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Are universities ready for the era of the online MBA?

01 Aug 2021

B-schools need to adapt quickly. The new MBA offers a flexible, real-time, and holistic learning experience

By Dr. Bibek Banerjee

What makes an Master of Business Administration (MBA) programme successful? If you ask a prospective applicant, it is, as The Princeton Review adroitly puts it, never only about securing top grades. Let’s not beat around the bush — most MBA applicants are in it to secure a successful, high-paying job. And, to achieve that goal, getting good grades is important, yes, but more important is the ability to developing a networking base with fellow peers, professors, and executives.

This brings us to the next question. How do you build these networks in the post-pandemic world? Or, to zoom out and ask a more pertinent question: how can online MBA programmes equip their students with the skills to succeed in the so-called ‘new normal’?

Let’s not dwell on the scale of change any more. By now, all of us are first-hand witnesses of the way our lives have changed since March 2020. Whether we liked it or not, we have been forced to adapt. As educators, we didn’t really have a choice, we had to take our traditional classroom MBA teaching techniques and reimagine them for the digital world.

As we speak, top business schools across the world are continuously refreshing their MBA curriculums to keep pace with the frenetic changes in the digital economy. By leveraging technology-oriented pedagogical tools and techniques, deploying a mix of synchronous and asynchronous engagement models, the MBA degree now offers a flexible, real time, and holistic learning experience, with support 24x7 — which is the real need for professionals juggling their careers and academic credentials.

It looks likely that the online MBA will become the course of choice for the next generation of budding business talent, purely because of the value it offers in a flexible format. How, then, are universities incorporating these techniques in their online MBA offerings? In my mind, there are five key axes we will see leading universities will focus on.

Specialised MBA
First, the MBA will enter an era of hyper-specialisation. The traditional generalist MBA may not suffice in the post-Covid business environment. Businesses are in dire need of skilled professionals with specialised know-how in applications such as Machine Learning, AI-driven business models, data and cloud, digital finance, HR technology and analytics, ESG analysis and investment.

If MBA programmes do not offer their students the capacity and skills to familiarise themselves of these domains, the graduates will struggle stay relevant in the unfolding scenario.

Digital first
Second, teaching must adopt a digital-first mindset. At the School of Management and Entrepreneurship, Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR, our faculty quickly realised that attempting to replicate classroom-style pedagogical techniques in a virtual environment just doesn’t work.

To use an apt metaphor, it’s like fitting a square piece into a round hole. The digital context has its own techniques and universities are experimenting across the world to find an effective way to deliver their key messages. There will never be a one-size-fits-all solution, but academics must start thinking digitally.

Global competition
Thirdly, the curriculum will become as important (if not more) as the placement opportunities offered. The online MBA is at different stages of the maturity cycle — in the US and Europe, the system is tech-enabled, putting it far ahead of India which is still attempting to find value in the online MBA. Generally speaking, in India, we see the MBA as a route to a ‘first job’ but that mindset will (and most probably, has already) seen a change.

With the onset of the digital revolution (which received a booster shot from the pandemic), MBA education will need to cater to the huge demand in the market for technology skills, entrepreneurial mindsets, and full-stack knowledge designs. “How relevant is the curriculum?” is the question aspiring MBA students will start asking.

Cost of learning
Fourth, online MBAs will democratise business learning. There is no getting around it; it is a fact that the residential model of MBA is an expensive programme that prices it out of the reach of many of India’s brightest minds.

The online MBA is likely to become the degree of choice for students who may not be able to afford a ‘traditional’ MBA, or for working professionals who can complete a business degree while working on their full-time job.

Alumni engagement
Finally, learning is lifelong. Your education does not end after you get your degree. Graduates need to continue to stay connected to their teachers and mentors and become part of a wider alumni network. Universities offering online MBA programmes must enable this through a robust student life cycle management system. It should equally figure in the considerations of learners when they choose online MBA programmes.

While I would be among the first to defend the traditional MBA structure as something that will continue to deliver value to hundreds of early career aspirants, it will be remiss of me to ignore the glaring need for the traditional MBA to evolve beyond its four-walls in our country. Businesses across the world are counting on us to train the enterprising generation of tomorrow in these uncertain times. The time for us to step up is now.

This article by Dr. Bibek Banerjee was published in Business Line. You can also read the article here.