How Online MBA Programs Teach Sustainability

Courses that go beyond profit and teach wider values and purpose are well suited to online learning

As companies come under pressure to look beyond profit maximization, business schools are responding with new MBA courses that emphasize wider values and purpose. As they do so, they are discovering that such programs are well suited to online learning.

That is because this learning format can bring together a wide array of participants from around the world. The diversity of perspectives is important when teaching a multi-disciplinary and global subject such as climate change.

Additionally, the sometimes-larger class sizes in Online MBA programs enable schools to reach a wider number of participants who may not have otherwise taken part in the learning. 

“Technology does help us reach more people and hence create greater impact,” says Rebecca Loades, director MBA programs at ESMT Berlin, a business school. That is important because MBA programs are training grounds for the world’s future business leaders.

Powerfully shaping corporate practices 

Online MBA participants are typically senior working professionals who may have come up at a time when business was focused on maximizing returns for shareholders, instead of creating value for other stakeholders including suppliers, employees and wider society.

Because these online candidates are in positions of authority, they can powerfully shape their workplace and influence corporate practices more broadly. It helps that Online MBA candidates can apply what they are learning in real time, too, since these programs do not require travel away from the office.

“We cover sustainability and responsible management extensively in our MBA programs. This means our graduates can apply these tenets of responsible management immediately within their work,” says Maurizio Floris, director of Online MBA programs at the Australian Graduate School of Management, in Sydney.

Additionally, the technology used to deliver online MBA programs can help the learning of sustainability-linked topics to sink in. “Technology is used for creating high-quality learning experiences on the content related to these critically important topics,” says Floris.

“This includes engaging online simulations, video conferencing, online team activities, and software that enables online networking in an organic way.”

Online learning: more eco-friendly 

Meanwhile, online learning has a far lower carbon footprint than in-person MBA programs. This is because students avoid having to travel to campus for classes. So, too, do the teachers and executive guest speakers.

Videoconferencing technology already made this possible, but the pandemic has made the use of virtual communications ubiquitous in the corporate world and in business education.

“COVID has meant people’s level of comfort in using online learning and collaboration tools is much higher than previously. For example, it is much more acceptable to invite online guest speakers, and for students it is much more desirable to participate in an online course,” Floris explains.

ESMT’s Loades agrees that online learning does present a lower carbon footprint for a number of reasons: “An online program is fully digital – no printing or physical copies of materials required,” she says. “And no commuting means the school’s carbon footprint is reduced as we don’t need to provide physical services such as the café, lecture halls, or study rooms.”

ESMT has long recognized the importance of sustainability and responsible leadership. For example, in 2011 the school established the Sustainable Business Roundtable and helped companies benefit from a peer-to-peer learning network.

When it comes to teaching to Online MBAs, Loades believes that sustainability is multi-faceted and cannot be addressed in a single course.

“When it comes to programs, this means that students will find sustainability woven throughout the curriculum and addressed in an integrated and holistic manner, with few courses carrying the ‘sustainable’ title,” she explains.

Over the last few years, AGSM has also embedded principles of responsible management into the curriculum. At this stage, nearly 40 percent of the core credits in the Online MBA explicitly contain ESG (environmental, social, governance) content, including lectures and class discussions on climate solutions.

“We expect that to keep growing,” says Floris. “This year, we scheduled a pilot course that is entirely focused on issues relating to disclosing sustainability and climate related issues as part of business reporting. In 2024, we plan to launch a new MBA specialization in sustainability and climate change.” 

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