Online classes will change education forever; here’s how business schools must evolve

May 01, 2020 5:27 PM

Online education had been seen as a low priority experiment for most institutions, and working from home was mostly restricted to the correspondence courses.

Learnings were by a lecture (one-to-many), or case discussions (many-to-many) where students discussed and contributed to the classroom discussion, learning from each other.
  • Rajiv Agarwal

The current Covid-19 lockdown has hit the education institutions hard. Overnight, they were forced to either go online or temporarily shut down. Online education had been seen as a low priority experiment for most institutions, and working from home was mostly restricted to the correspondence courses.
The typical higher education model required attending physical classes. Learnings were by a lecture (one-to-many), or case discussions (many-to-many) where students discussed and contributed to the classroom discussion, learning from each other. The lecture mode is usually used in highly technical subjects where the professor explains the concepts. Often the large size of the class prevents all students from learning or getting their queries clarified, and they may have to ask colleagues to help out.

Most business schools prefer using the case study, pioneered at the Harvard Business School, as a teaching tool. The learnings of a case discussion comes from the participants contributions, and the professor’s ability to evoke answers from the participants. The basic premise is, that by learning how decisions were made in the past, one can train one’s self to evaluate between multiple choices in the given context. This helps train the thinking process rather than figuring out the “right” answer.

Today, there are a lot of lecture-based sessions which have successfully moved online, especially in information technology subjects. One can find a large number of such options available online, of high quality and free, from providers like Coursera, Udemy, edx, etc.

Meanwhile, it is said that the online teaching method is not conducive for teaching cases as one cannot have a classroom discussion properly. Today’ technologies like breakout rooms are allowing discussions in small groups and ability to see everyone online.

Today we find ourselves in a new era, where all institutions are forced to go online, overnight, compelling many to learn fast. Faculty have to learn the medium first and then how to use this effectively in class juggling between various controls and options. A lot of faculty have stepped up to the task, building their capabilities today, as institutions rush to build up infrastructure. The ever-increasing list of colleges going online is forcing this. I know an institution that added online capability in less than 4 hours, and over a weekend trained 50 plus faculty to resume classes online on Monday.

On the other hand, the students face a different set of challenges. While they are in a very comfortable home environment, they face challenges of balancing home responsibilities with the rigours required in class. The home responsibilities come into extreme sharp focus given the fact that most would probably be deprived of having their domestic help, and maybe having school going children at home. Their home infrastructure may not be able to support them studying for a full day.

However, like I said earlier, this is a large experiment and one can use the learnings from this current scenario to learn. This is a good time to build up capabilities for this situation. Even after the lockdown is removed, and it will, people will realise that online education will remain. Online has advantages of flexibility, reduced commuting time and more time with the family.

The basic objection of less interaction in an online space is redundant, if one looks at the vast multitudes glued on to their screens today. These have now been augmented by Zoom, Google or Skype calls for socializing. It is only a matter of time before online education will become more acceptable. There will be resistance from both faculty and students when comparing online to the physical classrooms. There has always been resistance to adapting new technologies. We have seen it when we shifted to laptops, calculators, digital books, or digital delivery of cases.

The current technologies may have shortcomings. Eventually, newer companies would offer newer capabilities to enhance the online experience. The flexibility, the reach and the richer experience are some of the benefits. The students and faculty will eventually embrace this. Institutions will soon realise that online allows retaining their best faculty, by offering them better control over their schedules to plan their activities and research.

Institutions will be able to reach out to a wider range of students online. This could lead seeing students who were earlier sitting in classes now preferring to take classes from homes or maybe internet cafes near their homes. They may also question the need for huge campuses, hostels and faculty working areas, since all these can be divested and investments made in making the infrastructure for online more efficient. Institutions will face students demanding lower fees for online tuition. The infrastructure, specifically, the Internet connectivity and bandwidth available to each one will improve exponentially.

But whatever may happen, things are not going to be the same again. The question is, how prepared are we? The game is just beginning and the current education stakeholders are the key players. What will we do? But as Voltaire had said, “All the armies of the world cannot stop an idea whose time has come.” And it appears that the time for online education has come.

  • Rajiv Agarwal is a Professor, Strategy and Family Business, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s SPJIMR.  Views expressed are the author’s own.

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