Balancing Challenge With Opportunity

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Tuesday, September 12, 2023
By Joniff Cleophas, Mark Smith
Photo by iStock/artisteer
Institutions that effectively leverage partnerships and platforms will stay agile, innovative, and able to meet the evolving needs of tomorrow’s learners.
  • Business schools must find ways to balance the time and effort required to maintain their program quality and accreditations with the pressing need to keep up with a fast-changing educational market.
  • By partnering with educational platforms such as edX, schools can more easily develop short-form educational content that both reinforces their reputations and aligns with students’ changing learning preferences.
  • Furthermore, by combining their internal expertise with the external expertise of their partners, stakeholders, and peer academic institutions, business schools can innovate far more effectively than they could on their own.


Most people agree that the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the pace of change in both business and higher education. The unanticipated global health crisis changed not only the way we all work and learn, but also the skills workers need to succeed in the job market.

At the same time, the emergence of new technologies, proliferation of social media platforms, and explosion in the use of artificial intelligence have only compounded these trends. We now live and work in a VUCA world—a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. While business schools have always been under pressure to combine academic rigor with timely relevance, they now are under greater pressure than ever before to maintain their legitimacy as educational providers.

This presents a dilemma for business schools. Their hard-earned reputations for quality education, often established over many decades, have become key sources of their value propositions. As a result, they must maintain these reputations and continue to establish themselves as leaders in business education by earning nationally or internationally recognized accreditations.

But the effort required to achieve such validations can considerably slow down the time-to-market for new content and innovations. While providing executive education or short courses can allow schools to be more agile, most of these courses lack the formal recognitions of quality that schools need to attract students to their programs.

In this context, accredited schools face a significant challenge: How can they balance the time it takes to earn and maintain accreditation and other recognitions of quality with the need to provide high-quality, up-to-date, and relevant offerings in a variety of formats? Executing such a balancing act requires new levels of innovation, at both the school and the institutional levels. 

Fortunately, schools can overcome this challenge in two ways: by taking advantage of new technological solutions and by forming cooperative partnerships. We talk about these strategies in more detail below.

The Rise of Short-Form Learning

Social learning platforms like TikTok are becoming increasingly popular among students as sources of knowledge. This trend, which dovetails with the shorter attention spans of many of today’s students, necessitates a reevaluation of how business schools deliver management education.

Platform services such as YouTube, LinkedIn Learning, edX, and Coursera have capitalized on new “edutainment” formats by providing short-format learning interventions. Industry observers might question whether these bite-sized offerings, also known as microlearning videos, are presented systematically or whether they align with conventional quality standards. But there’s no question that more and more viewers are engaging with and repeatedly watching such content to reinforce their learning.

The “edutainment” trend, which dovetails with the shorter attention spans of many of today’s students, necessitates a reevaluation of how business schools deliver management education.

This trend presents an opportunity for business schools. Schools can create microlearning videos that simultaneously promote their brands and meet the needs of the students who seek out this content.

Vlerick Business School in Belgium is one institution experimenting with this content. Offered 100 percent online, Vlerick’s videos cater to those who want up-to-date industry knowledge that can be easily integrated into busy lives—such as, for instance, a video that outlines quick tips on negotiating that executives can watch just before a key meeting. By producing short-form content, schools can stay in step with how students want to acquire knowledge.

The Advantages of New Partnerships

Schools also can adopt several other strategies to develop more agile, up-to-date educational offerings:

Strategic partnerships with learning platforms. Business schools can collaborate with new entrants into the educational market for help creating educational content in more timely and convenient formats. For example, in 2022, our own institution, Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa, partnered with the online learning platform edX to create educational content that reaches a broader audience; the university now has a selection of edX offerings available. Stellenbosch Business School will soon follow suit with its own portfolio.

Just as Uber acts as a gateway platform where people can more easily access transportation, edX acts as a reliable space where learners can more easily access education.

Moreover, the curated, off-the-shelf learning products provided by edX and other platforms can address a range of learning gaps for students, employees, and employers. The technology may be new, but the concept of off-the-shelf learning has been present since ancient times—think of cave paintings that were created to explain farming and hunting techniques. Today, modern versions of these educational solutions are available anytime and anywhere, allowing students to engage in learning anytime, anywhere, and at an affordable price.

Strategic partnerships with businesses. Stellenbosch Business School also recently collaborated with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to develop a cloud-hosted learning management system (LMS). Equipped with newer learning tools and enhanced functionality, the LMS is designed to give students enrolled in nonprogram offerings an experience similar to that of traditional residential students.

Strategic academic alliances. Only the largest business schools have the resources and internal talent to respond to the variety and pace of every new market demand. But forming alliances among business schools offers a potential solution to small and mid-sized institutions. As one example, to develop Stellenbosch Business School’s new LMS, the school’s learning design team had to stay abreast of industry standards and best practices by engaging in their own partnerships with other instructional designers, while benchmarking their activities with similar efforts at partner schools.

A larger example of this kind of cooperation is the Future of Management Education Alliance (FOME), which was formed to bring together business schools with a strong focus on edtech and innovation. Alliance members can benchmark their common initiatives against each other, as they share and learn among like-minded, noncompeting schools.

By forming alliances, small and mid-sized business schools can pool their resources and expertise to support innovation that would not have been possible for individual institutions.

In addition, FOME members can pool their resources and expertise to support innovation and produce comprehensive, up-to-date offerings in ways that would not have been possible for individual institutions. AACSB-member schools that are part of FOME include Imperial College Business School in the United Kingdom, ESMT in Germany, Melbourne Business School in Australia, and John Hopkins Carey Business School in the United States.

Stakeholder expertise. Schools can enlist external stakeholders as subject matter experts who can work with faculty and instructional designers to enhance teaching methods, incorporate the latest pedagogical approaches, and tailor content to meet the specific needs of students. Subject matter experts can help schools develop on-demand content and curate the latest academic and industry knowledge, without burdening their research-active faculty with additional workload.

Achieving Quality, Access, and Timeliness

The future of business education presents two interesting paradoxes. For example, we know that the pace of economic, social, and technological change makes it more challenging for business schools to develop future and current leaders. But we also know that new technologies are gateways to educational formats that will cater to future students’ new fast-paced learning styles.

Likewise, the rapidly changing market has increased competition among education providers, placing pressure on business schools to earn accreditations, maintain program quality, and meet the market’s demand for different forms of learning. But this same pressure is also likely to make schools more open to partnering and cooperating with other institutions, in ways that enable them to reinforce their program quality, develop content in new formats, and gain access to timely expertise. 

Now more than ever, accredited business schools will need to heavily leverage multistakeholder partnerships, learning platforms, and new technologies to keep up with the pace of change. They will need to adeptly blend their internal academic knowledge with the external, real-world insights of the alumni, stakeholders, and partner organizations throughout their ecosystems.

The business schools that perform this balancing act well will both maintain their reputations and provide valuable, up-to-date educational content that firmly establishes their value to the market. By leveraging the strategies mentioned above, they will demonstrate their capacity to prepare leaders to excel in a competitive business landscape.

Joniff Cleophas
Senior Hybrid Learning Designer, Stellenbosch Business School
Mark Smith
Director, Stellenbosch Business School, Stellenbosch University
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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