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A new format for management education is changing the way biz schools function

Campus connect
One lesson every business school graduate learns is to adapt to change in keeping with market demand. The business schools themselves are taking a leaf out of that book to keep pace with the demand for management graduates. They are going online to spread education.

The initiative has come not a day too soon. Over the next 10 years India Inc will need 20 million managers with basic managerial skills and fundamentals. In five years the requirement of new graduates will be four times the number now.

Not every hopeful can get into the A league of B-schools. There are hundreds of B-grade institutions where they charge an arm and a leg for admission. They are churning out management graduates by the thousands.

Some universities and institutes took the technology route to spread management education: the top B-schools set up V-SAT centres in several cities. But the cost of such education remains high. Yet, there is a vast legion of aspirants who are unable to take a break from career or afford the high fees to study business management. For them, online education is a boon. A number of institutes today offer online MBA programmes directly or in association with offline B-schools. E-learning is spreading, for it is easy and can be taken at the learner’s chosen or natural pace, and is ideal for working people. The programmes offered are need based: they can be for acquiring wider knowledge and skills or additional certification to further career growth.

Of late, a new alternative called MOOC (massive open online course) has emerged. Harvard Business School and Wharton are two that are trying to reach out to a larger body of knowledge seekers through MOOC. Several other universities abroad too have formed consortiums like Coursera, edX or Udacity for the same purpose. These platforms have already attracted investments of over $100 million in the developed markets.

MOOC is essentially an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access through the web. Besides traditional course materials like videos, readings and problem sets, MOOC provides interactive user forums to build a community of students, professors and others.

A recent development in distance education (so says Wikipedia), the early birds among MOOCs focused on open licensing of content, open structure, learning goals and connectivity to promote the reuse and remix of resources. Newer MOOCs use closed licences for course materials but give students free access, Wikipedia adds.

Academic experts worldwide say MOOC democratises management education, giving access to all. Several MOOC platforms have received big-ticket investments from both venture capital funds and individuals. Yet MOOCs have no ‘defined’ and ‘accepted’ revenue model. Small experiments are showing the way to the future, but they are yet to reach maturity.

MOOC is gaining traction in India too. Experts see it as the best way to take higher education to more people and thus bridge the talent gap that both industry and educational institutes face. But there are others who see MOOC as a dilution of the way education is imparted; this alternative, they fear, will flood the market with the lesser learned.

In India the requirement of good middle-level managers is very high but the supply low. What is required of a new recruit is overall understanding of how an organisation functions and how departments within it coordinate with each other to deliver value to all stakeholders.

Fresh management graduates are expected to come with some knowledge of this; so their salary levels are higher than those of plain vanilla graduates. Everyone wants a higher pay and sees an MBA degree/diploma as a means to achieve that. This explains the rush to B-schools in India.

That India has more than 3,500 B-schools (including MBA departments in colleges) may seem to be excessive. But it seems even that is not one too many. Several other institutions — management schools and universities — offer distance-learning of business management. The business of imparting business education itself is not insignificant: it is a Rs 5,000 crore industry, growing at 8-10 per cent annually.

Indian industry has always been hung up on graduates from the top B-schools. The B- league also manages to get most of their passouts placed decently. There is a demand for graduates from lesser B-schools too. Here’s why: India doesn’t need just middle-level managers; it needs managers also at lower levels.

“We are a vast country and have a huge rural population. Hence the requirement is not only to cater to the organised sector, but also to meet the needs of the vast rural population and the rural economy,” says S Sriram, executive director and CEO of Great Lakes Institute of Management.

“Somehow,” adds Sriram, “we have made education elitist. If one wants growth with equity, we should adopt a model that can reach the vast majority. An online platform like MOOC could play a significant role in this. Malaysia has a unique online platform to spread higher education to every nook.”

According to him, the approach should be to not only enhance a person’s skills to become a better manager, but also assist one-man entrepreneurships to flourish.

In his estimate a significant majority of MBAs and engineers emerging from various institutes are not job-ready. MOOC can rectify this so that “IIT professors can directly address students and professionals in the Karurs and Rajapalayams and other small towns of the world,” Sriram adds.

Agrees MJ Xavier, executive director of VIT University. “For a country like India, it will do a world of good if premium institutions like IITs and IIMs can let go their exclusivity and use the MOOC platform to offer lectures in the digital format to a larger audience,” says Xavier.

According to him, this will offer a huge potential as it will completely transform higher education.

“For some reasons a perception has been created that only the brightest can get into such premium B-schools. Management education is not rocket science. MOOC gives options to even students in top IIMs to register for subjects/courses that he wants to do but are not part of his/her current curriculum. This will strengthen their CVs,” Xavier says.

According to him, with social entrepreneurships and CSR coming to play a big role, several employees feel the need to upgrade themselves, but are unable to quit their jobs for furthering their education or skills. MOOC has opened up the doors for such people.

At a time when even undergraduates find the classroom environment suffocating, online learning can be fun. Those taking higher education are motivated to do extra courses. Seldom do they doubt their own strength; they are focused on completing their course, says Xavier.

In a MOOC platform there can be as many as 1,00,000 students in a particular course and they can be anywhere in the world.

With assignments and works uploaded, students can connect with likeminded people and learn from peers.

Arun Pereira of ISB’s centre for teaching, learning and case development, holds much the same view: MOOC’s biggest advantage is that it can reach out to a very large audience or market, which is otherwise not possible. But the target audience must be well versed in technology, he says. Else, MOOC does not serve the purpose. This is specially so in India where vast populations still do not have easy access to technology.

One Indian online education venture, myBskool.com, was born out of industry’s need for people with greater skill sets. Explains Swaminathon K, founder CEO: “In 60 years since Independence only so many higher education institutions have been set up. The need has always been for many more. How will India scale up supply of higher education? Can technology play a role here? We asked ourselves and this resulted in myBskool.com.”

It began early this year with offering an online mini MBA but has by now evolved as India’s largest virtual B-school. It has almost 500,000 enrolled students, a number that the company hopes will reach 1 million by next quarter and 3 million by the end of 2014. The MOOC programme is offered in partnership with Madras Management Association (MMA) with content co-created by IIM, Ranchi.

“The idea of myBskool was to blend the rigours of a premium B-school classroom with the flexibility of distance education,” says Swaminathan. He claims the mini-MBA course is comprehensive and offered free of cost and provides a practical foundation in current business practices in an intensive yet flexible format. It covers economics, HR, marketing and business communication. The company is in talks with venture funds to raise $3 million it needs to upgrade its IT infrastructure and also the management team.

MOOC in the developed world is yet to generate revenue. But Swaminathan claims myBskool.com has identified a way to make money: though the mini- MBA course comes free of cost, the company monetises it by charging a fee from those who seek a certificate.

The certificate comes only after a series of evaluations done by MMA. “We see that there are a few hundreds applying for certification consistently,” adds Swaminathan.

Is MOOC an alternative or supplement to the brick & mortar institutions? ISB’s Pereira says the big question is: how do you certify the learning process of the students? How do you ensure that they have learned and are properly qualified?

If knowledge sharing is the key, then MOOC is ok, says he. But if it is used to upgrading a person’s skills and knowledge so that he can rise to a higher level at his work place, how do you ensure that he has gone through the right processes? “Some methods are being tried, but nothing has been defined as yet. That’s a dark area,” says Pereira.

He raises a moot point. Indeed, how does one assume the right people are offering MOOC education? Is the learning experience so good that the classroom rigours are not at all missed? It is impossible to give personal attention to all students. Some teachers could be good in one-to-one interactions with students. But where is the guarantee that they can deliver the results to a wider audience?

MOOC, he suggests, can be used as a hybrid model, as is done at ISB. For certain programmes, ISB has started offering 80 per cent of the course on MOOC and 20 per cent in physical classrooms. MOOC plus classroom can deliver, since not all programmes can be conducted at an institution for want of capacity. Pereira is sure that the MOOC- plus- conventional classroom approach has tremendous promise.

Sriram of Great Lakes agrees that online education should be seen as a supplement and not substitute. “In business education at least 50 per cent of what we do can be taken off the regular classroom rigour. Tough subjects that are technique- and framework-oriented can be delivered online even in a regular full-time programme. This will free up class room hours that can be used more creatively and productively,” Sriram says.

On its part, myBskool.com has adapted the flipped classroom model, a new concept fast gaining ground across the globe that seeks to make classrooms or interactive sessions focused on case studies. In this the theory part is delivered in advance to students who can study it at home. “myBskool helps other B-schools with its entire digital library of video content, so that the students can spend less time on theory,” says Swaminathan.

One flaw in online education is the assumption of motivation on the part of the learner. In Coursera, the dropout rate is high. Hence the need to creatively keep students interested and their participation sustained throughout a programme. “Self-driven people have no such problem, but most enrollers do not have the tenacity. That’s an area needing attention,” Sriram points out.

Xavier says traditional universities will have to align with new and emerging platforms since they cannot independently sustain themselves. With simulation coming into play in a larger way, learning has become more fun than in real classrooms.

“There are simulation games for every aspect of learning. These are 100 per cent objective-oriented along with various assessment tools that better define the learning process. Also it is available 24x7, making learning completely flexible. Simply put, it has brought back the Gurukul system of the yore,” says Xavier. As in banking, where the traditional system survives along with internet banking and ATMs, brick & mortar institutions too will survive along with MOOC by supplementing each other. Or so Xavier hopes.

Whether Indian industry is ready for MOOC graduates or not is yet to be seen. Organisations are still conservative about hiring people with upgraded skills learned online. They justify their wariness on the ground that learning through the rigours of a regular classroom is essential, according to Sriram.

Even in the brick & mortar model, it is not only about empanelling top professors at high cost, but the main issue is to gather enough students for such courses. And absence from work of those having taken a break to pursue management studies adds to companies’ costs. “Nevertheless, all said and done, there is increasing acceptance of online learning. Universities are now willing to give credit for Coursera courses,” feels Sriram.

Some companies — just a handful few actually — have only now begun to give credits to candidates with MOOC qualifications. VIT’s Xavier sees MOOC education no way inferior to face-to-face learning in a classroom. “Self motivation is what drives online students and ultimately it pays,” says he.

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