consultancy CarringtonCrisp, 66 percent said their school made good use of online resources to continue course delivery.

However, few students said they were consulted about the longer-term future of the business school.

Planning for life after coronavirus—or even during the likely slow fade of coronavirus—should start now. The pandemic has forced schools to react to a sudden change in circumstance, responding to shifting student demands, budget cuts, travel restrictions, and the rapid switch to online learning.

To thrive once the crisis of COVID-19 is over, schools should ensure that the lessons learned from the pandemic—the technology, the infrastructure, and the mindset shift that helped them adapt—remain.

Business Schools Become More Agile

So what will business schools look like after COVID-19?

They’ll certainly be more agile. From the experience of the pandemic, business schools have built on three core factors which will allow them to adapt more quickly to change in the future. These factors were already present, but COVID has brought them to the fore.

Technology

Technological tools enabling online learning are now firmly in place and faculty and students are comfortable using them. Zoom and Microsoft Teams dominate the tech tools used by business schools to provide online learning during the pandemic. Admissions interviews, support and careers services are also being delivered online. With a stronger technology infrastructure, schools will be able to seamlessly switch between offline and online methods of delivery post-pandemic.

Collaboration

Collaboration across departments has increased, with the shared experience bringing school communities closer together. When professors at the multicampus ESCP were forced to switch to online teaching, digitally savvy faculty shared their learnings with their less experienced colleagues, with virtual seminars covering online delivery formats, communication online, and use of video. Meanwhile, cross-departmental teams—like the educational design and learning innovation teams—have come to the fore. As schools become more integrated and aligned in their goals, they’ll be more able to adapt quickly and holistically to future challenges.

Culture

COVID-19 has demonstrated the importance of continuous innovation—of introducing new tools, testing, pivoting, and reacting to change. Schools are having to rethink their business models entirely, and we now have a generation of academics more adept at teaching both online and offline. Post-pandemic, business schools will be even more open to innovation and accepting of change.

Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) temporarily closed this year when the coronavirus first broke out. Richard Hagemen, executive director of operations, spent two weeks working hard with his team to drive the transition to online teaching, setting up live streaming services, establishing different online class formats, changing session durations, and introducing interactive elements.

“These were things we’d done in the past, but never on this scale,” he says. Now, in a repeat situation next year, he says RSM would be able to quickly transition into a fully online format if necessary.

While COVID has presented an operational challenge, Hagemen explains that, in other ways, life has become easier. “People are more familiar with new technology and see the value and opportunities that innovation brings us.”

Like at RSM, the majority of students at Durham University Business School in the U.K. are currently learning online, although students can choose whether to take some smaller classes online or in small groups on campus.

While Durham’s staff connect on Microsoft Teams—sharing best practices and how to engage students online—the school uses Blackboard for online teaching, which allows faculty to add on various tools to aid the delivery of their classes. These include quizzes, games, surveys, and different live classroom response systems.

Joanna Berry, associate professor of entrepreneurship and director of Durham University's Durham Energy Institute, says that, when designing its programs, the school is now taking an online-first approach. “We’re designing for the worst; for a fully online experience in the hope that we don’t have to go fully online but, if we do, we’ll be ready.

“Agility is not something universities are known to be especially good at,” she says. “But as things change on a daily basis, speed and flexibility are increasingly important.”

The B-School Campus Is Rethought

With budget constraints and most students studying online, school leadership will be looking at the size and cost of their real estate, and questioning its value. With online learning becoming more standard, do you need a campus at all?

There are accessibility issues even online. Firewalls in some countries block students from using certain platforms. Students with disabilities may be better suited to on-campus instruction. For many, learning on campus is a reprieve from busy family life and distractions at home.

What students are missing right now are the curricular activities, opportunities for teamwork, practical learning, networking, and the human interaction that a campus environment more readily provides.

In the CarringtonCrisp survey, 61 percent of students agreed that their experience of online learning failed to match their experience of learning in a classroom. Asked how they would study in the future if they considered further learning, the most popular choice was a blended—part-online, part-offline—delivery method.

Blended, or hybrid, delivery coupled with the flipped classroom approach—where students learn course content independently online before putting learnings into practice in class—is increasingly where schools are going.

Professor Alexandra Gerbasi, deputy dean at the University of Exeter Business School, predicts that, post-COVID, there will be a shift away from large lectures to more independent learning, combined with smaller group teaching. “This may lead to fewer contact hours, but the contact can be more meaningful,” she says.

What the pandemic has done is made us realize what the physical space is best used for. Campus doesn’t have to be a place where students study all the time; it’s a space for people to gather, interact, and feel part of something bigger.

And it’s needed. It’s hard to perceive the life-changing journeys on which RSM markets its degree programs—the personal connections, transformation, and shared experiences—without a physical environment, Hagemen explains. The future design of campuses, he says, will be based on smaller group sizes and flipped learning.

This will inevitably mean downsizing. Campuses won’t disappear completely, but perhaps the most visible change for business schools post-pandemic will be the design of the physical space and when and how it is used.

Industry Upheaval Transforms Norms

The environment in which business schools operate will also change, forcing some schools to reassess their business models.

Consolidation

Many business schools have felt the financial impact of COVID-19. International travel restrictions will hit business schools, which are more reliant on income from international students than other institutions, especially hard.

Some schools will continue to invest in the online teaching systems they’ve relied on during the pandemic to grow new revenue streams; others will be unable to continue this investment.

Andrew Burke, dean of Trinity Business School at Trinity College Dublin, says this disparity will lead to greater consolidation in the industry, as schools collaborate on the online delivery component of their courses.

For example, Business School A delivers a flipped classroom approach where content is first taught online by Business School B (a bigger-brand school that runs the online learning component of programs for several schools). Business School A then runs its in-class practical learning component.

While online delivery allows schools to more easily collaborate to diversify and improve their offerings, it’s the “the bigger brands [that] will soak up more students,” Burke says.

Regionalization

While online delivery will extend the reach of those bigger-brand business schools, others (Business School A) will become more focused on recruiting students from their local area. Students in those blended programs will benefit from access to resources and faculty from a bigger-name international school online before putting their learnings into practice in a class closer to home.

In the U.K., strong domestic undergraduate recruitment this fall term has helped institutions cover some of their international losses. Andrew Crisp, owner of CarringtonCrisp, explains that U.S. immigration policy and the return of the two-year post-study work visas have helped U.K. institutions with international recruitment, but schools elsewhere will be reassessing their international recruitment plans and trying to diversify source countries in the future.

Competition

With more students becoming comfortable with online learning, or having no other option, the threat from alternative providers becomes more significant. Schools should take note and glean lessons from these providers.

For example, the app-based Quantic MBA, accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, takes around 11 months to complete, with between 150-to-200 students per intake. It’s free for students who go through a three-stage admission process to be admitted. Companies fund the program by paying to hire graduating students through Quantic’s career network.

There are challenges ahead, but post-pandemic business schools will emerge more agile than they were before. Schools that adapted well will offer more flexibility for students, with blended delivery, more intakes, and a wider range of course options. If another crisis hits, the business schools of the future will be better prepared to react.


Marco De Novellis, editor, BusinessBecauseMarco De Novellis is the editor of BusinessBecause, an online publisher dedicated to graduate management education, and is the creator and host of the podcast, The Business School Question. Follow him on Twitter @marcodn_bb.