The pandemic ignited growth in Online MBAs, and normalized digital learning for professionals around the world. As they try to capitalize on the boom in online education, and compete for students, business schools are becoming more innovative in virtual delivery methods.
One day, students may tune into virtual classes remotely using virtual-reality headsets. But for now, the most whizzy innovations include using artificial intelligence to personalize the learning experience.
Investment has been boosted by Covid-19, which forced schools to deliver even full-time MBAs remotely. Macquarie Business School in Sydney now uses game-based teaching such as online simulation and role play to improve student engagement and retain their attention. It has proven to be particularly helpful when teaching complex subjects like innovation strategy.
“Experiential learning is a critical part of high-quality teaching and hence we seek to find the right balance between asynchronous and synchronous mode of delivery,” says Nidthida Lin, director of the school’s Online MBA. “This is tricky, but we have learned through feedback and experience to get the sweet spot.”
She points out that Macquarie’s program was purpose built for online learning, instead of being a digitized version of an on-campus MBA. “We continue to refine and develop this project as student numbers continue to grow and market expectations increase,” says Lin. “The pandemic escalated our investments in hybrid learning, both in the technologies required, such as a roving camera and directional microphones, but also the capabilities of our academics to teach in these environments.”
A number of teaching innovations came from the faculty at Macquarie, including the use of learning diaries. “This allows our teaching staff to not only keep track of students’ ability to reflect on their learning and to synthesize the knowledge acquired, but also proactively identify students who need extra help,” Lin adds, not discounting the importance of feedback from participants.
It’s important not to use technology for technology’s sake when considering new teaching innovations. Tawnya Means, assistant dean for educational innovation and chief learning officer at Gies College of Business in Illinois, says objectives need to be clear. “A challenge is that technology evolves at a rapid pace. It’s important to base technology decisions on existing learner research within our industry, but sometimes that research is not yet available for cutting-edge technologies.”
Gies has employed dedicated teams of instructional designers and data scientists working in concert to collect data and track learning outcomes. The school was already making investments in digital learning, but the pandemic helped focus its efforts.
For example, it has invested in several video studios to produce and deliver high quality content. “We reworked those spaces so that staff can operate the equipment remotely from anywhere in the world thanks to the cloud,” says Means. “Ultimately, these changes insulated us from the pandemic.”
AI and VR in Online MBA programs?
Online MBA programs could be enhanced by artificial intelligence, which can provide more timely and frequent feedback to participants as well as teaching faculty. “In the future, algorithms measuring student engagement will provide key insights on how our programs are doing, how to improve, and how to leverage networks,” adds Means. “Engagement dashboards will surface these findings not only for faculty and staff, but also for students as an additional gauge of how they are doing.”
Lin at Macquarie is also enthusiastic about algos. “AI is currently used to automatically send out a nudge to students who are less engaged in the class, those who fail to catch up with their weekly materials or fail to submit an assignment and are at risk of failing,” she says.
In addition, Macquarie uses AI to better predict student learning patterns. “This will enable us to timetable more effectively, and experiment with different delivery options. In this way, we predict that we can become more responsive to student needs and more nuanced in our responses to learning styles,” adds Lin.
Looking ahead, she believes virtual reality will be a part of the student experience in a digital classroom, because it will be helpful in boosting engagement and attention levels. Means, at Gies, sees space for such immersive technologies, too. “While Zoom is a great meetings app with good video and audio capabilities, it was not built with education in mind. Newer tools are coming to market designed expressly for online education, which will provide a much richer synchronous learning experience.”
But ultimately, technology is an important part of the equation but not the only factor contributing to the success of an Online MBA. “The core of a strong program is the faculty and students,” says Means. “Technology makes interaction possible, but it is the passion and dedication of the people behind the technology that truly delivers a great course.”