When Grégoire Gloriod applied for a masters in management at Neoma Business School, starting in 2019, he felt the French institution’s expertise in online learning already set it apart. Now that Covid-19 has forced many institutions to adapt to remote teaching, his decision looks prescient.
Neoma accelerated its development of a virtual campus in response to the pandemic, launching it last year to help recreate the interactions and atmosphere of a physical business school. Students use a personalised avatar to enter a virtual building to take their courses and meet classmates. The avatar allows physical gestures and movements, which Gloriod says make the experience seem more natural and engaging than videoconferences.
Yet he feels that some of the sense of being at business school was lost. “I miss student life,” he says. “It is not easy to make friends online.” His impression highlights how virtual communication still lacks the richness of human contact.
The pandemic has crystallised the benefits of in-person teaching, including the social mixing, networking, careers fairs and overseas study trips Gloriod says are an important part of the reason he is prepared to pay tuition fees.
Roland Siegers, ESMT Berlin’s director of early career programmes, says: “The overwhelming feedback from masters in management students is that they are itching to get back to school.” He draws a contrast between the masters in management (MiM) market and those for MBAs and executive MBAs, where experienced professionals have shown a greater appetite for the flexibility and convenience of remote teaching.
“For pre-experience students in their twenties, studying is so much more than career acceleration — it is personal development, networking and having fun together,” he says. “Online learning saved our studies, but let’s get back to the gold standard, which is meeting in the classroom.”
In common with many other schools, ESMT will not return to teaching MiMs exclusively face-to-face, however. Instead, the German school and others are introducing blended models of teaching that combine the benefits of in-person and online learning. Approaches vary, but many institutions envision a “flipped classroom” strategy where students learn some foundational knowledge online at times convenient to them. In-person meetings will be reserved for richer group discussion, experiential projects, access to specialist teaching facilities and co-curricular activities.
“We are in the process of defining the teaching and learning approaches of the future,” says Delphine Manceau, dean at Neoma. “We are implementing the lessons we have learnt over the past 18 months, so that we can build a better programme model.”
The pandemic has changed attitudes towards remote teaching. Tomorrow’s Masters 2021, a report from education research group CarringtonCrisp and accreditation body EFMD, found that 18 per cent of prospective students would consider an online or blended masters, up from 11.5 per cent last year. In addition, 64 per cent of respondents said they were more likely to consider a school with flexible study options than a year ago.
“There will still be a strong preference for on-campus education, but the online segment is set to grow,” says Andrew Crisp, co-founder of CarringtonCrisp. “Schools can create this new opportunity in the masters marketplace. The imperative here is a bit of experimentation and taking a risk.”
Digital education is still in the early stages of its development and the pandemic has amplified its downsides. Schools say the switch to remote teaching has affected student mental health, prompting institutions to bolster psychological support services. Stefano Ronchi, director of BSc and MSc programmes in management engineering at Italy’s Politecnico di Milano School of Management, says take-up of such services has increased threefold since the pandemic struck. “Being alone, not having that social interaction with peers, put those students in a very stressful scenario,” he says.
Moreover, says Ronchi, between 2019-20 and 2020-21 the rate of deferrals across all masters programmes doubled to about 7 per cent, as students, mostly from overseas, held out for the resumption of face-to-face classes.
Many institutions have also been urged to waive tuition fees. “A lot of participants say that, when you do online education, the tuition fees should be lower, because of the problems with social bonding and networking,” says Léon Laulusa, dean for academic affairs and international relations at ESCP Europe, which charges non-EU students €21,850 a year for the MiM.
These pleas have been largely rejected, as schools say they are having to invest lavishly in online learning environments, on top of large fixed costs, even as they face financial difficulties. ESCP, which has six European campuses, has invested an additional €4m in teaching technology and online services through the pandemic, including fitting more than 130 classrooms with screens, cameras and microphones to enable more seamless collaboration between students and faculty spread around the globe.
Laulusa cautions that staff need additional teaching support to reduce the risk of creating a “two-tier” cohort in these hybrid classrooms. ESCP aims to teach a minimum 20 per cent of the MiM programme online and 40 per cent on site, with the rest up to students.
With many companies also envisioning a permanent blend of remote and office work, business schools say blended education models better reflect new working practices and virtual recruitment processes, which have increased access to employers globally. “Some companies will come back to campus to recruit students, but not as many as before,” says Stephanie Villemagne, associate dean for the MiM at IE Business School in Madrid.
She believes that online teaching has helped students develop new virtual communication skills and prepared them for digital leadership. Yet, even as the digital masters degree comes of age, Villemagne is clear that face-to-face classes will maintain a stronghold in business education for the foreseeable future. “The winners of tomorrow will be the business schools that combine the best of both worlds,” she says.