What have Online MBAs Learned from the Covid-19 Outbreak?

The disruption has been significant, and it forced the redesign of digital degrees

For business schools, the Covid-19 pandemic separated the leaders from the laggards when it comes to adoption of technology, which hitherto, has been slow. Those who invested in online learning environments pre-Covid, such as Online MBA programs, have typically fared better through the pandemic.

AGSM at UNSW Business School in Sydney, Australia, has run an Online MBA since 2014, and it drew on that experience to navigate the challenges stemming from coronavirus, including the sudden need for large volumes of students to be taught online. AGSM already had a large team of faculty who were experienced online facilitators, and the school had the digital infrastructure to support online learning at scale.

More than 90 per cent of students overall reported being satisfied with the quality of their teaching in the pandemic; other institutions faced calls for tuition fee refunds from MBA students who feel short-changed by Zoom classes.

“These factors made the transition online relatively seamless,” says Associate Professor Michele Roberts, AGSM’s Academic Director.

That said, schools cannot stay still; innovation will be crucial moving forward. AGSM has taken the opportunity to find new and clever ways to use technology.

For AGSM, coronavirus highlighted the intensifying human need for connections, even in Australia, which has fared relatively well in bringing the pandemic under control, and so avoided the worst of the restrictions on human contact.

“We increased the number of live sessions to reduce the isolation students were feeling during lockdown, and increased the time spent on discussion and debate in break-out rooms,” says Roberts, adding that the school increased the use of polling software and online whiteboards to stimulate collaboration.

For many business schools, disruption has been significant

The UK’s Alliance Manchester Business School also fared relatively well in delivering courses digitally during the outbreak, but Xavier Duran, Director of MBA programs, says the disruption has been significant, and it forced adaption in the design of digital degrees.

“The sudden move to online delivery has provided us with opportunities to experiment with newer technologies and innovative instructional designs,” he says, citing the introduction of a peer evaluation platform called Buddycheck, which helps with participation and contribution.

“Many of these innovations will be here to stay in a post Covid-19 world,” he says.

Furthermore, the virus has reduced the resistance to adopting many of these changes on the part of some previously reluctant academics.

Business schools have learned many lessons during the pandemic. For Alliance Manchester, online delivery has helped to widen the reach to new audiences, making education more accessible.

Duran also says that technology can make teaching and learning more efficient and effective in terms of students listening back to recorded lectures, whenever and wherever it is convenient to do so.

“Of course, there are other course elements that continue being best delivered face-to-face, such as debates, role play or groupwork,” he says. “However, technology is making even some of these elements increasingly feasible in virtual mode.”

Julie Hodges, associate dean for MBA programs at Durham University Business School in the UK, agrees there needs to be more student interaction when learning digitally — group activities, discussions and guest lectures.

She adds: “It is also important to ensure that students are engaged with the sessions. There needs to be opportunities for them to respond to questions — not just in the chat box — and ask questions and share their experiences.”

A shift to a ‘blended’ approach for MBA programs?

Experience with digital course delivery helped Durham, too, shift courses online when coronavirus struck in March 2020, but that raises questions over the convergence of full-time and Online MBAs. Many deans expect a blended future for MBA degrees. Could full-time and online courses cannibalize each other, splitting demand from students?

Hodges says that, while there is certainly potential for a blended approach for full-time MBAs, the target audiences for the FT and Online MBA are different and students on these programs are often attracted to them for different reasons.  “However, we will continue to build on how we are using technology on both types of programs,” she says.

Duran adds there is still a lot of value in pursuing a full-time MBA, including greater networking opportunities. “Online delivery cannot replace some of these added value elements but can certainly help rethink how some elements of the MBA are best delivered to make more efficient and effective use of everyone’s time,” he says.

Back at AGSM, Roberts says that demand for MBAs of any kind is growing, and that online programs address very different student needs. “Online students are juggling demanding jobs alongside family and community commitments, and they are looking to optimize the convenience and flexibility of online learning.” So the pandemic may have cemented the advantages of online learning, which is here to stay.

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