With the rules of engagement revised over the past year, business schools have increased their online presence


Often characterised as slow-changing environments with limited potential for adaptation, business schools across the world have been forced to rapidly reinvent themselves as institutions comfortable with uncertainty and ready to embrace the flexibility and convenience that evolving technology has to offer.

Just as COVID-19 is rewriting the future of businesses and organisations globally, so is the pandemic resetting the agenda for business education. In recent years, now accelerated by lockdowns, business schools have increasingly begun developing online undergraduate and graduate degrees. Hybridisation is trending, with the format expected to gather force as technological advances boost flexibility and accessibility; and the content of traditional curricula finds itself ripe for re-evaluation.

Far from being a new concept, the first distance-learning experience on record appears to be the work of the US’ University of Chicago in 1892, when it began offering correspondence courses at off-campus centres, according to an article published by the international Business Graduates Association (BGA). For MBAs, however, the wait was much longer. It wasn’t until 1987 that Aspen University in Denver, also in the US, launched the first online MBA. In the 2018 online MBA  Financial Times ranking, which featured only those schools whose programmes had been running for a minimum of three years, just 20 business schools appeared.

Come lockdown, SA business schools and their international counterparts found themselves – in the words of Zahir Irani, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Bradford in the UK – face-to-face with the very same supply chain pressures being experienced by most enterprises and organisations. They suddenly had to morph operations to keep pace with changing conditions – but with less digital capacity and capability. There was no choice but for them to move fast to put in place the requisite skills for online delivery and assessment, along with plans for financial sustainability, given the chronic economic uncertainty and demands by students for fee and accommodation refunds.

Some were a little ahead of the rest. While the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) was not exempt from the urgent need to explore and adopt online-teaching options, Martin Butler, USB’s head of teaching and learning, says USB had begun developing its blended-learning format five years ago. The online delivery of a postgrad diploma in business was introduced in 2015, and the following year the business school became the first in SA to offer its MBA online in real-time.

The School of Accounting at the University of Johannesburg was similarly prepared, says senior director Amanda Dempsey. They’re ahead of the pack in terms of producing high-quality graduates, she stresses, attributing their success to the nimble way in which they have structured teaching programmes and blended teaching modules. This allowed them to make the move to full online education within just a week at the start of the 2020 hard lockdown.

At UCT’s Graduate School of Business (GSB), director Catherine Duggan notes that ‘this enormous, collective experiment in online teaching and remote working has created an explosion of excitement and creativity in what was once considered a bit of a niche area’.

Commenting on how that institution has been coping in the face of the changes wrought by COVID-19, Duggan said in an interview with the Association of MBAs (AMBA) that there had been a substantial amount of movement during 2020 as a direct consequence of the onset of the pandemic. This has given her reason for continued confidence in the capability of the business-education sector to respond optimally to global disruption as a whole, as well as to the challenge of aligning education with Industry 4.0.

‘Many faculty who were once sceptical about online teaching are seeing the opportunities of the medium,’ she said, pointing to the myriad possibilities now opening up for building a community of students ‘scattered across countries and time zones in Africa’.

However, Duggan also cautioned that now, more than ever, business-school curricula will have to prepare students ‘to lead through risk and uncertainty, as well as to manage complex challenges and macroeconomic volatility’.

According to Shireen Chengadu, group chief academic officer of Growth Ten, the holding company for educational firms such as Richfield Graduate Institute of Technology and the AAA School of Advertising, these ‘black-swan events show that we are dealing with major uncertainties, and the ripple effects are seismic compared to the management challenges previously postulated in business schools’ curricula. The linear formulaic way of problem-solving is no longer applicable in the dynamic macroeconomic, volatile and ambiguous shifts we are experiencing’.

She says teaching by case-study methodology will still be relevant but that ‘the case studies must be more dynamic in that there are multiple variables affecting decision-making and problem-solving. Incisive questioning skills need to be amplified through content  and process. Curricula need to look at how technology capabilities – emerging and disruptive – actually make students see how this can make businesses thrive, even in uncertain times’.

Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director of Henley Business School Africa, concurs. A good MBA, he says, teaches students to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff; about the world around them; and, perhaps even more crucially, about themselves’. It must teach them to ‘observe in 3D, to think critically, to look for patterns, to zoom out and see the bigger picture, and then zoom in and take the right corrective action – all in real-life, real-time situations’.

A critical lesson for business students, he adds, is that chasing profits for profit’s sake can lead them down the slippery slope to unfair business practice, collusion, and corruption. ‘We want to instead see them emerge from their academic immersion with the understanding that their most powerful role is to create prosperity in everything they do; from paying it forward in their personal lives, to radically transforming the economy by helping to develop and build SMEs that benefit everyone – especially their children, and their children’s children.’

That, says Foster-Pedley, is perhaps the most important lesson of all in a country such as SA, where the pandemic has laid bare the extreme levels of poverty and inequality, and their continuing escalation.

That culture of caring, according to UJ’s Dempsey, has also been fundamental to her institution’s approach to their students, many of whom really struggled with the move to online learning due to their personal living conditions. The university helped counter these realities with changes that included a move to much more continuous evaluation, which helped students stay up to date.

‘The big thing is that we care about our students, but without lowering standards. Our academic staff have played a critical role in achieving that; the way they have touched the lives of our students has been quite amazing. But they had the space and the expertise because they had already been empowered to deliver online teaching long before the onset of the pandemic,’ she says.

With COVID-19 statistics on the decline nationally, institutions of higher learning across the spectrum are cautiously forecasting phased returns to campuses this year, allowing select groups of staff and students to return,  based on priorities such as time-sensitive deliverables. Their concentration on hybrid options, however, suggests that they have no immediate plans for a return to pre-pandemic ‘business as usual’.

In fact, Maurice Radebe, head and director of the Wits Business School, has been frank in his prediction that SA ‘will never go back to the old way of life’. But this blank canvas, he told the Wits Review, also offers schools a unique opportunity to reset and redesign the way in which they operate. It would take courage, he said, to face the challenges of an executive-education programme functioning entirely online, especially in light of substantial operating budget cuts driven by corporate clients cancelling or postponing as many struggled to stay afloat. But it is also ‘an exciting time to be involved’, he added.

New research by the AMBA and BGA recorded an unprecedented rise in digital delivery of business courses, from just 8% pre-COVID-19, to 68% during the pandemic. The survey, which drew 216 responses from business-school decision-makers across the world (12% from Africa), found that 91% of business schools had moved to more digital or online-learning opportunities since the onset of the pandemic; 96% had increased use of online delivery methods for programmes; while 59% had increased teaching capacity directly related to emerging technology and innovation in 2020.

A total of 98% of business-school leaders who responded said they believed their institutions had been either very or fairly successful in taking programmes online due to COVID-19. That figure was a slightly lower 88% for those who said the efficacy of digital teaching on their MBA programmes had been either very or somewhat effective, while 82% said they were planning more investment in technology in the coming two years to further enhance online teaching. Interestingly, not a single survey respondent said they were not intending to invest in online teaching methods.

Digitalisation was deemed to be the most important concept in the running of a business school over the next decade, with 63% of leaders saying it would be very important. A considerable 83% also indicated that it was either very or fairly likely that the fundamentals of the MBA would change in the next 10 years, up from 76% who expressed this opinion in late 2019. Over the next five years, blended and hybrid models are expected to replace traditional classroom-based delivery of courses, and become the focus of planning time and budgets. In the survey report, David Woods-Hale, AMBA and BGA director of marketing and communications, notes that the overarching takeaway from the research was that things would never be the same as they were pre-COVID-19. ‘Last year, for many, represented a tipping point in terms of education technology, and it was the year that business-school leaders crossed the Rubicon into uncharted tech territory – and into a future that has, undoubtedly, taken business education into a new phase from which we can never return.’

Chengadu considers 2020 a ‘masterclass on agility and responsiveness – most definitely not a once-in-a-lifetime oddity’.

She adds that astute business leaders and managers should in fact be ‘pre-empting “what is next?” and asking “will my business survive or thrive in these scenarios?”. Our ability to be agile – our willingness to unlearn and relearn and keep learning – is what will prepare us for the next black-swan event, and when it does happen – not if it happens – we will have the personal and business resilience, strategies and masterplans to manage’.

By Di Caelers
Image: Gallo/Getty Images