Digitalisation in higher education_Andreas Kaplan_ESCP_EFMD

Most recently with Covid-19, everybody recognises that offline and online courses each both have their advantages and disadvantages. In the future, cases will be rare where it makes sense to offer an entire curriculum on-site only. The same applies to purely online programmes, although there is now more rationale for an online-only than a fully offline curriculum. Business schools, however, should avoid various other sectors’ mistakes and grasp that going online is not as simple as transferring an offline program into the virtual sphere. To exploit the online world to its fullest, pedagogical innovations and changes in programme structure are in order. Or, to put it even more simply, moving a course and curriculum online simply must make sense!

100% offline: Yes, but…

Let’s start with the most evident case: that is, programmes that are delivered 100 percent offline, without any notable online elements integrated. This has been the case for the large majority of study programmes at many business schools worldwide – until coronavirus suddenly shook up the sector. The world of higher education changed, and business schools and their leadership teams began to rethink and conceive of what might actually make sense in terms of online teaching going forward, post Covid-19.

Even after much thinking, it is difficult to envision any case or context where it would make sense to have a programme that takes place entirely offline with no online elements. Students will always have to learn some hard facts and theories within their respective study areas. Such pure knowledge seems to be better transmitted via well-designed online modules as opposed to repeated courses in the lecture hall. The only situation wherein a 100 percent offline programme might potentially be sensible is if the market would consider it as a signal of extremely high-quality teaching. This, however, appears increasingly unlikely. Therefore I, at least for now, would rather turn the “Yes, but” into a clear “No, never.”

100% online: Yes, but…

An increasing number of online-only study programmes are being launched. Such programmes, however, might lose out in several aspects. Studying is more than just acquiring new knowledge. The exchange among fellow students in class, and even more so outside the lecture hall accompanied by a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (or two), is worth mention. While you can imitate offline group sessions in online breakout rooms, the social and informal pub or café environment is definitely more difficult to mimic. During lockdown(s), we all had the experience of online gatherings with family and friends turning out to be not nearly as satisfying as the offline counterpart.

Yet, in comparison to 100 percent offline, there are scenarios where 100 percent online programmes make sense: when, e.g., students are simply unable to physically get to campus, unable to afford airfare or living costs, or for personal health reasons. Purely online courses might also work for learners interested only in the study content or the degree itself, or in the latter case those who don’t care about the content altogether. While this might justify 100 percent online programmes from a student perspective, it’s more fraught from the business school’s perspective. Clearly not all material is teachable to the same degree online as offline; so ultimately, it’s a question of quality.

The right mix: Yes, please…

These tradeoffs between the on- and offline lead to the conclusion that future curricula will most likely pursue a blended approach, mixing both worlds. Moreover, online elements could increase programme quality, in that they allow for modules taught by other institutions’ faculty or even relevant personalities outside academia, for whom it is often difficult to block out an entire day for traveling to a campus destination. However, it may be easier to convince such people to take an hour out of their busy schedules to talk briefly to students online.

Further reflection regarding finding the right mix underlines the fact that distinct academic subjects will demand differing balances of on- and offline elements. An advanced negotiation class might need a lot more face-to-face offline sessions than, e.g., a basics in marketing course. Highly interactive courses also may be better set up in the offline world in comparison to more traditional lectures.

200% innovation potential

A multitude of industries have made the error of simply replicating their offline environments on online platforms. By now, we know that this has not been an ideal strategy, and higher education should avoid going down this road. Pedagogical innovation will become vital in differentiating a business school from its competitors as the entire sector moves an increasing number of courses online. Accordingly, only via true pedagogical innovation, as opposed to minor tweaks at the margins, can business schools properly exploit the online sphere’s potential.

One can imagine, e.g., entire new structures and setups of curricula enabled via the digital sphere only. Let’s say that during a three-year programme, during their first year, students work part-time at a company while simultaneously attending online modules to acquire relevant general theories and concepts. Year two would then be spent entirely on-site, “spiked” with some online elements. During this period on campus, focus could be on discussions, exchanges, networking, and live presentations. Finally, in the last study year, students could return to their companies, again working part-time, but still benefitting from online tutoring and coaching, personal development sessions, and the like. Such setups might even showcase the benefits of continuous up-/reskilling via a business school’s executive education division.

Simply put: Online must make sense!

By now, we should all agree that online teaching is not the optimal format for all subjects, all courses, and all situations. In many cases, offline is and will be the preferred solution. It would definitely be a mistake to put a certain and strict percentage of courses online across the board without exception. Or, as stated in this article’s title and simply put: Online must make sense.

The virtual sphere provides several very precise possibilities that the offline environment does not, and this needs to be the mindset and spirit of our approach. For example, the digital environment enables fostering a sense of proximity when students are actually distant from their schools. This might be useful during foreign study exchanges at distant partner institutions when business schools ordinarily lose contact with their students. The same applies to students usually not coming to campus during internship periods, despite spending many hours online.

About the author

With over ten years of leadership experience in higher education, Andreas Kaplan has served as Dean and Rector of ESCP Paris and Berlin. Professor Kaplan’s research focuses on analyzing the digital world, in particular the areas of artificial intelligence and social media. With several seminal articles and more than 30,000 citations on Google Scholar, Kaplan has been ranked among the top 50 business and management authors worldwide by John Wiley & Sons. Furthermore, a widely covered Stanford study classified Kaplan among the most-cited and impactful scientists in the world.

This article is based upon an excerpt from Andreas Kaplan’s book “Higher Education at the Crossroads of Disruption: The University of the 21st Century” featured in the Great Debates in Higher Education series by Emerald Publishing.

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