Future-Proofing Business Education

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Tuesday, September 5, 2023
By Jennifer J. Blackhurst
Photo by iStock/Prostock-Studio
The pandemic not only forced business schools to move online quickly, but also taught them important lessons about how to be flexible for the future.
  • To facilitate the sudden shift to virtual learning during COVID-19, the University of Iowa’s Tippie College created “course shells” that standardized processes and provided faculty with basic course structures.
  • Today, school leaders frequently survey faculty, students, and employers for feedback on how to improve courses and meet the needs of all stakeholders.
  • The school also gathers quantitative data on how students are interacting online and how they are applying their business skills in the real world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world—and higher education—online in March 2020, few academic leaders could think beyond the next few weeks or months. We had an urgent need to transition our traditional in-person courses to virtual ones as quickly as possible, working out the kinks along the way. We had no time for long-term planning and little thought that things might change permanently. Most of us thought that, soon enough, we’d go back to the way things had been.

Nearly three and a half years later, we’re in a new reality. Remote work has become standard in some industries, and remote classes remain an option at many universities. New technologies such as ChatGPT threaten to change the landscape for both industry and education. It’s difficult to anticipate all the ways in which the world of work will continue to evolve, but if recent history is any indication, transformation could happen very quickly.

Business schools must be ready to adapt just as swiftly. Following the pace of change that was acceptable before the pandemic would render us irrelevant going forward. Instead, we must make existing processes more effective in the long term by making them more flexible in the short term. At the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business in Iowa City, this is a lesson we learned somewhat serendipitously during the pandemic.

‘The Best-Laid Plans’

COVID-19 hit at an interesting time in our curriculum development at the Tippie College. In 2018, we had begun a thoughtful and deliberate process of moving some courses online. We had created a timeline after conducting extensive research and identifying pacing benchmarks based on predicted market demand.

The initial plan was for faculty to collaborate with our distance and online education group, instructional designers, and media team over a six-to-nine-month period to launch a virtual course. The goal was to get a few courses at a time up and running until the bulk of our program was available digitally. We wanted to launch our online MBA in 2019 and eventually integrate our part-time and online MBA programs so students would have the flexibility to take some classes remotely and some in person.

One of the key components of the move online was the creation of a “course shell,” which standardized the content, look, and feel of each course, no matter who was teaching it. The idea was to deliver a consistent online experience so students would know where to find their syllabi, assignments, prerecorded lectures, and other content, rather than needing to learn a different organizational structure for each instructor.

We intended to do the work gradually, although we realized that the system we built for long-term change also allowed for short-term flexibility. Once COVID hit, we needed that nimbleness sooner and more extensively than we had anticipated.

From Slow and Steady to Rapid Pivot

When the entire curriculum pivoted to remote delivery, we knew faculty didn’t have the luxury of taking several months to collaborate with our online education experts as they created their courses. Programs needed to be up and running within days.

Fortunately, because we had been developing individual courses before the pandemic, we already had faculty buy-in, and this support continued as we shifted our process and quickly scaled. Rather than making faculty responsible for designing their own virtual classes from scratch in a matter of days, we were able to rapidly roll out shells for them to work from. Through this process, we eased the burden on faculty while meeting consistent learning objectives.

When the entire curriculum pivoted to remote delivery, we knew faculty didn’t have the luxury of taking several months to create their courses. Programs needed to be up and running within days.

Once we had the basic structure in place, we could do things like record lectures one time and share them in multiple sections of a course. This did mean that students might see one lecturer in videos and another one in their classes. However, they still could meet via Zoom with their section professors, who used synchronous sessions to bring in their own expertise and experience. The system also offered instructors the flexibility to customize homework or swap out cases if they chose to do so.

Faculty responded well to the new course structure. In fact, even as some courses shifted back to in-person classes, faculty continued to use the course shells, online course design structure, and course materials, which allow for quick adjustments in line with emerging student and industry needs. These processes have since become our standard for all new course development.

High-Touch in Real Time

While we regularly sought feedback from stakeholders prior to the onset of COVID, our check-ins with three key groups became more frequent during the crisis, and remain so today:

Faculty. During the pandemic, to assist our faculty with the transition online, we introduced a survey to determine how the college could better support them. That survey is now annual. At the end of the spring 2023 semester, 90 percent of our faculty who taught from a shared course reported an average, good, or excellent experience.

In addition, we make sure individual faculty have regular in-person meetings throughout the year with instructional designers to share feedback on issues that can be addressed right away. As an example, when demand was high during the pandemic, the cap on class size ballooned to 49. When faculty told us this number was too high, we worked with the dean’s office to lower the cap to 42, effective this summer.

Employers. We leverage input from our departmental and college-level advisory boards to explore how we can improve. For instance, the advisory board for the accounting department requested that we upskill students in environmental, social, and governance issues. In response to this need in the industry, we developed a four-course certificate on responsible resource management.

The college-level advisory board told us that students needed a primer in finance, so we developed a module that faculty can embed in their courses. After the success of the first module, we introduced one on effective communication and one on the basics of business. All are designed to help students hit the ground running.

Our high-touch model has been instrumental in allowing us to respond to student, faculty, and employer needs much more quickly than in the past.

Students. We collect information from students as part of each course evaluation, and we send out an elective survey annually to gauge their interest in potential new classes. We also solicit ideas for possible new offerings. The original idea for our Responsible Resource Management Certificate, which we were able to roll out in about a year, came from these student interactions.

Recently, we introduced a survey asking students how they spend their time in courses, so faculty and advisors can help new students set expectations. In addition, our advisors meet individually with 97 percent of students to guide them through the process of enrolling in classes and certificates to meet their individual career goals. During these sessions, advisors also ask students for their feedback on programs and courses.

While students choose whether or not they want to meet with advisors, we pride ourselves on offering this high-touch service to both new and current students. Appointments can be online or in-person, though most students prefer online sessions. Sessions usually last 45 minutes to an hour. It is through these appointments that the school builds long-term relationships with students.

How We Know What’s Working

While our high-touch model has been instrumental in enabling us to respond to student, faculty, and employer needs much more quickly than in the past, we also seek quantitative feedback on how well our program is delivering what stakeholders need.

To that end, enhancing our use of data analytics is an ongoing project, and we’re developing ways to track details within individual courses. For instance, we gather data about where and when students are clicking, how they’re submitting materials, and how long they’re spending on certain lectures or instructional materials. This information not only helps faculty figure out what’s working and what needs to be improved in their classes, but also gives advisors and students an idea of successful student behaviors in each course.

We’re also looking at real-world measures of how students are applying the skills they learn in our programs. For instance, are they getting promotions and meeting career objectives? In the past three years, our students have earned average pay increases of 33 percent. This is the kind of information we need to have at our fingertips to stay relevant. If numbers start to slip, we know we’ll need to adjust.

Today, students have many options for pursuing business education, including training programs offered by their employers. If we’re not delivering the content they need at the pace industry demands, they will go elsewhere. Since 2020, we have increased enrollment in the MBA program by 69 percent. We view this as evidence that our approach is working.

Gone are the days when business schools could wait three to five years before undertaking a full curriculum review. We still need to plan as much as possible for the long-term changes we anticipate. But in the meantime, we must be able to quickly shift directions if the situation demands it. Moving forward, that ability will be as critical as it was during the early days of the pandemic. But now we’ve had some experience in future-proofing our programs.

Jennifer J. Blackhurst
Associate Dean for Graduate Management Programs, Tippie College of Business, University of Iowa
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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