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4 Lessons Learned From the Mass Move to Online Teaching

The rapid global transition to online instruction has provided many business schools with insights into how they can improve future approaches.

After the COVID-19 outbreak forced millions of people into the confines of their homes, business schools around the world quickly shifted their teaching online. Lively classroom discussions were replaced by online webinars, on-campus workshops by virtual simulations, and campus social meetups by scheduled Zoom calls.

The pandemic has been disruptive for business schools and students alike, but in adjusting to a “new normal,” many schools have innovated and changed more rapidly than they ever have before.

For those still adapting to online education, here are four lessons learned by business schools that successfully made the switch.

Lesson 1: Change quickly, then adapt to get the most out of online instruction.

Transitioning to online teaching isn’t as simple as replicating the campus-based course in a virtual environment. Students engage with professors, course content, and each other online in a different way than they would in person.

For their core MBA courses, full-time students at the University of Manchester’s Alliance Manchester Business School, for example, typically work through three-hour plenary sessions on a given topic, composed of lectures and class discussions. At the heart of the MBA are three live consulting projects—hands-on learning experiences with students working in teams to solve problems for real companies.

Both of these formats rely heavily on face-to-face interaction. However, by quickly restructuring for an online learning environment, the school has been able to continue teaching and has kept students engaged.

Online, the three-hour plenary sessions are instead delivered in short bursts with time for students to work together outside the lecture format. Professors deliver content in varied formats—a combination of informal discussion, video, and slide presentation—and participants are asked to use their cameras so the instructors can see them and they can all see each other.

The now-online live consulting projects have taken on a new dimension, where students gain real experience working at the forefront of some of the challenges faced by business during the pandemic.

As a consequence, Fran Johnson, associate director of MBA programs at Alliance Manchester, says students, too, have learned how to change quickly and adapt in an online learning format that reflects the real-world business environment. “The ability to manage ambiguity, the willingness to lead in a time of crisis, and developing and maintaining personal resilience—students put into practice the important characteristics required to be a successful business leader.”

Lesson 2: Learn from your experiences and plan ahead.

Some things are more difficult to emulate online. Informal networking is still awkward in an online environment. Many schools are planning a return to on-campus teaching—or a hybrid part-online, part-offline format—in a few months.

However, rather than planning a return to pre-pandemic teaching, business schools should use this opportunity to learn from the experience of online teaching and take what’s working best in the design and delivery of programs going forward.

With so much uncertainty about tomorrow, schools should also plan for the possibility of a whole term moving online. To do so, having the right technology infrastructure set up is important.

Schools should focus on the integration of key platforms (Moodle, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom, for example). As more material moves online, faculty should be provided with collaborative systems to work at a distance (like Dropbox or SharePoint). With multiple platforms and sign-ins, having technical support on hand is essential. And, at the same time, administrative systems need to keep up and continue to work when students are not on campus.

Even more important is getting people accustomed to using the technology, like supporting faculty’s transition to online instruction through training, and establishing clear student norms for how to behave online (for example, having their camera on and microphone muted unless talking to the class).

Lesson 3: Take time to build personal relationships with students.

In fact, one of the biggest challenges schools face when switching to online teaching is keeping students engaged. Online study is still viewed by some as secondary to the full-time campus experience. Already, we have seen some full-time MBA students ask for tuition fee refunds and reductions after being forced into online study.

More than ever, during the pandemic schools need to take time to build and nurture personal relationships with students.

In class, faculty need to engage students with video calls, in online forums, and by involving them in virtual group work and live Q&A webinars. Beyond the curriculum, schools should consider how to develop informal interactions between students, by supporting clubs and societies moving online.

In this time of disruption, being transparent, keeping students informed on changes to their study experience, and being flexible in adapting to their needs and wants can help build trust with the student community.

Lockdown restrictions are easing in some countries. However, reopening campus doesn’t mean every student will be eager to return. MIP Politecnico di Milano School of Management in Italy, for example, is planning to reopen campus and resume face-to-face classes in September, but the school is allowing students to continue learning online if they wish to do so for the first semester.

Lesson 4: Take advantage of your existing assets.

For business schools without previous experience in online teaching, the unavoidable transition has been challenging. Schools have partnered with online learning providers like Coursera and 2U to launch online programs and benefit from the external expertise.

The University of Illinois’s Gies College of Business, for example, has launched a new online Master of Science in Management degree (iMSM) in partnership with Coursera. The program, which starts in October, costs just over 10,000 USD.

But for other schools with experience teaching online, using prior models as a template for other programs has been especially useful. At the UCL School of Management, the school has used learnings from pilot programs it had launched in the past few years to help faculty adapt their traditionally classroom-based materials to an online delivery mode.

In creating the online UCL MBA, director Jim Berry explains that faculty spent a year creating modules that blended video, simulations, and live classroom interaction (1.5 hours a week per module) into the program. The MBA is centered on these digital classrooms where students and faculty interact together, with student-to-faculty ratio of 18-to-1.

The school’s professional development program, UCL Arena, has also helped faculty shift to a more experiential and collaborative learning approach, developing a flipped design where lectures are recorded and posted for consumption before students explore the material through more dynamic interactive web classroom sessions.

By leveraging expertise, taking action, and keeping open lines of communication with students and staff, business schools can stand the best chance of a successful transition to online learning and reap the benefits, even when the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Marco De NovellisMarco 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.