The unprecedented advances over the last 15 years have allowed students to take courses from the comfort of their homes, sparing them the need to fly long distances and cutting travelling costs.

Online MBA programmes have been on the rise also because they allow students to keep their jobs while studying.

However, distance education and online programmes have been criticised for not offering enough personal interaction. Leading business schools have been addressing this issue.

Check out: Are Distance MBAs Right for You?

IE Business School in Madrid and Harvard Business School (HBS) are among the universities that are constantly trying to improve their online programmes offering. They aim to diminish the disadvantages of the online classroom. The main drawback is that studying online reduces the number of in-person meetings, which are essential for the development of soft skills and professional networks. And those are widely considered to be among the most valued aspects of a business school qualification.

IE Business School bets on interactivity

IE Business School in Madrid, one of the highest-profile and best-respected suppliers of blended programmes, has been providing online tuition for 15 years. But, says Martin Boehm, dean of programmes at the school, it could do better. IE has previously used a video conferencing program called Adobe Connect—an industry standard employed by most other business schools that offer students the chance to log in to programmes rather than visit the campus for tuition. But, although useful, it had its limits. The app is designed so one presenter leads the discussion, has full control over the ability of all participants to speak or listen, and turns the page on any presentation materials. This works well for a simple lecture, but interaction was limited and prone to lag, dependent on internet connectivity. Though theoretically students were in the same classroom, the technology acted as a blinker, preventing interaction.

So the business school has developed an alternative, in collaboration with a Spanish startup called MashMe. The interactivity afforded by the new app is a marked improvement on previous online classes, the school found following a pilot earlier this year. Student engagement increased as participants felt more confident that they could interject without technology slowing down the flow of discussion; a concern with previous generations of video conferencing software. Now IE plans to roll out the service gradually to faculty in the next few months, and hopes that it will filter through to the MBA programme. Indeed, Mr Boehm reckons that this “classroom of the future” is so advanced that it could replace the physical version altogether—though the intention is simply to augment offline teaching at first.

HBS plans increased use of online technology

Harvard Business School (HBS) launched its HBX Live initiative in 2015 as an attempt to bring teaching to students around the globe. The high-tech setup, which involves a faculty member standing in the middle of a bank of screens, each live-streaming footage from students, seems more akin to a fancy television studio than a business-school classroom (and is in fact located at a local news television station). The school uses the platform for case-based discussions, says Liz Hess of HBX Live.

Students can interact more easily, with text chat as well as voice conversations, and can push buttons to note their agreement or disagreement with a speaker’s hypothesis, making visible their thoughts. HBS plans to integrate HBX Live more into its taught programmes in the coming years. In the autumn, it will teach its first virtual programme, with faculty taking on six cases across six weeks with students.

This type of teaching is part of the future, says Patrick Mullane, executive director of HBX Live — notably not committing to saying it will be the future of business school education. But nonetheless, it appears that schools are looking at ways to better integrate their remote and digitally-connected student base beyond simply having them share the same experience of wearily watching a professor dictate to them through a lens. Technology like Skype has encouraged more conversations with a more dispersed population than ever before; business schools emulating that by building truly interactive programmes can only benefit their students.

Source: The Economist