Investment in Tech Improves Hybrid and Online Learning

by mba

Exploring new teaching frontiers

The tech-enabled transformation of teaching at business schools precipitated by the pandemic is not over yet. In fact, it may be just beginning.

A case in point: 82% of business schools reported they plan to invest further in technology over the coming two years to enable online teaching, while 18% are not sure or are considering it. No survey participant said they were not intending to invest in online teaching methods, according to the 2021 AMBA & BGA Education Technology Report, in association with Barco.

A quick look around business campuses reveals that “chalk and talk” instruction conducted in traditional settings looks increasingly outdated as schools become more inventive in the way they deliver content.

From the post office to the video studio

Warwick Business School’s Distance Learning MBA was founded 36 years ago as a postal course. Long before the advent of the internet, students would send in their assignment to the school, which would then post it to a tutor to mark. To get feedback on their work, students needed to wait for six weeks.

The programme has changed immensely since then. Today, students can benefit from green-screen video studios that can superimpose presenters on different backgrounds. “We take some content from a faculty member, constituting a flat information-sharing process,” Dot Powell, the school’s director of teaching and learning enhancement, told the Financial Times.

“Around that, we’ll design activities and interactive features and encourage the students to engage with the content and with each other. We have social aspects to the technology so they can comment on things, work in groups virtually and engage with work simulations.”

Simply delivering a lecture using slides no longer works, she said, adding that students want to be able to interact.

Warwick is not the only school investing in technology to improve teaching. The process has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced business schools to switch to online delivery mode virtually overnight.

Technology reshapes campuses

This swift transition was undoubtedly uncomfortable, but it helped business school leaders realise that they need to invest in flexibility, i.e. the ability to combine and switch. Flexibility has become a priority area of investment for most business school leaders. So at campuses around the world, schools are implementing technology that enables them to switch smoothly between online and on-campus delivery methods.

ESMT Berlin (Germany), for instance, has poured around EUR 500,000 (USD 528,000) into refurbishing its auditoriums to support hybrid learning, equipping them with microphones at every seat and cameras. In addition, during hybrid sessions a faculty member acts as a “co-pilot”. Their job is to ensure that none of the online attendees are excluded from the discussion. All students connect online via Zoom, including those on campus.

IE Business School (Spain) has introduced the so-called Liquid Learning model, which combines the physical and digital worlds so that students can “flow seamlessly between environments and situations, both during and after your studies.” In a Liquid Learning classroom, some students are physically present and others are connected remotely, visible on the screens in the room. Professors use interactive whiteboards, PowerPoint, videos and other resources to connect and stimulate all the students while speaking and writing on an online chat platform.

At MIT Sloan (US), changes made following the coronavirus outbreak turned out to be permanent.

“Classrooms have been permanently equipped with upgraded smart technology and tools. For example, faculty members can use their iPad as a digital whiteboard or live-stream guest speakers into the classroom from anywhere in the world,” Dawn Roberts, Senior Associate Director of the MBA Programme Office, told AACSB.

VR: a whole new world, or not yet…

For all their openness to technology, business schools are not yet ready to plunge headlong into the metaverse – the supposed next chapter of the internet evolution where digital spaces are made more lifelike by the use of virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR). Users in the metaverse can move through this virtual environment with avatars that are their digital representation.

Talk of the possible benefits of VR for the education sector has intensified recently with an emphasis on the potential for improved interaction between students and teachers. Business schools, however, are still sceptical of the possibility to actively use VR to enhance hybrid learning. VR could be “exciting” for business education as it can enhance experience-based learning, Tom Adams, chair and co-founder of Washington DC-based Quantic School of Business and Technology, which provides an MBA and Executive MBA online, told the Financial Times. But when precisely it is used will need to be carefully considered, he adds.

Some of the misgivings may have to do with possible logistical problems. It’s unrealistic to expect students round the world to have VR headsets. Besides, some basic activities of the student experience such as taking notes would become impossible with a headset on.

The challenges of moving away from “chalk and talk”

While business schools readily embrace virtual classrooms, data analysis, online games, customised coursework and other cutting-edge tools to help students learn, they also admit that the transition to remote and hybrid learning is not always seamless.

One of the problems is that some teachers lack the technological skills to operate with videoconferencing tools. And while learning how to use Zoom is a perfectly attainable goal, keeping students engaged for the entire duration of the class is proving to be a much more difficult endeavour. Some of the challenges result from the nature of the technology, not the abilities of the teaching staff. In 2020, lecturers discovered that software that works for a business meeting won’t necessarily work in the classroom. That’s why investment in platforms to enable interaction is so important.

Interaction, beyond doubt, is one of the biggest challenges. How can schools ensure that interactivity, which happens so effortlessly in the classroom, is recreated in a virtual environment? Besides, a great deal of learning occurs outside the classroom when students interact with peers and faculty. These are hard questions which are yet to be answered.

For now, the return to full capacity means more opportunities for students to interact. But business schools are not discarding the tools and innovations they developed over the last years. Hybrid and blended learning are here to stay and will only get better.

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