MBAs: Schools look to instill digital competencies
By Adam Palin
November 6, 2012
Business schools are increasingly turning to emerging technologies – even though they have traditionally been wary of the threat they posed.
The change has come about because institutions realise they can use technology to enhance delivery of degree courses, while also studying its effect on business.
This is not a sector renowned for taking early advantage of innovation.
“I remember one of my students introducing me to Twitter a few years ago,” says Theodoros Evgeniou, academic director of the eLab at Insead.
“I think this is proof, frankly, that business schools have found it difficult at times to keep up.”
Recent advances in teaching technology are being used by schools that had snubbed remote study, although distance learning using different techniques was established long before the IT revolution.
A pioneer of the online delivery of programmes is the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School, which launched its MBA@UNC degree in 2011.
While the programme has been designed to retain the rigour of its full-time equivalent, the technology allows students to work from anywhere.
As well as accessing interactive course content on demand, students connect face-to-face with faculty and peers via a virtual classroom. Weekly class attendance is compulsory, irrespective of location.
“There is, in fact, an intensity which does not always exist in person,” says Doug Shackleford, the programme’s associate dean.
“The tools allow us to give more attention to individual students without holding up the whole class.” He says traditional on-campus programmes could benefit from technology-enhanced interaction, which is increasingly used in the workplace.
A project at Imperial College Business School, London, embraces this. By embedding technology in its on-campus masters programmes, the school tries to create what it calls a “seamless learning” environment. An online learning portal, or hub, connects students with faculty, study materials and each other in a manner reflecting social media-style communication.
“Schools like ours have been held back by earlier virtual learning environments [that] have not encouraged successful student interaction,” says David Lefevre, director of Imperial’s Educational Technology Unit.
“By putting infrastructure in place that reflects how students interact, we can help them learn more and faster.”
To encourage early adoption of flexible learning practices, Imperial provided 700 of its 1,100 students with Apple iPads at the start of the academic year. Though a significant investment, Mr Lefevre stresses that the iPads are an important tool to ensure access to a suitable mobile device.
Student involvement and feedback has been encouraging, according to Imperial faculty members.
“There is no question that we see enhanced student interaction,” says Marco Mongiello, director of Imperial’s highly ranked masters in management programme, now supported by the technology.
“Discussions are continuing beyond the classroom via the class forum … where we can keep an eye on conversations and redirect them where needed.”
Dr Mongiello emphasises the capacity of the hub to facilitate feedback to students who, he adds, increasingly expect it.
One objective of flexible student engagement – and of the iPad investment – is to enable collaboration between student groups, as stressed in Imperial curricula.
“We are training them to be responsible managers,” says Dr Mongiello. “Learning what tools are most effective for collaborative work is part of this process.”
Some business schools have established leadership in “idea generation” at the nexus of IT and business.
One making efforts to keep pace with technological innovation is the MIT Sloan School of Management, in Massachusetts, which established the MIT Center for Digital Business in 1999. “For more than 10 years, we’ve partnered with industry and engaged with the most cutting-edge, perplexing problems that companies face,” says David Verrill, the centre’s executive director.
Individual Sloan faculty members are matched with sponsor companies, which fund bespoke projects to find answers of economic value to them. Current sponsors include Google, Hewlett-Packard and McKinsey.
A representative of each company is hosted at Sloan to help collaboration during the research period, and then returns to their company to pass on knowledge.
“Technology transfer is a full-contact sport,” jokes Mr Verrill.
Companies benefit from academic insight, and the centre disseminates its findings in publications, while being sensitive to commercial confidentiality.
Project results contribute to the development of Sloan’s technology-driven curricula. MBA students can elect to take research assistant positions and work with faculty on these projects.
Given the inseparability of IT from modern management, Mr Verrill says: “We need to supply our graduates with more than technological competencies if they are to succeed as tomorrow’s managers.”
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